In an interview with Owner Breeder in June 2020, Ken Ramsey and John Sikura discuss the remarkable story of Kitten’s Joy, who died on Friday.
Ken Ramsey had a choice to make. Kitten’s Joy and Roses In May had taken his famous Ramsey colours on a Grade 1 whirlwind, between them racking up four wins at the highest level, and now stud plans were in the offing. Interest from Japan was strong. Which one to sell?
“The Japanese wanted to buy both of them but I only wanted to sell one,” remembers Ramsey. That was back in 2005 and not once have Ramsey and his wife Sarah had cause to regret his decision since then. As Dubai World Cup winner Roses In May headed to Japan, Ramsey used the money from that transaction to fund the Kitten’s Joy project, installing the son of El Prado at his Ramsey Farm in Kentucky and compiling a weighty broodmare band with which to support the horse.
Today, 15 years on and fuelled by the drive of his owner, Kitten’s Joy has risen to become a top sire in North America, despite evolving as a predominantly turf influence in a market underpinned by dirt racing. All the while, he has developed a keen following in Europe, where the deeds of Roaring Lion have preceded that of his current star, Kameko.
Roaring Lion was a true champion for Qatar Racing, capturing the Juddmonte International, Eclipse, Irish Champion and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes during an outstanding three-year-old season. Yet in 2,000 Guineas hero and Derby fourth Kameko, another Keeneland September Sale purchase, the Qatar team have unearthed a son of similar stature.
It’s a remarkable story for a stallion who was initially shunned by breeders. When Kitten’s Joy retired to Ramsey Farm in Kentucky in 2006, the Ramseys could stand behind a homebred who was an Eclipse Award-winning champion and earner of close to $2.1 million. Trained by Dale Romans, he had won nine races including the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational.
“He’s as good a sire as Bold Ruler or Storm Cat, except his surface is turf”
Then there was his pedigree. One of the finest sired by Adena Springs’ El Prado, Vincent O’Brien’s winner of the 1991 National Stakes, he was a half-brother to multiple Grade 1 winner Precious Kitten as well as the dam of champion American juvenile Dreaming Of Anna. On paper, their dam, the Lear Fan mare Kitten’s First, was only a minor winner but in reality she had actually flashed talent in a career cut short by injury.
“We bought Kitten’s First as a yearling,” says Ramsey. “She was a very fast filly. Bill Mott had her.
“I remember Bill wanted to run her first time at Belmont Park against the colts.
I thought it was the wrong thing to do but anyway she ran and she won. So we decided to send her to Monmouth Park for the Junior Champion Stakes. Coming out of the gate, she banged herself and broke her hip. She was pulled up in front of the stands, loaded into the horse ambulance and taken back to the barn.
“When we got to the barn, the vet wanted to put her down. She was lying down but we got her to stand and Bill’s assistant at the time, Tom Albertrani, offered to stay with her for the night. The next morning when we came by she was happy enough to be eating some hay.
“She came home after about 40 days and then came the question of which stallion to breed her to. Our farm manager suggested that we use a small stallion. We bred her and she had a foal. But then she lost a couple and the vet recommended we stop with her. I suggested that we might try a caesarean and that’s how Kitten’s Joy came to be – we sent her to El Prado and he was born in the vets by caesarean.”
The idea at that time that the resulting foal might develop into a champion on the track would have been perceived as a far-fetched dream. Yet Kitten’s Joy came to be crowned North America’s champion grass horse of 2004, and then with the help of those around him, including farm manager Mark Partridge, Ramsey set about developing him into a champion sire.
“We ended up with three Grade 1 winners at the same time – Kitten’s Joy, Roses In May and Nothing To Lose,” he says. “We didn’t have many mares at the time and I had sold Roses In May, so we used the money from that to claim mares for Kitten’s Joy. I was determined to give him every opportunity.
“He started at an affordable price [$25,000] and I felt he was cheap. He was a champion, he’s a grandson of Sadler’s Wells and the first five stallions in his sire line are all champions. But no one wanted to use him as he was a turf horse.”
Kitten’s Joy covered 127 mares in that initial season but the majority belonged to Ramsey Farm.
“Very few of those mares were claimed for more than $50,000,” says Ramsey. “We thought with his pedigree that bringing in more Northern Dancer would be a good cross for him and so it has proven.”
The Ramseys went on to breed each of Kitten’s Joy’s first 16 stakes winners and today can boast to have bred 66 of the the stallion’s 98 overall.
“His offspring have helped us reach unbelievable heights”
Among them are several heavyweights including Real Solution, Big Blue Kitten and Admiral Kitten, who between them swept the Grade 1 Arlington Million, Sword Dancer and Secretariat Stakes during an outstanding afternoon in August 2013. Breeders’ Cup winners Bobby’s Kitten and Stephanie’s Kitten, successful in the Turf Sprint and Filly and Mare Turf in their respective years, later followed.
All the while, international breeders began to pay attention. George Strawbridge was one of the first outside names to reap the rewards of patronage as the owner-breeder of Grade 3 winner Kitten Point, and by the time Kitten’s Joy’s fee had hit $100,000 in 2014 following his first North American sires’ championship (he was champion sire again in 2018), the horse had secured support from the Queen, Aga Khan, Niarchos family and Juddmonte Farms.
Recent seasons have featured an emerging affinity with Qatar Racing but the Maktoum family have also enjoyed success with his progeny, notably via Hawkbill, an Eclipse Stakes winner for Godolphin, and Group 2 winner Taareef, one of Sheikh Hamdan’s better French colts of 2016 and 2017.
And not only is 2020 just about Kameko since Joseph O’Brien’s yard houses last month’s Gallinule Stakes winner Crossfirehurricane, who races as a homebred for Scott Heider.
“His name has been prophetic because he has brought so much joy,” says Ramsey
“We have won 33 leading owners titles at Churchill Downs, a record, and we recently celebrated our 504th win. That would not have happened if it weren’t for Kitten’s Joy. His offspring have helped us reach unbelievable heights and have taken us all over the world.
“What makes him so great is their will to win. His standout feature is his consistency. He’s had 28 Grade 1 performers and 14 individual Grade 1 winners. No stallion has produced two Grade 1 winners in every year for the past eight years. And he’s been a top three sire in each of the last five years. He’s just so consistent.”
A new dawn
There was a danger, however, of Kentucky breeders not quite realising what they had access to until it was too late.
In the autumn of 2017, Ramsey announced that the horse would likely leave Kentucky to continue his stud career in Newmarket. Ramsey was speaking in the aftermath of that year’s Keeneland September Sale, where Kitten’s Joy’s yearlings had sold for an average of around $112,000 – not a figure that allowed much breathing space off a fee of $100,000. A lack of commercial respect had dogged Kitten’s Joy up until then and so a switch to Europe for the stallion’s twilight years was mooted.
John Sikura of Hill ’n’ Dale Farm, however, had other ideas.
“I read that Ken Ramsey was disappointed in the sale reception to the horse and that he was going to go to Europe,” says Sikura. “And the decision was quite far along the road. But I had tried to buy into the horse earlier in his career and Ken had listened back then, so I thought well I have nothing to lose if I ask again.
“Kitten’s Joy had made Ramsey Farm, he had been the heartbeat of that farm, driven the enthusiasm of the staff. It’s very hard to find a horse like him – he’s as good a sire as Bold Ruler or Storm Cat, except his surface is turf not dirt. I said to Ken that he might never find another one like him. He’s a horse that produces multiple Grade 1 winners every year – he throws great offspring. So we made the deal.”
Ramsey adds: “It was a done deal for him to stand in Newmarket. The stud made an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“But I cut the deal without consulting with my wife or family. And my wife said ‘no, I do not want my horse to go to Europe’. It wasn’t until then that I realised just how much the horse meant to my family, not just the horse himself but his progeny and all the memories that go with it.
“I interviewed five different farms in Kentucky before settling on John Sikura. He’s young, he’s a go-getter and has great European contacts.”
So Kitten’s Joy made the short journey across Kentucky to Hill ’n’ Dale for the 2018 season. His fee was dropped to $60,000 and he has been booked full every season since, latterly at $75,000.
“The internationalisation of the horse was key to our programme,” says Sikura.
“That was the purpose of our strategy, to bring the horse to the attention of various international breeders and then it’s up to the horse to bring that plan to fruition. We dropped the fee to a level that was below what we felt he was worth but we wanted to offer value and get the seasons in.
“Ken Ramsey made the horse. A lot of Kitten’s Joy’s success is of his own making. But when you have that situation, no matter how successful the horse is, people might not feel a part of it; I think that was part of the problem at the sales.
“He’s a great stallion. Galileo is on another planet but I think you can stand Kitten’s Joy up against any other sire in Europe. Europe has the best turf horses in the world so for him to be regarded as a Classic sire there is a unique achievement. It’s very rewarding for us and very rewarding for Ken Ramsey.”
Kitten’s Joy will turn 20 next year but the story is far from over. His books will be tightened in light of his advancing years as Hill ’n’ Dale seeks to “look after and respect him” but against that, his popularity continues to swell. And when that glorious stud career comes to a close, a place in retirement is assured at Ramsey Farm.
“Kitten’s Joy will come back here once his stud career is over,” says Ramsey. “He can live here alongside Catienus, one of our first stallions, and we also have plans to bring Roses In May back from Japan.
“He has been a horse of a lifetime for us. Everyone involved with him has made money and we wouldn’t be where we are today without him.”
Growing band of sons out to provide further joy
European breeders gained an early opportunity to tap into Kitten’s Joy with the retirement of top sprinter Bobby’s Kitten to Lanwades Stud in Newmarket.
Yet another major Ken and Sarah Ramsey homebred by the sire, Bobby’s Kitten defeated No Nay Never when successfulin the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint and was the near nine- length winner of his sole Irish start, the Listed Cork Stakes over 6f, for Dermot Weld.
Bobby’s Kitten retired in 2017 at a fee of £12,500 and is already off to a bright start with his first crop of two-year-olds; at the time of writing, he had sired two debut winners in Sands Of Time, successful at Lingfield Park for Kirsten Rausing and Mark Johnston, and Miami Joy, who got up to win at Kempton Park for Ismail Mohammed.
Sands Of Time was an appropriate first winner for her sire in that she descends from Rausing’s Sushila family and is therefore a member of one of Lanwades Stud’s’ oldest lines.
“I was thrilled to have the first son of Kitten’s Joy to stud in Europe and I’m delighted with the start that he has made,” says Rausing.
“I have two with Mark Johnston, including Sands Of Time, a nice filly with Sir Mark Prescott named Alambrista and another with Marcus Tregoning named Alcachoca – both Alambrista and Alcachoca belong to the Alruccaba family. Of the others, I also bought a filly out of All Mine and she is with Richard Fahey.
“Bobby’s Kitten himself has a very steady temperament and he seems to pass that down – they’re nice, co-operative horses.”
Bobby’s Kitten, in whom the Ramseys have retained multiple breeding rights, remains the only son of Kitten’s Joy available in either Britain or Ireland. In that, there is the great sadness that the brilliant Roaring Lion is no longer with us.
The charismatic grey succumbed to colic in New Zealand last year after covering 133 mares in his debut season at Tweenhills Farm and Stud in Gloucestershire. His book included 82 stakes winners and/or producers, among them big names such as Just The Judge and Simple Verse, and obviously members of that sole crop will be highly prized commodities.
By contrast, another former British-based son, Darley’s two-time Group 1 winner Hawkbill, covered 39 mares in his first season in Newmarket last year and has since been switched to Darley’s base in Japan.
France, meanwhile, is home to Group 2 winner Taareef, who stands at Haras du Mezeray, and the Group 1-placed Luck Of The Kitten, who stands at Haras d’Annebault.
Nevertheless, the most fertile source of Kitten’s Joy understandably remains North America.
One of the earliest sons to retire to stud, Arlington Million hero Real Solution, has sired a handful of stakes winners in his first three crops. He stands at Calumet Farm in Kentucky, whose support of the line extends to another Grade 1-winning son in Big Blue Kitten. His first crop includes the three-parts sister to Kameko who sold for £200,000 to David Redvers at the Goffs UK Breeze-Up Sale in Doncaster last month.
Hopes also run high for Oscar Performance, a multiple Grade 1 winner and record-setting miler who has propelled the historic Mill Ridge Farm in Kentucky back into the stallion industry.
Supported by a powerful syndicate that include his breeders John and Jerry Amerman, George Strawbridge, the Coolmore-affiliated Orpendale, Glennwood Farm and Mike Ryan, Oscar Performance has just completed his second season at a fee of $20,000.
“He got almost as many mares in his second season as he did in his first,” says Mill Ridge’s Price Bell. “Many people who bred to him in the first year bred back in the second year, and then a couple of the shareholders who were originally down to breed one or two mares ended up sending more.
“He’s an attractive horse with a lot of charisma and presence, and from what we’ve seen, his first foals are the same.”
A particularly enticing aspect of Oscar Performance’s race record is the fact that the $2.3 million earner ran free of Lasix in a career that featured eight wins, including the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at two, Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational and Secretariat Stakes at three and Grade 1 Woodbine Mile at four.
“There is a brilliance to Oscar Performance,” says Bell. “He had a quickness from the gate that saw him forwardly placed in his races. He won four Grade 1 races and broke Elusive Quality’s 20-year track record in the Poker Handicap. For us, it was wonderful to have raised him and then for him to come back and stand with us.”
Respect should also be garnered by Divisidero, who retired to Airdrie Stud in Kentucky for 2020 as the winner of seven races including back-to-back renewals of the Grade 1 Churchill Downs Turf Classic. The horse, who is inbred to Sadler’s Wells, stands for $7,500.