Bobby Zen

You know, it’s almost like they’re family.

Okay, maybe that’s not terribly helpful. As we’ve learned from others kindly sharing their experiences for this series, the only right way is the one that works for you. That’s always a pretty good starting point, anyway, with horses. And given this additional variable, where the directors stage board meetings around a kitchen table, then different families must find their own ways to meet the challenges of succession. Some hire consultants; some transition with parallel businesses; some, no doubt, never get past the screaming and shouting stage. But sometimes, it seems, a family business can thrive simply because of a felicity that always keeps that dimension of their shared lives in due perspective.

“Full credit to my parents, but there are never arguments,” says Gray Lyster of Ashview Farm. “I swear to God. There are times you’re aggravated, or have to run something by somebody. But I swear we’re all so much on the same page with our program. And that roots back to my father and my mother. Because you already know the answer. If you’re super confident in making a decision or change, you do it. And if you’re wrong, nobody is going to complain. It’s very, very lucky, because I don’t know that I could necessarily work with anybody else and have that. But I know I can with my dad and my brother.”

It’s not as though the Lysters automatically agree on everything: that wouldn’t be true of any family, never mind one immersed in something so resistant to consensus as Thoroughbreds. But there’s no mistaking how they make things work, professionally, by concentrating first and foremost on domestic fulfilment. Lysters work together the same way they ski or hunt together.

Wayne and Muffy Lyster started Ashview, just outside Versailles, from scratch even as they raised three children–all of whom have found their own paths to where they want to be, sometimes via unexpected twists. And it’s surely no coincidence that a farm of relatively modest scale should have achieved such remarkable success, for instance breeding the first two in the GI Belmont S. in 2022, while resolutely prioritizing the bigger picture. Of the three siblings, Gray has emerged front-of-house despite long presuming that his vocation lay elsewhere; Meredith, though still involved, is raising a young family over in Louisville; and Bryan recently answered the summons of his other great passion, the mountains, with a fresh start in Jackson Hole real estate.

Mo Donegal and Nest, one-two in the 2022 Belmont | Sarah Andrew

All this happened by unplanned increments. Their many friends in the Bluegrass community will recall the terrifying spinal infection that flattened Bryan during the 2017 September Sale. His wife had delivered their third child the previous week. You don’t need a management consultant to tell a family its priorities when something like that happens. But then nobody has really had to tell anyone anything.

“Our parents never pushed us to the business,” stresses Gray. “It was like, ‘Find what you want to do, and go do it.’ And I’ll admit, I probably didn’t even know I had a love of the horse until my 20s. I took it all for granted. We grew up on the farm, and its life was second nature. But we were never pushed to it. Quite the opposite.”

“There wasn’t the first thing deliberate,” Wayne confirms. “Not any deliberate feelings or thoughts from a first-time Thoroughbred owner-breeder/landowner in Central Kentucky. I always wanted to raise horses, but never thought about my children following in my footsteps. Did I want them to? I mean, sure, it would be great. But it was never like, ‘Oh, I was a doctor, or in the services, you need to be as well.’”

When Gray went to Vanderbilt, to study economics, he knew only that he had a vocation for business.

“I just didn’t know what kind,” he says. “And it ended up being the family business. I always assumed that I was going to do something else, I really did. And probably the number one reason I came back was because I wasn’t pushed to.”

After a stint on the backside, with Rusty Arnold, Gray began to get a feel and relish for the marketplace.

“I got into the trading,” he recalls. “And, for me personally, the sales aspect kicked it into the next level. But what made all the difference is that in the history of family operations there has probably never been less of a micromanager than my father. He immediately acknowledged that if he wanted help from us, he was not going to micromanage. He was not going to just make us do all the hard work and leave him to do the fun stuff.”

Wayne had no need for a consultant there, then–except perhaps for one.

“My wife actually reminded me a couple of times,” he recalls. “She said, ‘If the children may want to do this, you can’t override everything that they decide.’ And she said that once or twice, because sometimes I could dominate conversations at home. So I really thought about that. I wanted to be really careful, to let them find their own way, learn for themselves. I think overall I was pretty good about giving them that opportunity. Because a lot of times you find success by the mistakes you make. And I knew that if they made mistakes, well, so had we.”

“Oh my gosh, he let me make so many: buying horses, buying breeding stock,” Gray says. “But man, I learned so much. If you make mistakes not just with your own money but with the farm money, with family money, that’s pressure you’ve never had before. And I just see so many people that aren’t as lucky as I was. Because I got to make decisions when I didn’t know anything–and the best way to learn is by seeing the wrong way to do it.”

But part of the reason all this has come together is that the younger generation proved integral to the evolution of Ashview. As the farm kept thriving, not least following the advent of a cherished partner in Colts Neck Stables, everyone could just trust the process.

“When I first came back, we were primarily a boarding business,” Gray reflects. “And Dad said that he’d always dreamed of not just consigning for other people but investing for ourselves. So when Bryan and I came back, he was willing to make that transition. He said, ‘I’ll put up most of the money, you give me the sweat equity, and we’ll put it up together.’ That was just such a unique thing to do. And frankly, a very risky thing to do. We didn’t make money on all of them, I can promise you that. But over a period of time, we built a nice broodmare band with that specific business plan.”

Gray Lyster | Fasig-Tipton

Its bedrock was fillies claimed off the track, an enterprise tailor-made for Gray’s market flair.

“It was about ‘out-appraising’ people and working hard to move money around,” he recalls. “Today there’s so much information, it’s all so quick. I still pursue a few here and there, but the claiming game, for breeding, is very difficult now. But it was a lot of fun at the time. Man, I learned the names of racetracks I’d never heard of before.

“And trading those horses, there’s nothing more emotional. If you can sell in a minute and a half, at public auction, going up in $10,000 bids? And you’re walking up the back ring, and worrying if the horse is acting right, or if that person’s off him, on him? I mean, there’s no greater thrill. I’m a junkie for it.”

There was trial and error, as usual, but there was also the $5,000 claim at Delaware Park of a Broken Vow filly who became the dam of Runhappy, subsequently sold for $1.6 million. Ashview has proved similarly ahead of the curve by in-house production of organic hay and bedding. One way or another, things have tended to work so well that there was seldom much need to formalize function.

“I’ve had friends ask me how it all worked out, and I always said that it just evolved,” Wayne says. “I don’t know. We’re a very loving family. There was never, ‘Okay, you’re the broodmare manager, you’re the foal manager.’ We did it all together. They wanted to participate, and I wanted them to. We all love our farm, the land, our horses, our dogs, and we get to love it together. Sometimes we’ll see things differently, as all people will, but never so much that we couldn’t put it together.”

But if that comes with nurture, and values of upbringing, there was always that other ingredient of nature as well. Gray is a sixth-generation horseman and, who knows, maybe someday that pedigree will tell in a seventh. None of Wayne and Muffy’s grandchildren will be placed under any more pressure than were Gray, Bryan and Meredith. But Gray does want the industry to ensure that continuity is at least an option.

He has brought energy and imagination to service on several industry bodies and cautions against undue haste in the face of undoubted challenges.

“In the last couple of years, with HISA and HIWU, we’ve seen the most drastic changes to our industry in my lifetime,” he remarks. “A lot of people have made big sacrifices, at every level. It’s not an easy process. There’s going to be hiccups on the way. Zero catastrophic breakdowns, zero people taking an edge: maybe that’s not be attainable, but we have to try. It’s just that after those rough experiences last year, I really worried that all of a sudden people wanted to change everything on a moment’s notice.”

Though as heartbroken as anyone by those two breakdowns at Saratoga, he was dismayed by the implication that we owe a higher duty of care to some horses than others. Losing a claimer at Finger Lakes is no less of a tragedy; it just doesn’t generate equivalent hysteria.

“Optics are important, but we’ve got to look at the entire picture and not base decisions on a couple of emotional situations,” Gray says. “We already have this major, long thought-out plan. Whether you like it or not, it’s here, and we all need to try to make it work.”

Indeed, Grey confides that he was himself actually opposed to federal intervention, when first on the table. Finding himself to be in a minority among his peers, however, he now implores everyone to stop yelling or demanding further drastic change. He’s particularly alarmed by those, often not themselves horsemen, demanding replacement of dirt tracks. For one thing, since it would not be viable to install synthetics coast-to-coast, doing so only at premier tracks would drive a wedge right across the pyramid. But Gray candidly says that a sport without dirt would lose his interest.

“American dirt racing is unique in itself,” he says. “I watched Keeneland, my home track, flip to synthetics. I tried my hardest. I watched my father stop attending the races because he didn’t like it as a handicapper. I quit watching two of my favorite racetracks, Golden Gate Fields and Arlington Park–and now, unfortunately, they’re gone or almost gone. So I hope there’s no knee-jerk reaction. We’ve seen Santa Anita, Keeneland and Del Mar achieve some outstanding safety records by transition to newer dirt surfaces with different sub-surfaces.”

Wayne and Muffy Lyster | Courtesy of Gray Lyster

A sense of obligation to their community was inculcated in their children by Wayne and Muffy, themselves recognized for conservation of the Bluegrass environment. But commitment starts at home, including for the siblings whose lives are now principally spent elsewhere. Certainly Bryan’s familiar face is welcomed back by clients visiting their consignment at the major sales.

“When Bryan decided that he wanted to make a life change, that actually came as no surprise to me,” Wayne says. “He has always loved Jackson Hole, and I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s done very well with his new vocation, and is still tremendously involved with Ashview Farm, with horses and mares that we own together. And our daughter, similarly, though her three young children take a lot of her time.

“We’ve all of us always worked hard. My brother works hard, my sisters work hard, my wife does, my entire family has that ingrained. But if you’re happy in what you’re doing, it’s not hard work at all. Does that make any sense?”

Yes, sir, it does. This, after all, is someone who’s reminded how it all began every time he comes to Keeneland.

“I was 15 and used to hitchhike from Paris to walk hots,” he recalls. “A barn right under the water tower. I’d walk eight hots a morning, a dollar apiece. So that made $8 a day, and pretty much the afternoon off. Where the alternative had been tobacco, at 60 cents an hour. So a 10-hour day was $6. And I did the math!

“That was 60 years ago now. I’ve had difficult days: banking, and money, and trying to grow a farm. We started with eight acres. We’re now 1,050, and I’m very proud of that. But I never got up in the morning and worked, not the way some people do, who don’t like what they’re doing. I feel sad for them because my business has never been work to me.”

“It’s an old-school mentality,” Gray concludes. “Our long-term staff have utmost respect for mom and dad. They ask for a lot, and everybody works their butts off. But on a bad day, they would do anything for their staff. That’s why it’s not all about compensation in one form or another. When you have that trust and respect, you know you’re getting your best from people. Someone makes a mistake, you acknowledge it and move on. Sounds simple. It’s not. It all comes from my folks. Really, it’s so easy to work with them. I think we’re very fortunate. People tell me that all the time. But we’re not just fortunate. It feels unique.”

The post Succession: Wayne and Gray Lyster of Ashview Farm appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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