Bob and Mark Krembil are applying successful investment strategies and patience learned from the financial world in the hopes of building Chiefswood Stables into a perennial powerhouse with the help of Hall of Fame jockey Robert Landry.
Mark Krembil acknowledges Chiefswood Stables isn’t taking the easiest route to winning the sport’s premiere events by breeding its own thoroughbreds to race, but he believes it is a strategy to which he and his father, Bob, are ideally suited.
“The real challenge is patience, which goes back to our investing formula,” Mark said.
As the co-founder of Trimark Financial, Bob Krembil built the mutual fund company into a tremendous Canadian success story with his market savvy, discipline and patience. Few could match his long-term performance numbers, something his son said won’t be as easy to translate into success in the thoroughbred game. Though some of the same principles are applicable to trying to produce a homegrown thoroughbred champion at Chiefswood’s Schomberg, ON operation, Mark is loath to call horses an investment.
“The horses are a love affair,” Mark said, adding that horses are much more difficult to predict than companies because, “there are so many uncontrollable variables… You name it, everything’s possible.”
Mark has rich childhood memories of his grandfather — Bob’s dad Jake — visiting the family from western Canada and three generations of Krembils making the pilgrimage to Woodbine, particularly for the Queen’s Plate.
Jake Krembil, “was an avid race fan, particularly a handicapper,” Mark said. “I have vivid memories when I was quite young spending time with him while he was literally pouring over the DRF trying to handicap the next day’s races.”
Little wonder Mark calls June 27, 2004 — the day Robert Landry rode Chiefswood’s homebred Niigon to victory in the Queen’s Plate — “a spectacular day. That was probably one of the best days in my life… While we haven’t been able to win the Queen’s Plate again, we won the Oaks a couple of years back with a mare called Nipissing. She is the daughter of Niigon.”
Bob and Mark Krembil led Niigon to the Queen’s Plate winner’s circle. Nine years later, Bob, along with Mark’s son, Jake, led Nipissing to the winner’s circle after winning the Woodbine Oaks.
“We have a picture of all of us out there (right), but my dad and my son are leading Nipissing to the winner’s circle,” Mark said proudly. “That’s quite a thing for us. My son is quite an avid horseman, too. He’s also a very successful equestrian jumper.”
The Chiefswood family
Landry has remained part of the Chiefswood family. He went from helping deliver Chiefswood’s greatest racing moment to date to becoming Chiefswood’s general manager after retiring at the end of 2010 from a riding career in which he won 2,045 races, collected nearly $70 million in purses and earned a berth in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2014.
“At first I just signed up to be a consultant. Then they asked me a year-and-a-half ago to be the general manager,” Landry said. “I love the horses. That’s really what entices me to do what I do… Obviously, it took time to adjust. It’s a completely different thing (than riding). At the end of the day, I think I’ve settled in and my goal is to win stakes races all over North America. It’s nice to win at home, but we want to be competitive in the big races.”
Landry has set high goals for Chiefswood, saying he’d like the farm to consistently rank in the top three owners and breeders in Canada.
“We’d obviously love to have a broodmare band like Sam-Son Farm had for years. They had arguably one of the best broodmare bands around. We’re getting there,” Landry said. “There’s a lot of competition out there. It’s not easy. There are a lot of big outfits that have been doing it for a long, long time. Sam-Son Farm didn’t just get into the game and have a ton of success. It took them awhile to build up their broodmare band.”
Mark said the building of Chiefswood started with a dream first stoked by his grandfather, began to take shape with a few mares and babies produced at Windfield’s and really started to come to fruition in the late 1990s thanks to land acquisition and the benefit of having more time to focus on horses when Bob sold Trimark and Mark was in the process of selling his own company.
“It gave us the opportunity where we could expand from just a few horses with the odd trainer to something more serious,” Mark said.
In late 1999, the Krembils purchased the land in Schomberg that began to take shape in 2000 as Chiefswood’s broodmare farm thanks to the addition of barns and paddocks. The Chiefswood name came from the street where the Krembils lived in Agincourt, ON when Mark was in high school.
“It’s been 15 years from shovel in the ground to one Queen’s Plate winner, one Oaks winner, a Jim Dandy finalist and a bunch of other stakes and where we are today with 120 horses-plus,” Mark said.
Mark said the operation grew somewhat organically, but received a boost when they purchased some mares from Dick Menard of Arkansas.
“He was selling off part of his band and we bought four or five or six of them in one fell swoop. That sort of gave us the critical mass,” Mark said. “Included in that purchase was a mare called Savethelastdance, which really hooked us, because she’s the mother of our Queen’s Plate winner Niigon.”
Next came the purchase of property in Loretto, ON — some 25kms northwest of the broodmare farm — where the Krembils built Chiefswood’s training centre.
Most recently, Chiefswood has developed a a section of its farm to retrain retired horses and launched a program called Chiefswood After Care run by Mark’s wife, Stacey. “That is a real act of love and charity,” Mark said. “She spends a lot of time bringing the racehorses back to a normal state so they can be adopted into a family or a new career. She works very hard at it and she takes it all personally. If a horse doesn’t work with a new family, she’s there bringing it back and finding it a new home.”
Having the right facilities has been only part of the puzzle.
“We made the investment in property and equipment and so on, but finding those right people was difficult,” Mark said. “We had a private trainer, Niigon’s trainer Eric Coatrieux. That was fine, but to go to a larger scale where we can be more consistent in the bigger races required a different kind of philosophy.”
Landry said Chiefswood now employs a group of trainers, including Roger Attfield, Stuart Simon, Rachel Halden, Paul Attard and recently began sending its best stakes horses to the United States to Graham Motion.
“I’m only interested in (Motion) having stakes horses,” Mark said. “So, if a horse isn’t a stakes-quality horse then I’ll bring him back and base their racing out of Woodbine. I think I can see us having more either with Graham, or other U.S. trainers, just to make sure that we’re able to compete in all the races that we want to.”
At home, Landry leads a team that includes broodmare farm manager Simon Cassidy, formerly the general manager of Windfield’s Farm. Recently, Chiefswood hired Silvio Abela, a former assistant trainer to Danny Vella, to manage the training centre.
“I think we’re getting there. We’ve got a very good team in place,” Landry said. “We win as a team and lose as a team. That’s the way it’s got to be. All the farms are united. They all work together. It’s not like they are separate entities. It’s all one big operation and I think that’s how you have success.”
Though Chiefswood has consistently ranked in or around the top 10 Canadian owners and breeders, Landry said he’s not satisfied with the results just yet, especially considering the incredible investment the Krembils have made in Chiefswood.
“Ultimately, my goal for Chiefswood is to have them be leading breeder, leading owner,” Landry said. “I set high goals every year and we’re not close. I set a goal this year to reach $2 million in purses and win 30 races. We may win 30 races, but we’ve got to start winning some stakes if we’re going to reach the $2 million. I think we’re at $700,000 now. But it doesn’t take long if you’ve got a few good horses.”
Niigon and Nipissing are great examples, of course. Yet, both died far too young.
Niigon was just 11 when he suffered a broken femur in his stall at Colebrook Farms Stallion Station in October of 2012 and had to be euthanized.
A few months after winning the 2013 Woodbine Oaks, Nipissing had to be euthanized after injuring her left hind leg during the running of the Wonder Where Stakes at Woodbine.
“It is a frustrating, frustrating sport,” Mark said. “But what makes it exciting is there is almost nothing like watching your horse cross a finish line first in that big race.”
The ultimate pleasure
It is infinitely more exciting when that champion is one you bred, Mark said.
“I’ll use Nipissing as an example. We owned her mother. We raced her mother. We owned her father. We raced her father. And she won the Oaks and was the best Canadian filly of that time. That is incredible. It’s not only to win, but to have built it. We’re builders. As investors, we like to see the moving pieces. Breeding was a real positive for us. I must admit it is more my father’s idea than mine, but I’m wholeheartedly in agreement right now.”
It is one of the reasons Mark has chosen to live on Chiefswood’s broodmare farm.
“It’s really nice to go out and see the babies, watch them grow up and become something. That’s an added level of accomplishment. Going to the sales and writing a cheque for a half-million dollars and having that (horse) turn out well (isn’t as satisfying),” Mark said. “You know as well as I do that when you pay a lot of money at the sales you don’t always get the results that are commensurate. I think that breeding, while it’s more of a headache, allows you to get scale. I try every year to breed 20 horses. I breed them to top stallions as much as I can. If I were to do that at the sales, I would be looking at $10 to $20 million in costs to play at this level. I can breed and race for a fraction of that.
Still, despite applying Bob’s investing philosophy and acquiring top female families and breeding them to top stallions, Mark said it hasn’t been easy.
“Along the way, we’ve had every pitfall you can imagine, but that is called racing. There’s a thing called luck,” Mark said.
Landry said that’s both the exhilarating and frustrating thing about thoroughbreds. “The horses have to have the heart and desire to run,” he said. “I rode horses that were bred to the best and out of the best and they couldn’t run. Then, I rode others that were by a barn pony. Too Late Now, who won the Oaks. She is by Jimmy Day’s pony. You never know.”
That isn’t deterring the Krembils from successful strategies for producing champions, Landry said. “They want to breed a graded stakes winner. Our goal is to win the Kentucky Derby or win a Breeders’ Cup race,” Landry said.
Mark said that has required a tweak in Chiefswood’s philosophy in recent years.
“We have followed the traditional Canadian model where we would race a few times at most in Florida and then save everything for Woodbine. We’re not doing that. I still want to compete at Woodbine, but we have enough horses there now to achieve that. But I really want to compete on a best-come stage. If we can get into the Triple Crown trail, if we can end up in a Breeders’ Cup, that is going to be the goal. Whatever route that takes us we’re going to get there,” Mark said.
If it takes time, so be it.
“I think we’re normally very thoughtful and focused investors. That’s how we got to where we are,” Mark said, adding that he has distinct ideas about which farms to model themselves after.
“When I was young and going to the thoroughbred races and the Queen’s Plate, I was always watching Kinghaven and Sam-Son. Those were the big farms of the day. Sam-Son’s still there today. Ernie Samuel’s model of broodmare-driven quality so you can achieve future consistency was my father’s mantra,” Mark said.
Yet, Bob and Mark are both cognizant that end goal is very different than the stock market.
“It’s a love affair in many ways,” he said of thoroughbreds. “You do not go into
this to make money. You go into this for the pure enjoyment of it. There is the fallacy/goal that you will break even to make money, but the reality is, we don’t do it to make money, we do it for the enjoyment of it.”