Former Kentucky Wildcats find success raising racehorses

Former Kentucky Wildcats find success raising racehorses
Photo: Silver Springs Farm Eqwine & Vineyard

They will forever be Kentucky Wildcats. No doubt they will be interested to know how the men’s and women’s basketball teams do this week in the NCAA Tournament.

But the world where Leslie and Allen Carter spend most of their time these days is a far cry from the cheers they used to hear in the ’80s at Commonwealth Stadium and Rupp Arena.

The far cry actually is only six miles away from the farm where they have lived for 12 years. Drive northwest out of Lexington as Main Street becomes Leestown Road, not far from where Leslie grew up. That is where the Carters own broodmares, raise Thoroughbreds and make wine at a 20-acre place they call Silver Springs Farm Eqwine & Vineyard. Yes. Eqwine.

The play on words could have been without the first two letters if it were not for a practical matter the Carters discovered when they took over the property in 2010.

“I said I cannot cut 20 acres of grass,” Allen Carter said. “I need a horse to help me mow down some of this grass. About 30 days later (Anthony Rice) said that he had been training a horse. He said, ‘Would you split the cost for racing the horse?’ We ended up racing the horse a few times, and we ended up getting a win.”

Hear the Carters tell their story on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod.

That horse, Princess Laila, did a lot more than landscaping. Retired from racing in 2011, she would become the Carters’ first of many broodmares they have bought and raised, leading to the many weanlings and yearlings they have foaled and sold.

The back story began before Allen and Leslie met and married. In fact, it began before Leslie was born and raised in Kentucky horse country.

Family runs in the horses

“My mother’s father was a horseman, and my dad has always been involved in horses,” said the former Leslie Nichols, a member of her alma mater’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

Long before she put in the hard work to become a three-time All-Southeastern Conference basketball player, Leslie was born into the Thoroughbred business. Her grandfather K.C. Wilson and father, Harvey Nichols, worked with big names like Arthur Hancock and Sunday Silence.

“One day I asked my dad, ‘How do you know everything about horses?’ ” Leslie said. “He said, ‘Mr. K.C. taught me.’ He worked at Stone Farm, and Sunday Silence is the big story. He kept going to the sales I think three times and coming back (unsold). My dad always loved Sunday Silence and just felt like he was a special horse.”

The early memories of a Hall of Fame racehorse and the stable experience were indelible. But for Leslie, her career was in basketball. Her future husband came into her life even further removed from Thoroughbreds.

“I just had cousins and neighbors that had horses,” said Allen, who grew up close to Clemson, S.C., and moved 20 years ago to Kentucky to play running back on the football team. “We just used to ride ponies. I was never really associated with horses. Growing up, my dad was a big Derby fan. That was one of the most exciting things to do when I was a kid was watching the Kentucky Derby every year.”

That was as far as it got until 1985, when the football player met the basketball player.

“Our senior year we started dating,” Allen said. “Then I went to graduate school, and she ended up going over to Europe to play professional basketball.”

That was in France, which also has a part in this story. But that comes later.

Coming home to Kentucky

While Leslie was an ocean away, Allen was on the road traveling across America. When she returned from Europe and pursued an administrative career back home in Kentucky, he continued to live out of a suitcase.

“I was out in Nevada and California working for national parks,” Allen said.

“We did travel a lot,” Leslie said. “Al was doing a lot of business in Vegas, so we thought about getting something out there. But then this property became available.”

The Carters would see their future farm as they drove to and from the church Leslie has known all her life in nearby Zion Hill, not far from her grandmother’s house. One day in 2008, they stopped to have a look.

“We just noticed that it had been abandoned,” she said. “We just saw the main house from the road. Out of the blue one day, I told Al, ‘I don’t think anybody’s living there.’ The gate was locked, so we just decided to climb over the gate, walk up to the front door and put a note on the door and say, ‘Hey, we’re interested in this property.’”

No answer.

A Google search led them to a local newspaper obituary, a call to a funeral home, indirect contact with the family, a lead from Leslie’s uncle and a fortuitous conversation with a Realtor.

“We did not know it was like 20 acres,” Leslie said. “If you turn into the entrance and realize how close we are to Lexington and downtown, we were just like, ‘We’ve got to have it.’ ”

It took some patience waiting through the economic downturn of 2008 and, more important, for the heir to the property to blink and accept an offer the Carters had on the table for 1 1/2 years.

“In 2008 and 2009, the economy was really bad,” Allen said. “The banks weren’t giving out any money. We just got lucky enough that we could afford the farm.”

Signed, sealed and finally delivered. Instead of spending their time on the road and in an office, Allen and Leslie had this attractive piece of land close to Lexington. Land that had history that goes back more than 150 years.

“After the Silver Springs Distillery closed during the Prohibition, it was another owner who shut it down for a while,” Allen said. “(James E.) Pepper opened a distillery here. They were producing bourbon before he passed away on the farm. I think the last brick house was taken down in the 1960s or early ’70s. People just lost track of the history until we purchased it, so we’re trying to bring it back to life.”

Learning about breeding

In the last 12 years the Carters have taken a two-pronged attack to bring the old farm back to life. They established a winery, and they brought in horses. First to keep the grass low, and then to race and breed them.

Princess Laila most notably produced Sellwood, a three-time winner at Santa Anita who finished a close sixth in a competitive renewal of the 2020 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1) only days before the pandemic took hold.

“Everything just kind of happened so quick,” Allen said. “I haven’t bred in a couple years, but I’m going to breed again this year. I didn’t realize this would take off like it has. I didn’t realize how important it is when you can produce a Grade 1 runner.”

At the sales rings in Lexington, Allen has applied lessons he learned from his father-in-law and their mutual friends.

“I decided I was going to find the least expensive racehorse out of great sires,” Allen said. “I just hit a niche. I wasn’t paying a lot for breeding the horses, but I was breeding to (foals) of A.P. Indy, Unbridled Song, Distorted Humor and Bernardini. They all sold at the sales, and I was like, ooh, this is easy. One thing I have learned is that you have to have a really good broodmare. My broodmares are getting older, so I think I’m going to try to upgrade to one really good broodmare and go from there.”

The ultimate goal would be to produce and race a Grade 1 horse who could go on to be a coveted stallion at sale.

“That’s where the real money is,” Allen said.

Modest about blazing a trail

In a sport that is struggling to restore the racial diversity that it wiped out in the early 20th century, the Carters are helping to renew Black participation in racing.

“You have to understand we are on a very small scale compared to the horse industry, especially in Kentucky,” Leslie said. “I always go back to my grandfather. Their house up the road had one acre, but there was always a barn, there was always a farm fence, and there was always one mare that was on the property. Whatever came out of the mare, he would take it to the sales. That was something that was done on a really small scale.”

Leslie Carter represents a third generation in the Kentucky racehorse business. While she emphasized the modest, one-day-at-a-time nature of it, she also realized how important a contribution her family has made.

“Just ending up where we’re at,” she said. “If we can just set the tone for other minorities. Blacks have been very instrumental in building this horse industry over the years.”

Dressed for success – sort of

Back to France. While Allen has learned Leslie’s family business, Leslie might have picked up something from Allen’s wheelhouse when she was playing in Europe. Specifically in Bordeaux, a place that conjures images of professional basketball for her – and fine wine for the world.

“It’s funny how everything ended up on a farm making wine after being in Bordeaux,” Leslie said. “Al loves to make wine and spirits, and we’re right down from my grandmother’s house. It just happened.”

This is where the business acumen comes from Allen’s side of the family.

“My dad used to make wine,” he said. “When I purchased the farm, I ended up planting a five-acre vineyard. I would make wine every year, and Leslie’s family and friends would come up and say, ‘You’re wine is so good.’”

The compliments led to advice for Allen to enter the Kentucky Commonwealth Commercial Wine Competition and Commissioner’s Cup. He did it on a whim, submitting his 2017 Black Type Reserve sparkling Traminette wine at the last minute two years ago.

And he won. Double gold, no less, for the best dry, white wine in the competition. His wine also won an additional bronze medal.

“I have it in a few stores and a few restaurants around Lexington,” Allen said. “This happened so quickly, because it was during the pandemic when I won it. Now it’s like we’ve got to rush in and put things together to get it out to market and to a larger mass, and I have to produce a lot more. So I have a lot on my hand to get going.”

That is on top of the bourbon Allen has helped a friend produce at a distillery in nearby Frankfort, Ky. There also is the house that Allen and Leslie fixed up and turned into a thriving guest rental. And of course, the horses.

One thing the Carters have learned is how to dress for their varied successes, one of which caught them off guard when Princess Laila won that first race for them in the summer of 2011 near Cincinnati at River Downs, now known as Belterra Park.

“I woke up that morning to go to the race,” Allen said. “I just threw on some Bermuda shorts, an old shirt and an old hat.”

“The horse is ready to run,” Leslie said. “You need to dress better than that.”

“That horse is not going to win,” Allen said.

Oops. Never mind that Princess Laila went off as the 6-5 post-time favorite in that $3,500 claiming race. She led the whole way and finished a half-length ahead at the wire.

“We just had the horse for 30 days,” Leslie said. “What did we know?”

Wildest dreams, right? From student life as Kentucky Wildcats athletes to travel across America and the Atlantic to a farm in horse country. It is not bad to have a life that starts every morning with, according to the SilverSpringsFarm.net website, Leslie “collecting eggs from their own chickens” and Allen baking his “award-winning blackberry cornbread.”

“Trust in God’s plan,” Leslie said. “I would have never imagined this years before.”

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