Across the Atlantic, an ambitious jumping stud with British and Irish links is pushing boundaries in a bid to revolutionise US breeding, writes Nancy Jaffer
Spy Coast Farm is far more than a breeding operation, even though it hosts around 250 horses on 400 picturesque acres in the heart of Lexington’s Bluegrass region, nestled close to the Kentucky Horse Park.
Owner Lisa Lourie, a former nurse who has a master’s degree in health care management, only runs at full throttle. She uses her abundant energy to make her farm and its 60-strong staff a focal point for all kinds of activity to enhance the breeding business. That includes a sophisticated rehab and fitness centre that opened in the spring of 2019, a quarantine facility, a brand-new education centre as well as facilities for training Spy Coast progeny from the breaking in stage right up to grand prix jumping. Spy Coast regularly welcomes tours, and even has a gift shop.
“It’s all part of agri-business, another profit centre,” explains Lisa, who is part of Wellington Equestrian Partners, the holding company that owns the Winter Equestrian Festival’s home in Wellington, Florida. It is managed by impresario Mark Bellissimo, who calls Lisa “very principled and very passionate”, noting she has “a strong vision for equestrian sport”.
Lisa is also a partner in the Bellissimo-managed entity that owns the Tryon International Equestrian Centre in North Carolina, where the FEI World Equestrian Games were held in 2018. She has a small farm in Tryon and one in Wellington that is leased out to top Irish rider Shane Sweetnam, who has been Lisa’s business partner since 2004. But it is the Kentucky property and all its facets that serve as the base of her operations.
The Kentucky farm
Lisa began riding at the age of 42, after her daughter Julia became involved with showjumpers, and set up Spy Coast in 2003 with her then husband Robert Lourie. The original farm is located in a section of Long Island, New York, where George Washington commissioned a spy ring during the Revolutionary War. As a result, the area became known as the Spy Coast.
A year after Lisa and Robert purchased the Kentucky farm in 2009, Julia’s horse, Werly Chin De Muze, was so badly injured that vets wanted to put her down. But Lisa’s nursing experience kicked in and, after assessing the mare, a daughter of Nabab De Reve, she decided to keep her for breeding. Werly became the dam of Derly Chin De Muze, the 2012 Olympic ride of Canadian Eric Lamaze.
Werly was bred to Amaretto D’Arco, a spectacular stallion who was bought by Spy Coast in 2008 and died in 2016. The pairing produced Kirschwasser SCF, a 2010 Belgian warmblood gelding who has been a winner at Tryon and the Hampton Classic.
During the 2019 Winter Equestrian Festival, Shane competed Kirschwasser in his first Nations Cup on the second-placed Irish team. Kirschwasser and his full-brother, Kir Royal SCF, who finished second at Tryon when his sibling won, were born by embryo transfer just months apart.
Kirschwasser belongs to “our first true foal crop,” Lisa points out. His success is “huge for Spy Coast’s name, especially with the Europeans. They see we’re not just breeding them, we’re actually producing them, too.”
Shane and Lisa started working together when he began helping Julia, and Lisa liked his approach.
“I was looking for a trainer who was going to be upfront with me. All three of us clicked, and the rest was history,” she says, explaining Shane helped her keep the farm going after her split from Robert in 2013.
Lisa has a special affinity for Ireland. The family of her mother, whose maiden name was Durkin, came from the same area as Shane. So it seemed natural for Lisa to support Shane’s efforts with the Irish team. That squad’s gold medal in the 2017 European Championships — its first in 16 years — was boosted by crucial clear rounds from Shane and Spy Coast’s Chaqui Z.
“It was great for Ireland, great for us and Chaqui Z,” Lisa says about the son of Chacco Blue, a Dutch-bred Zangersheide stallion. “For Spy Coast to be on the winning European team — we made it, Shane and myself. We had arrived.”
Room for growth
What attracted this dynamo to the breeding business in America, where most top-level jumpers are imported from Europe?
“I think because it’s unlimited; there’s a lot of room for growth,” Lisa muses, at the same time observing that trying to get Americans to buy US-bred horses instead of shopping abroad can be compared to “moving a battleship. You are incrementally changing people’s opinion”.
As Shane notes: “It’s hard to make that break, because people do want to go on their trip to Europe. The young horse market in America isn’t massive, because most of the clients are amateurs or juniors. Mostly the horses have to be ready-made for them, so five, six- and seven-year-olds are usually a bit too young for them.”
Lisa’s solution is to provide more opportunities to bring on young horses, such as a developing jumper series and young horse shows. Spy Coast presented a highly successful edition of the latter’s finals in November, bringing more than 100 horses to the Tryon facility.
“There’s always something else to do,” says the down-to-earth Lisa. “It’s the creative process that’s merged with management and education. I love figuring out how to solve a problem creatively.”
The process with each horse starts with another Irish rider, Ciaran Thompson from the eventing world. He backs the horses before they go on to David O’Brien, another Irishman, who continues the training in Kentucky and may do some competing before Shane takes over the top prospects.
“I made the decision not to sell our yearlings, two- or three-year olds,” says Lisa, who believes clients should buy only after the horses have their lead changes and are started over fences.
“I wanted to prove our system. If Spy Coast is going to be a centre of excellence, I can’t be selling horses to people who may not know how to train or finish that horse.”
Motivated by the process
Lisa has her own style when it comes to matching mares and stallions.
“All the breeding I do is based on performance,” Lisa explains.
“I don’t just pedigree-match. I look at what people want and ask, ‘How do I breed that?’ For example, if it needs more blood, who would add blood but still give a good mouth?” Lisa has patience, a quality that is invaluable for those who want to succeed in the breeding game.
“Some people are motivated by the win, and that’s fine, but I am not. I’m motivated by the process,” she says.
“My VIP table by the international ring at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington is my office. That’s where my clients come and ask me breeding questions, such as could I take a mare or what should they do with a stallion? I sit there and they come to me. I’m not a sales person, I don’t solicit anything.”
By listening, she has gained a sharp insight into what her clientele wants. She also has help from Shane and David, who works with Spy Coast’s young horses.
“My primary goal is to breed for amateurs. In the US, that’s 99% of the market,” she says, noting Spy Coast specialises in jumping bloodlines.
“If I get a great grand prix horse, that’s terrific, but they should still have a good brain and be able to be handled by an amateur,” she explains.
More like a hospital than a stable
Influenced by her nursing background, Lisa says she runs her barns more like a hospital than a stable. Everyone who comes to work for her signs a confidentiality agreement. People who have high-end horses don’t want anything about them revealed, she points out.
“Nothing goes beyond these walls,” she says firmly. “No owner names go on the stalls.”
Innovation in breeding is welcomed at Spy Coast. For example, intracytoplasmic sperm injection — an in vitro fertilisation procedure involving injection of a single sperm cell into the cytoplasm of an egg for transplant into a surrogate — became a boon in the often difficult effort to get foals from older mares.
Lisa stresses she doesn’t consider Spy Coast to be in competition with European breeders.
“I want to promote the industry. As far as I’m concerned, that includes them. I would love it if a couple of big breeders would come over here and set up shop.”
‘I hopped on that crazy train’
Dr Modesty Burleson, who has been Spy Coast’s resident vet since 2010, is viewed by Lisa as “sort of my second-in-command — she always takes up the slack”.
Modesty came to Lexington for a one-year internship at the prestigious veterinary practice Rood & Riddle.
“I planned to go home, but I met my husband here,” says Modesty, “and then Dr Tom Riddle asked me to be resident vet at Shadwell Farm,” which is owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum. She then stayed on as a Rood & Riddle associate.
One day, the clinic received a colic emergency call from Spy Coast. Everyone else was at Keeneland for the thoroughbred sales, so even though she was fourth on the call list, Modesty wound up handling the situation and doing the follow-up.
After that, Spy Coast’s manager and Lisa decided they wanted a resident vet, believing Modesty would be perfect for the job. She had to tell them, however, that she was employed by Rood & Riddle, and could only do work for Spy Coast through that practice.
Then Robert Lourie, to whom Lisa was married at the time, “flew down with a blank cheque and bought my non-compete contract”, recalls Modesty, who was only three years out of vet school at the time — as she pointed out to Lisa.
“That was why I wanted you; you had no ego and were willing to learn,” she tells Modesty.
“When I started, there were 10 to 15 horses and maybe half a dozen employees,” recalls Modesty. “I hopped on that crazy train and this place has just grown and unfolded since.”
Modesty and her husband also run a farm, where they breed 150 thoroughbreds a year.
The British connection
Mares with a link to Britain have worked well for Spy Coast, for example Rolette, Ben Maher’s 2008 Olympic ride.
Robert Lourie, Lisa’s ex-husband, bought Rolette after the Beijing Olympics and the horse’s biggest success with Spy Coast has been as a broodmare. She produced 14 foals for Spy Coast from 2010 to 2019. One of her first foals, Kimmel SCF, a 2010 gelding by the late Amaretto D’Arco, was sold to an amateur and jumped at 1.50m level with Timothy Hendricks and Joie Gatlin. She has several promising jumpers in the pipeline, including Madagascar SCF, a 2012 gelding by Diktator VD Boslandhoeve.
The farm has less experience with Billy Bianca, bred by the Billy Stud in Britain. Ridden in competition by Laura Kraut and Richard Spooner, the British-bred mare’s oldest offspring is a 2016 mare by Diktator VD Boslandhoeve, who has now been started under saddle. Billy Bianca also has younger progeny by Cardento and Tangelo VD Zuuthoeve.
Ref Horse & Hound; 5 March 2020