Wait, Idaho? Yes, Idaho. The state known for potatoes apparently can produce top-level Thoroughbreds too.
The bulk of Larry and Marianne Williams' horses reside at Tree Top Ranches, a 700-acre Thoroughbred farm in Parma, Idaho. Built from scratch 15 years ago and modeled after the leading farms in Kentucky, the farm is a full-service operation where horses are broken, raised, trained. The place includes 20 broodmares, their foals, weanlings getting weaned, yearlings getting broken, all the usual stuff you'd find in Lexington, Chesapeake City, Ocala, Unionville or any other Thoroughbred locale.
"It's a wonderful place to raise a horse," said equine manager Dan Kiser, who used to train at Idaho's Les Bois Park. "We get all four seasons. We get cold in the winter, a little snow. We're in the Boise Valley so we don't have very severe winters. The forage is spectacular. When you run into a good bale of hay in Kentucky, it probably came from Idaho."
And when you run into a good horse in Kentucky, it might have come from Idaho too.
The Williamses bred, raised and raced Lucky Pulpit, sire of Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness favorite California Chrome. A son of Pulpit and the Cozzene mare Lucky Soph, Lucky Pulpit won three of 22 starts and earned more than $200,000 while placing in multiple graded stakes. The chestnut foal of 2001 was born in Kentucky, but he took his early steps at Tree Top - some with Kiser aboard.
"He came back here as a weanling and we broke him here on the ranch," he said. "I was the first guy on his back. At the time I thought 'This might be the best horse I ever throw a leg over.' As it turned out, he probably was."
Racing for the Williamses and trainer Cliff Sise in California, Lucky Pulpit won his second and third starts and moved up the state's 3-year-old rankings in 2004 with a second in the Santa Catalina. He struggled in his next two tries, including a seventh in the Santa Anita Derby and was never quite the same. He won the Smile Stakes going 5 furlongs on the turf at Arlington Park in 2005 when trained by Grant Forster and closed his career with a second in another turf-sprint stakes at Monmouth Park in 2006. He made that final start for trainer Todd Pletcher.
"He was on the Derby trail, but he picked up a virus and battled a throat infection and things," said Kiser. "We tried to keep him on the Derby trail and he ran poorly in Santa Anita Derby. By the time he was 4, his breathing had been very compromised."
Lucky Pulpit got to the point of not wanting to work unless he broke from the starting gate, Kiser said. The breathing and training issues were why he became a turf sprinter. He was bred to be far more and Kiser laughed at the pre-Derby talk of California Chrome's pedigree when it came to getting the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby. Lucky Pulpit - via an A.P. Indy male line and a Cozzene female line - was not a sprinter by design. It only turned out that way.
An ankle fracture ended Lucky Pulpit's racing career while he was prepping for a stakes at Kentucky Downs and the Tree Top team wanted to see him become a stallion. Kiser did some homework, called bloodstock advisor Tim McMurry about finding a buyer.
"Maybe we can get $10,000 tops and he'd probably have to go overseas," was the report.
"I love this little horse, let me see what else we can do," responded Kiser, who called Larry Williams and talked about options. An Idaho stallion would have been a longshot at best and Tree Top wasn't ready to take on a stallion. The Williams mares foal at California's Harris Farm to take advantage of that state's breeding incentives, so Kiser called Harris and found Lucky Pulpit a spot in the stallion barn. The Williamses own him, and from small crops he's done nothing but succeed.
He entered stud in 2007, and was the state's leading freshman sire of 2010. That first crop included seven winners bred by the Williamses. His 172 foals include 74 percent winners from starters led by 2012 Derby starter and $700,000 earner Rousing Sermon, stakes winner of more than $500,000 Luckarack and now California Chrome. His once $2,500 stud fee is now listed as private. Kiser hopes Lucky Pulpit can stay in California, to help the state's breeding industry but also hears the phone ringing.
Fellow Harris resident Unusual Heat, 24, leads the stallion ranks in the state. Another top California sire, Tribal Rule, died May 1. Lucky Pulpit could anchor the state's breeding industry, if he stays.
"We are getting calls," Kiser said of Kentucky farms. "California has been so good for us and we feel like we can really help California by leaving him there."
Back home in Idaho, Kiser and the farm staff soak up the feeling of being connected to a Derby winner. Tree Top didn't breed California Chrome, but it did play a big part. Kiser and the Williamses attended the race and rode the wave all the way home.
"It was very emotional, very cool," Kiser said. "Everybody had a tear in their eye. Even if he's not our horse, we've got a connection. We feel like we're part of it. We've gotten to know (breeder/owner) Steve Coburn and (trainer) Art Sherman very well and it's a wonderful thing to be a part of."
While not an accident, Tree Top's existence somewhat simply just came to be. Larry Williams grew up with Quarter Horses in Midvale, Idaho and had no connection to Thoroughbred racing. He later founded the Idaho Timber Company and its success bred an interest in starting a horse farm. It's a Thoroughbred farm because of a trip to the Derby and a tour of the Lexington area. The Williamses bought the 700-acre future home of Tree Top in 1997 and set about building a farm and a business. Their first yearling, a filly by Dehere, was purchased in 2000 for $35,000 at Keeneland September. Named her Tamarack Bay, she earned $210,000 on the track and produced four winners including Grade 1 winner Tamarando.
Now, 20 mares reside at Tree Top and six more are at Elm Tree Farm in Kentucky. The Idaho mares foal in California, but spend most of their time in Idaho, where the homebreds are raised to race. Most of the Kentucky foals are destined for the sales ring. The Williamses were the second-leading breeders of California-breds for 2013 with more than $2.1 million in earnings.
"It's a beautiful place," said Kiser of Tree Top. "They knew they wanted a horse ranch but didn't know what kind of ranch until they went to the Derby years ago. They went on a tour of Lexington and Larry said 'That's what I want.' If they'd been going through Texas, it might be a Quarter Horse ranch."
Jody Huckabay, co-owner of Elm Tree, compared Tree Top to Lane's End Farm and recognized the job done by Kiser and the staff.
"It's just like Central Kentucky in the middle of the high desert in Idaho," Huckabay said. "It's immaculate and they've been extremely successful. They're producing racehorses one after another."