Denali: Keeping the Turf Green

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

 By Chris McGrath 

Excerpt from 

Every farm is looking for an angle. But how many rivals must now look at Craig and Holly Bandoroff’s Denali Stud and concede that the Bluegrass is a little “greener” on that side of the fence?

No less than any other kind of husbandry, tending foals and their mothers comes down to the land and the hands. Yes, you are always working with Nature–but you can’t leave absolutely everything to her. Otherwise there would be no point to the business. You have modern science behind you, and generations of lore beyond that. With that in mind, Denali can be credited for recently contriving a twin edge that sounds unique in both aspects.

First, the hands. Last month, Denali’s yearling and sales manager Donnie Snellings was named the 2018 Ted Bates Farm Manager of the Year by his professional body in Kentucky. So far as the Bandoroffs are aware, they now have the only operation in Central Kentucky with two recipients of this immensely meaningful award–given among peers, remember–active on their payroll.

The other is Denali manager Gary Bush. Both men are sons of respected horsemen. So there’s the lore right there. But then there’s the land; the land, and the science. Denali has recently added another 85 acres of it, taking the estate past 750, with the goal to better serve their customers by having more land under management and the ability to expand their client base, if the opportunity arises. And it is the way the Bandoroffs and their son Conrad have addressed an incidental challenge, in terms of infrastructure, that highlights the second distinction now setting Denali apart. Because the barn on the new parcel has been adapted to operate entirely off the power grid.

“One of the innovative things we’ve been doing, which I don’t think anyone else has done, is make a big investment in solar,” Craig Bandoroff explained. “I started after seeing it, and learning about it, on Respite Farm–owned by our good friends and clients, Mike Cavey and Nancy Temple, the breeders of Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie) and Champagne Room (Broken Vow)–and it now covers 75% of our farm.

“When we bought this additional acreage, it had a barn on it, and we started talking to the electrical company about what it would cost just to get the power line there. And, with technology making these batteries more affordable, honestly we’ve be able to put it in, off the grid, for less.”

And this, note, is a win-win situation: the conscience satisfied in tandem with the business. On the one hand, as Conrad Bandoroff put it: “My dad has always had a little bit of a green toe, in the sense that he’s very much an outdoors man and a great caretaker of the land.”

On the other, if you’re playing a long enough game, the investment makes an awful lot of financial sense.

“We’ve spent maybe $300,000, but you can recover the capital cost over 10 years,” Craig said. “I do have a love of the environment, and that matters to me. But it was knowing that Conrad was going to come in here some day, and keep this place going, that made it economic sense too. Because after 10 years, it’s free energy.”

Moreover the project was brought within reach by a 30% federal tax credit, and a 25% grant from the Department of Agriculture. The Bandoroffs assessed the usage of each barn to determine which might warrant the investment and now have solar coverage in seven of nine barns on the two main farms; four barns and the office in the broodmare division, and the two primary barns in the yearling division.

The system is called net metering. Any energy generated surplus to immediate use is sent to the power company and credited to your account. When you need an input of energy–at night, say, or in seasons of poor weather–the power company provides it, and deducts it from your account. (Some states, but not Kentucky, pay for excess energy.)

“So the idea is that at the end of the year, you come as close to zeroing out as you can,” Craig explained. “I think it’s something lots of farms could take advantage of. We’re set up for it, with all these open areas the sun can get to. It’s not like we’re in the middle of the forest. The way it works, we generate excess energy from about May until October, and then after that we have to use the power company’s energy. The idea is that at the end of the year, you didn’t send them too much and they didn’t send you any more than you need. It’s a big capital investment, up front, but over time it’s going to repay itself–and I can tell you it’s kind of fun to walk out there, every once in a while, to read the meters and say: ‘You know what, I’m sticking it to the man!’”

Even this far-sighted investment pales, however, in comparison with the value of leaders like Bush and Snellings. In a way the addition of Snellings to the Ted Bates roll of honor complements his employer’s own nomination, this year, to The Jockey Club.

“It’s as good as it gets,” Craig said, of recognition by one’s peers. “You work hard for these things, and I know Donnie will have trouble making the speech that night–it’ll be very emotional. He has been here 10 years. His father [Don] was, amongst other things, yearling manager in the heyday of Spendthrift. So Donnie grew up with it, he has this strong background, everybody knows him. And when he became available, I felt like I was picking up a first round draft choice.

“This place isn’t the biggest, but it’s too big for one person, so we’ve always had this division with the yearlings on a separate piece of land. The babies come to Donnie after the November sale and he oversees the raising of them, and runs our sales unit: he hires the help, he puts it together, we get the horses and show up and Donnie keeps it going like a well-oiled machine.”

Conrad stresses that Snellings has also been “a fantastic mentor and teacher to a lot of young individuals trying to make their way in the industry.”

But now the whole team must put its shoulder back to the wheel for the next cycle: father and son will this week, respectively, preside over the Denali consignments at Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland, breaking off to jump in a car and root for Restless Rider (Distorted Humor) in the Fillies’ Juvenile at the Breeders’ Cup. The GI Darley Alcibiades S. winner was consigned by Denalli when sold for $150,000 at Keeneland last September.

There will never be any resting on laurels, however. Hence the pioneering investment in alternative energy; and hence the value placed on senior staff such as Bush and Snellings being able to light a path for the next generation.

“I’m very proud of the team we’ve put together and the facilities we’ve built,” Craig said. “There are lots of people in the consigning business that are very successful and don’t have farms. But having the farm is really important to me: I enjoy raising the horses, I enjoy the land, and I think when I hand this thing off to Conrad at some point he’s going to be in great shape.

“None of us is getting any younger, and someday he will have to put a team together like I have. And look, it’s the key to any company’s success. You don’t do it yourself, you set the culture, you give them the tools. So you have to have the right people in the seats on the bus. Unfortunately the reality of the business is that people come in and people go out. But you always have to hope that you can attract somebody willing to raise their horses the right way, and put them in the right kind of places. We’re proud to be considered one of those places.”