It’s not difficult to pick out a Kinross Farm horse in the paddock on race day. There, it’s that horse, the one with a perfectly pulled mane, the one that’s exceptionally groomed, the one with a well-dressed handler at the end of the shank–yes, the one who usually earns the groom’s award.
But in steeplechasing, the groom’s award is often eschewed, considered superstitiously as bad luck. And let’s face it, when you’re running at a gallop for more than 2 miles over jumps, pretty is as pretty does. If your horse can’t cross the finish line first, frankly, those braids don’t mean a darn thing.
But that’s where Kinross Farm had their competition beat in 2004. Not only did their horses look good in the paddock; they racked up some impressive numbers and gave Zohar Ben-Dov, Kinross’ patron, his first leading owner title.
The Virginia-based juggernaut started 70 horses with 12 winners, a 17 percent win ratio. Thirty-nine of those 70 starts were top three finishes and earned Kinross $381,990, more than $100,000 ahead of their nearest competitor, Eldon Farm Racing Stable.
And Ben-Dov didn’t just win the title with quantity; there were a number of quality wins in there, such as the International Gold Cup (Va.) with Chinese Whisper, the National Steeplechase Association’s filly/mare championship with homebred Gold Mitten and the leading earner of the year, the farm’s first Grade I stakes winner, Sur La Tete.
“It all has to do with quality,” said Ben-Dov. “If you see the Kinross trailer go down the road, it’s always clean. If you see our people, they are always neat and polite, and it’s very much a team effort. We have a wonderful team in place. We all love the horses, and we’re like an extended family. And,” added Ben-Dov, with a devilish grin, “it doesn’t hurt to be a bit competitive.”
This unqualified success did not happen overnight. Ben-Dov has been racing horses in his blue and beige silks since 1988, but it wasn’t until 1992, when he hired former three-day eventer Neil Morris to manage the barn, that Kinross Farm started to truly evolve into the slick, professional racing and breeding operation that it is today.
A Shared Philosophy
Ostensibly hired to run Ben-Dov’s foxhunter barn–Ben-Dov is a tireless and passionate foxhunter–Morris has systematically, over the last 12 years, improved the farm’s stock, the training facility, the breeding program and his own training methods. The foxhunters are still a key priority for him too. As he said, “without the foxhunters, no race horses.”
The relationship that has developed between Ben-Dov and Morris is a key to Kinross success–it’s a symbiotic business relationship first and foremost. But also it’s a relationship driven by two men with similar egos who seek to succeed and surmount obstacles, a relationship marked by meticulous attention to detail and the desire to do something right the first time.
From that business association has evolved a friendship based on mutual respect and understanding–a unique connection in an equestrian world that is often plagued by flavor-of-the-month affiliations.
Ben-Dov has exacting standards, and one gets the feeling that his drive for success helped give Morris the courage to de-velop into the trainer he is today. That same drive led Ben-Dov, as a young Israeli immigrant, to make shrewd investments.
“Zohar always wants to up the ante,” said Chris Read, Morris’ assistant trainer and Kinross jockey. “He keeps Neil on his toes because he’s always looking for progress, and Neil can’t get comfortable with the same routine. If a horse is not doing well, Zohar is right there asking if we need to move the horse out and find a better one. Zohar wants answers, and Neil has to provide them.”
Ben-Dov’s high standards demand that a job get done right the first time, but Ben-Dov has learned to trust Morris’ ability to assess and make a horse with patient and skillful handling. In turn, Morris has taught Ben-Dov the art of patient ownership.
“Neil is an outstanding horse person and manager and a tireless worker, and he just loves it,” said Ben-Dov. “That’s what makes him so good; he loves what he does. And like in any business I’m involved in, the people who run it, run it.”
Always conscious of the bottom line and his owner’s drive for success, Morris is carefully considerate when it comes to buying prospects.
“Zohar is not pushing me to go buy a horse so I don’t walk around with an open checkbook. But it’s good that way. It teaches you to be good. It’s easy to buy the fast ones, and yes, the fastest horses win. But I say, take some pride in making the horse. He and I have a great rapport, so if I do go to him, it’s not often he tells me don’t buy the horse,” said Morris. “And not everything we buy wins. I do buy lemons too, but I just don’t want to buy a $300,000 lemon. That’s a lot of egg on the chin, and in the end, you still have to take care of the horse.”
That innate cautiousness is perhaps Morris’ strongest training tool. “Having horses that live with you, whether they are racing or rehabilitating or resting, teaches you to take care of them. Kinross horses are on the farm all the time, some from birth. If they get hurt, they have to be brought back, and if they don’t warrant bringing back I have to turn them around into something else. I think that just teaches you to be somewhat conservative.”
But Morris has to remind himself not to be too conservative. “Racing is their job, and it’s also my passion and my job. But also keeping them together is my job. I’m solely responsible for that; nobody else can be blamed for the decisions I make, decisions like whether I run them on a bad racecourse, or I run them above their heads. Decisions like whether they should be running right now or even whether this horse should be a race horse. So I’m careful when I make decisions like that because I do like to go home and get some sleep.”
His Own Training Tactics
That desire to do right by Ben-Dov and his horses makes Morris employ some training techniques that many steeplechase trainers eschew. All his horses–timber, hurdle and foxhunters–get a healthy dose of flatwork and gymnastic jumping thrown into their training regime.
Morris relishes the cold winter months between steeplechase seasons because he gets to work on “making” a horse. When the wind howls and the temperature drops, freezing the ground outside, Morris and his crew turn to the indoor arena.
Using gymnastic grid work, they teach their hurdle and timber horses, “not how to jump, but to give them options of where their feet could be and still jump well with plenty of push at slow speeds. It’s a matter of teaching them to respect the jump and to think on their own. Every horse needs tools in their toolbox, something to fall back on when things go wrong,” he said.
As for those people who say none of it matters once the horses start jumping at speed, Morris simply disagrees. “There are only so many missteps in a horse’s life, only so many times they can strike themselves in the back of the tendon, or overreach and wouldn’t it be nice to eliminate some of those opportunities,” he said.
Morris hates to see a horse taking off long. “That bothers me a lot. They just seem to take off longer and longer, and then their mind gets fatigued with their body and they end up doing the big belly flop. Then a lot of horses, especially hurdle horses, don’t chip in well. They throw their head up in the air to get their legs out of the way, and they lose time and rhythm,” he said. “Gymnastics is about teaching them footwork. It’s their defense; it’s all they have out there, so yes it matters.”
As for taking the time to teach a race horse some basic flatwork, Morris just grinned and said, “There’s nothing wrong with being able to steer.”
This year’s leading jockey, Matt Mc-Carron, has ridden for Kinross for eight years and has tremendous confidence in their horses. “The one absolute I know when I get on a Kinross horse before a race is that it can jump. I know that that horse has had so much groundwork, that it has jumped many jumps in many different situations, that’s one of the best jumping horses in the race,” he said. “I never school a Kinross horse. The first time I see these horses is in the paddock, but I never have an apprehension about riding them. Kinross has that reputation now; all the jockeys know this.”
All this “extra” preparation takes time, both on a daily basis and in the long run. Although he has to repeat gridwork drills all winter and ask fractious race horses to bend to the left and then to the right, Read is also a firm believer in Morris’ techniques.
“Sure, our sets take longer than most training barns, anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, but we are never rushed and we always take the time to do it right. As a race rider, I love the results of that extra time. All our horses can get out of a tight spot, and knowing that they can makes me a more confident rider,” he said.
Taking the extra time, however, also requires more humans to do the job and slows down the return on an investment, something that’s never been a problem for Ben-Dov. “He wants the job done right, and as we added horses to the barn, he completely accepted that we needed to add people,” said Read. “He had no problem making that happen.”
Morris appreciates that Ben-Dov will let him keep a horse, even if it’s not producing results right away. “But you have to stand by the horse because you believe in him, not just to fill up a stall,” he said.
One of the best examples of this scenario is Chinese Whisper, winner of this year’s International Gold Cup. Earlier in his career, after the bay gelding peeled away from a falling flag that dropped right in front of his face, tailed off in the race and then displaced and pulled up roaring, Ben-Dov was not so sure he wanted Chinese Whisper to carry his colors.
Morris, who had a stubborn faith in the horse, had to sit down in Ben-Dov’s office and state his case for keeping the horse in training. “I knew three things about Chinese Whisper,” recalled Morris. “I knew he was immature, I knew he was a really good jumper, which he does not show even now at the races all the time, and I knew that he stayed, that he has great recovery.”
At the time, Chinese Whisper was a 4-year-old, failing as a hurdle horse. So knowing the horse’s strengths, Morris thought he was sitting on a timber horse. “Those are things that I need in a timber horse, and those are the things that I sold to Zohar that day,” said Morris.
To be fair to Ben-Dov, the first thing he said as Chinese Whisper carried Read across the Gold Cup finish line first was, “I can’t believe I wanted to get rid of that horse!”
Morris admitted that his emotion and his ego might have played a part in his strenuous defense of Chinese Whisper. “I asked for another chance, and Zohar said, ‘OK,’ but then it’s on my head to make it work. Now it’s a responsibility to myself, and I was determined to prove myself right,” said Morris.
Read said the key to Morris’ success with temperamental horses, such as Sur La Tete and Chinese Whisper, is his ability to train each horse as an individual. There’s no set routine that all the horses follow. “Neil allows horses to be individuals. No one here forces one horse to do what another needs to do,” he said.
For Morris, it’s just elementary. “You have to believe in the horse, and you have to listen to horses. They are always telling you something. You can’t just write their program up on the board and then walk away and not bother observing what’s going on. It’s OK to plan what they need to do to get fit physically, but sometimes it’s better to train their minds and not their legs. They’ll get fit enough. It’s easy to breeze your horses; that’s the easy part. It’s how they came out of the breeze and what you do in between, especially mentally, that is more important to me.”
Ben-Dov’s as competitive as they come, and his over-ebullience at winning and his confidence in his horses can come across a bit brash and aggressive at times. But he’s as fair and just and loyal as they come, said McCarron and Read.
“Zohar is a remarkable owner to ride for. There has only been one time when he told me he thought I gave his horse a terrible ride. It was a match race at a point-to-point, and I obviously lost the race,” said McCarron. “Afterwards Zohar said to me, without being rude or angry, that he thought I’d ridden a terrible race and what was I thinking? He was very direct. He called a spade a spade, and then it was never mentioned again.”
Read added that once you get past Ben-Dov’s direct manner, unnerving to some, Ben-Dov is one of the truest friends you could ever have. “As someone who works for the man, I can tell you he is one of the most supportive people to have as a friend. He’ll do anything you need him to; you just have to earn that respect from him. Once he knows you are willing and capable of being a part of his team, he’ll stick by you no matter what.”
With the beautiful facility, a top staff and an owner who appears to be dedicated to winning race horses, Morris definitely is aware of that green-eyed monster out there, the one called envy.
“I think there are people out there who think they could do what I do with half of what Zohar gives me to do it with. Thankfully, the success has come lately as I feel I’m a little more mature and secure as a person and therefore able to better digest things. I think there are people who feel you are less personable and less approachable now that you are more successful. I’m not less approachable on race day, I’m just concerned it all goes well for the horses,” said Morris.
“What Neil has accomplished has nothing to do with money,” said Ben-Dov. “This facility wouldn’t be available if there was someone else in his shoes. There are people we compete with who could erase us with a stroke of a pen. Neil is an outstanding sportsman and he loves the horses. Each horse is an individual and to be respected as an individual. We never push horses here.”
Situated on 500 gorgeous northern Virginia acres that straddle Piedmont and Orange County hunt country, Kinross Farm is one of the most beautiful equestrian facilities in a region that boasts a plethora of beautiful farms. Under the guidance of owners Zohar and Lisa Ben-Dov and trainer Neil Morris, the farm has become one of the most extravagant and meticulous steeplechase training facilities in the country.
Amenities include a 20-stall training barn, an 18-stall foxhunting barn, a small breeding program, a 11