Breeders’ Cup presents Fresh Faces: ‘A Youthful Energy’

Gus Koch, director of Shawhan Place Gus Koch, director of Shawhan Place

Gus Koch is the director of Shawhan Place, a full service Thoroughbred farm in Paris, Ky., where he works alongside brothers Matthew and Charles.  Koch is the son of longtime Claiborne Farm manager Gus Koch, who was recognized in 2004 as Farm Manager of the Year by the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers’ Club. The younger Gus Koch graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2009 with a degree in equine science and management.

As someone whose parents, brothers, and sisters are in the Thoroughbred business, did you ever consider making your career in anything else?
I was very lucky to grow up on Claiborne Farm with the best horses, the best horsemen in the world. I was a little bit spoiled that way—I thought everyone grew up that way. Now when I go back to Claiborne for a breeding shed run, I appreciate more the history behind the farm. I never really thought about doing anything else.

I got to see all the highs and the lows of horses. You have to focus on those high points, and how exciting it can be when a horse you helped raise does well at the sales or goes out and wins wire to wire. I love the industry as a whole—it’s so big, but everybody knows everybody.

Why did you choose to make your career on the farm instead of another area of the business?
I fell into the sales prep first—when I was at UK I had the summers free and that’s when we were busiest at the farm with prepping yearlings, so I started doing that and really enjoyed it. I really like seeing the progress a horse can make in the 60, 90 days of prep you put into them before they go to the September sales—they start to grow and learn, and mature into athletes in mind and body.

After I graduated UK, I went to Payson Park and worked for Bill Harrigan for a winter. He had a string of 2-year-olds that he was preparing for the track, and I got a feel for the breaking side of things doing that. I came back up here with Matthew, and we had six horses that first year that we were breaking. I spent 60 days with them before they went to the track. When the first one made it to the races, it was such a relief that he took that next step…definitely a confidence-booster.

During the summer months, I focus on sales prep and after the September sales, I start breaking horses. I do a lot of that early work myself and really enjoy ground driving. I’ve learned a lot through that process—we incorporate natural horsemanship and ground driving in the beginning to get a mouth on them and teach them some of the commands before we put a rider up.

What’s the weirdest quirk you’ve seen in these young horses?
We’ve got one in the barn right now who just doesn’t like me. We’ve got 18 horses and this one colt doesn’t like me at all. He’ll let the guys go out and catch him in the field, but the minute I step out in the paddock, he takes off. I’m not sure why that is.

Most challenging yearling?
We had one filly once who had lost an eye. We didn’t take her to the sales so we ended up breaking her. She was very skittish, partially because of the eye. She provided lots of challenges. She’s gone on and raced at Woodbine and won some allowance races and done quite well.

One story that sticks out: in our first or second year driving horses, we had a colt rear up in the round pen and stuck both his front feet over the round pen gate. They called me over to ask what to do, and I didn’t really know what to do. He stood there for 15 or 20 seconds (it seemed like forever), looked around like, ‘What do I do here?’, like he was surprised to find himself there. He lifted himself up and put his feet down and never had a scratch on him.

They make you scratch your head from time to time.

What change would you most like to make in racing?
Speaking in broad terms, I think I’d like to see the sport’s public image change and would like to educate the public. In central Kentucky, we’re in a bubble—most everybody knows something about racing and has been to Keeneland, where they see the best of the best, but it’s not like that everywhere. It would help if we could get stories out there about the good guys in the business and the little guys in the business who are working to make ends meet, who are working hard and not using the drugs. I’m not sure how to do it, but I think we need a better public image.

What about your corner of the business—what would you like to see changing on the sales side of things?
There’s a lot of politics involved in the sales—it seems like the repository is a hot issue these days. It’s frustrating to have a great horse with a minor flaw on an x-ray or vet report and have an owner unfamiliar with the issue throw the horse out because they didn’t really know what it was. They missed out on a great horse, and we missed out on a potential buyer because of something like that.

Of course you can’t force somebody to like a horse either, but it can be frustrating when a sale becomes caught between two veterinary experts’ conflicting interpretations. We need to find a common ground policy that’s good for buyers and sellers. We want buyers to walk away with a really good horse who’s suitable for what they want—after all, that’s what keeps them coming back to us.

What do you think our generation brings to the table that’s different?
We’ve got a youthful energy to us, and we’re able to bring in technology that’s useful. I can look back to when I was in college, and in high school, and think back to the stories my dad has told me about how things have changed. My dad told me that they used to send a postcard to the owner when a mare foaled, and if that took two or three days, that’s when they found out. Now, we have cameras in the foaling barns, and if we have one that’s foaling, we can call the owner and they can get on the computer from anywhere in the world and watch the mare foal if they want to.

I think horse racing centers around fans, and there’s so much technology we can put in place to generate fans—especially streaming racing on phones. I can watch a race in the barn, and if there’s a horse we had here at the farm, the guys will gather around and cheer for it. It’s nice to keep up with things that way.

Gus Koch