Not many young thoroughbreds are offered the opportunity to spend their formative years in such a beautiful setting as the Palmer Ranch. Located just outside of Waterton Park in southern Alberta, it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for raising a young horse.
As a member of a family with deep roots in Alberta, thoroughbred breeder Sybil Palmer has a long tradition of loving horses and thoroughbreds in particular.
The southwest corner of the province where the Palmer Ranch is situated has an interesting history as a cattle ranching area tracing back over 100 years. It was the setting where Senator Cochrane brought his remaining cattle in 1884 after suffering through a severe winter just west of Calgary. Those raising livestock in this region are fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of the warm chinook winds that often blow through in the winter.
“The big chinook winds can mean open grasslands in the middle of winter thanks to the remarkable temperature fluctuations. From the blooming wildflowers of spring, to the warm sun of summer and the snowy wonderland of winter, we enjoy it all – sometimes in one day,” Palmer said.
Morris Palmer, Sybil’s father in law, purchased the Palmer Ranch in the late 1960s and by the time Sybil married and moved to the ranch in the early 1980s, the Palmer Ranch already had a few mares and a thoroughbred stallion. This foundation led Sybil on a search for breeding advice from those in the industry and one person of particular help at that time was Dr. Janet Linfoot, the first woman veterinarian in California and the creator of the breeding plan that resulted in Spectacular Bid. Dr. Linfoot came to the Palmer Ranch on a fly fishing trip, but ended up educating Sybil in conformation, bloodlines and statistics. Sybil said, “(Linfoot) is in her nineties now and I still send her photos of horses for her opinion.”
An infatuation with horses was sparked by a Welsh pony given to Sybil as a child by her mother, Linda McNally. This pony, Ping, was purchased for the sum of $50 and made Sybil earn every dollar. One of Sybil’s first experiences leading Ping ended badly as the pony “ripped the shank out of my hands, took off and double barrelled me in the chest.” Not easily deterred from what was to be the start of a lifelong passion for horses, Sybil added that she lay on the ground smiling and thinking, “WOW – this could not be more exciting!”
Sybil was introduced to thoroughbreds when her father, lawyer and businessman Ed McNally, was designated to settle the estate of the well-known Alberta thoroughbred owner Max Bell in the fall of 1972. Bell had owned Golden West Farm in Okotoks that was the home of the Irish Derby winner Meadow Court, and his horses were destined to be sold overseas. Before that could happen, the farm manager offered Sybil’s mother her pick of the broodmares and she chose the Jet Pilot mare Speed Bird II. This mare had a filly by Meadow Court at her side called Lazy E who remained unraced but turned into a “gentle, reliable saddle horse.” When Sybil got married and moved to the Palmer Ranch, Lazy E went with her and the thoroughbred mare “helped her to find her inner cowgirl.”
The thoroughbred as a breed appealed to Sybil for its pure athleticism, soundness and heart.
Sybil purchased her first thoroughbred broodmare at a CTHS Alberta sale at the Stampede Grounds about 30 years ago. Miss A. Bargain was part of the herd dispersal sale of Bob Hartley and Sybil said that she indeed “turned out to be a bargain!” This mare by Bargain Package was a “wonderful, big incubator” and provided Sybil with the foundation to start a solid breeding program.
Her first runner was the Alberta bred, Clear Dei, who had a successful racing career at Northlands and Stampede Park in the early 1990s. The first win for Clear Dei came as a 3-year-old at Stampede Park and Sybil remembers the “lovely filly won by 6 lengths after catching them by the first turn.”
Code’s Decree is another Alberta-bred horse that was particularly memorable for Sybil. The Codified filly won the Northlands Oaks and the Alberta Oaks in 2002 leading to a Breeders Award for Sybil and Dand Auto Parts at the following Night of Champions. Code’s Decree was sold to Bar None Ranches at the 2000 CTHS Alberta Yearling Sale and went on to earn over $170,000 in her career.
Family and other important commitments have taken up much of Sybil’s time over the past decade, but the success of a recent stakes winner she bred was celebrated recently at the CTHS Alberta Awards Night. Makealittlenoise was nominated in the Three Year Old colt division for his success last season, which included a win in the 2017 Beaufort Stakes and a second-place finish in the 2017 CTHS Sales Stakes. This Alberta bred has career earnings to date of over $90,000 for owners Indyrock Racing, Dialed In Racing Stable, D. Smith and P. Palsson. The Whiskey Wisdom colt is out of Sybil’s Macho Uno mare, Carmen’s Kiss, and was sold through the 2015 CTHS Alberta Sale. Sybil said that she knew Makealittlenoise was a “special colt” at the time of the sale and it’s been rewarding to see his development into such an outstanding racehorse especially in such good hands.
Sybil has great respect for the horsemen and women in the Alberta thoroughbred community noting that, “A lot of people in this industry are really superb at seeing the quality without the big price tag.” She adds that these knowledgeable horsepeople are also so generous with their time and advice. Over the years, Sybil has sought advice from dedicated horseman Cal Britton who “understands better than most that you can’t rush things in this business and that there is good luck as well as bad.” She also credits Ted Davis and Jenn Buck for their help and encouragement with guiding her breeding program.
The Palmer Ranch is a busy place, but Sybil has hands-on help from a skilled young woman, Amanda Orlowksi — who rode with Cavalia for years — and also from her own daughters, Julia and Oona, who are “wonderful horsewomen.”
A broodmare band of three thoroughbred mares bred to thoroughbred stallions make up Sybil’s current breeding program including the dam of Makealittlenoise, Carmen’s Kiss.
“I am excited to be breeding a young mare to Pierre Esquirol’s Distorted Humour stallion, It’s No Joke,” Sybil said.
The resulting foals will be raised to be sold as yearlings. She relies heavily upon her mares as producers, noting that on average, a mare has about four foals so one needs to “make it count.” Sybil would like to follow the breeding model chosen by Ted Davis of “totally believing in pedigree” and not only the performance and conformation of the mare. She is appreciative of the Breed Improvement Program opportunities offered over the years as it has enabled her to choose nicer mares than she may otherwise have been possible on “a shoestring budget.”
A strong believer in programs for off track thoroughbreds, Sybil said she is, “excited to work with people who have the knowledge and skill to offer thoroughbreds a second career, as a hunter-jumper or in a therapeutic riding program, or just as a riding or companion horse.”
One person she has worked with closely and highly recommends is Laura Lopez of Join-Up Farms outside of Ponoka, “a young professional who has done a terrific job retraining thoroughbreds to compete as top level jumpers.”
The Palmer Ranch is also home to a number of thoroughbreds who are no longer performing in their first career as a racehorse or broodmare, but Sybil declines to call them “retired.” The favorite old mares that are retired from breeding perform a useful function being “great grannies” to the young horses teaching them to be calm and sensible and the “old gentlemen” teach the “rowdy” colts some manners. The rest of the horses “retired” on the Palmer Ranch “all have a job to do even if that is just looking happy out in a pasture.”
“The thing that’s special about the ranch is that (the horses) have so much space and just get to be horses,” she said.