In the last 30 years Craig and Holly Bandoroff have developed a world-class operation at their Denali Stud near Paris, Ky.
They've also developed and nurtured quite a family at their home in Lexington, raising two daughters and a son. Their middle child, Conrad, is currently part of the Godolphin Flying Start program, and upon graduation will return home as not just part of the family, but part of the team.
It is a scene that has been played out on family farms and in family businesses for generations. The elder Bandoroff, ready to add his son to the banner and begin planning the next stage of his career, knows the odds.
"I'm in a group with CEOs that meet once a month. Most of the people in my group are in family businesses," he said. "Everybody knows the statistics—the percentage that make it to the second generation is small. The percentage that make it to the third generation is
However, many would argue the Thoroughbred industry is a bit different, with several of today's top farms being run by the same family for generations. As Bandoroff said, "I was born with a gene that loves Thoroughbred horses ... and I think Conrad has that gene, too."
Growing up in Cherry Hill, N.J., the diminutive Craig Bandoroff put his competitive nature to use as a jockey, winning races at Monmouth Park and the old Garden State Park in 1974. A promising career was cut short in a brutal spill late that year that left his right arm paralyzed.
He later attended the University of Virginia before graduating from the University of Kentucky. In Lexington he met his wife and later went to work for Fasig-Tipton in New York. Holly worked for Barry Weisbord's Executive Bloodstock, and Craig later joined the team.
The Bandoroffs moved to Kentucky in 1986 as Craig ran the sales operation of R.D. Hubbard's Crystal Springs Farm before venturing out to start Denali in 1990. Starting on leased land with a handful of clients, Denali has grown to nearly 700 acres over three tracts of land with a rich client list and an impressive sales history.
Heading into 2017, Denali is approaching the $500 million mark in horses sold since 1990. Denali's sales division sold its first $1 million horse, Calendar Lady, at the 1998 Keeneland November sale, and followed the next year with Serena's Tune (Mr. Prospector—Serena's Song) at the Keeneland July yearling sale. Sophisticat, Serena's Tune's Storm Cat half-sister, sold in 2000 for $3.4 million. Denali has also sold a winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) in Animal Kingdom.
Through the years the Bandoroffs have seen the best of the business and weathered the lows, such as the Great Recession. Craig feels the market and appetite for the Thoroughbred business, especially in Kentucky, are coming back and that it's a good time to bring his son into the fold.
"As I drive around Lexington, I see more horses around," he said. "I think the general population is up. It's kind of come back to Kentucky. Some of this regional stuff has either lost its allure or the people playing that game just can't play it because the market's tough. They haven't been able to withstand the downfall.
"This is the center of the industry," he continued. "We have the infrastructure; we have the hospitals; we have the vets, blacksmiths, and the management. People, with the more expensive mares, if they are going to make that investment, they want a hospital 10 minutes away. It's a flight to quality.
"In 2008 they were all leaving here, but some good things have happened in Kentucky. The Instant Racing has helped. The year-round circuit is stronger. The Kentucky-bred awards are significant. They don't compare to some of the other places, but the program is what the program should be, which is for breeding quality and rewarding quality."
Having a tremendous work ethic, great land, hiring—and retaining-some of the best in the business such as Kentucky Farm Manager of the Year Gary Bush, Bandoroff is quick to add that his client base is what also helps strengthen his brand.
"If a guy called right now and said 'I have 10 mares, and I really want to move over to you,' I'd have to say 'no' or figure out how to do it. We've got good numbers and good people. We have a nice group of mares. You walk through that barn ... there are a lot of name brands there, and that keeps the staff happy and engaged."
The early months of 2017 have been kind to Denali. Unusually warm weather has made it easier on the team that will foal about 90 mares this year. Among the early arrivals is a colt from the first crop of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah out of Hessonite that has become a social media star, with photos of him dotting Facebook and peppering Bandoroff's Twitter account.
Conrad will jump right into the heart of yearling sales season. He graduated with honors with a degree in economics from Sewanee (University of the South) in Tennessee. Taking a spot in the family business was not what his parents necessarily wanted for him.
"I spent a lot of time around the sale grounds and with my dad out at the farm," Conrad Bandoroff said. "I always had an affinity and passion for horses, and I knew when I was going into high school that my life would revolve around horses. It was a light-bulb moment—the bug bit me, and there was no turning back."
The younger Bandoroff could not have found better mentors, spending a summer under Kentucky trainer John Ward Jr. and then a summer under Hall of Fame trainer and longtime family friend Bill Mott in New York.
With Mott, Conrad was able to be around some of the best horses in training.
"He started at the bottom: walking, grooming, and running horses to and from the racetrack," Mott said. "He learned responsibility. He cared for the well-being of the horses, which is what we all do, really. He has a good feel for the racetrack, but like his dad, wants to work the farm and sales part of the business. From what I understand he wants to continue in the same direction as his father, but once he gets into it, he may want to branch out into other avenues. We’re always making minor adjustments along the way. He’s well-educated and a well-rounded horseman. Craig is proud of him, I do know that."
The Flying Start program has been another strong entry on Conrad’s résumé. The two-year program grooms 12 students in all aspects of the business as they work their way around the globe at different entities of Sheikh Mohammed's worldwide Thoroughbred holdings.
From the BloodHorse, by Evan Hammonds