When Eric Hamelback, the National HBPA’s chief executive officer, sought a keynote speaker for the organization’s 2018 convention in New Orleans, he wanted someone to follow in the steps of other recent headliners who offered inspiration mixed with constructive insight on how to improve the sport.
So he asked Clay Whitham.
Whitham co-manages with his mother, Janis, the racing and breeding operation the family’s Whitham Thoroughbreds. The Whithams keep about 10 broodmares and a similar amount of horses in training. Clay Whitham also is president of Frontier Bank in Lamar, Colo.
Sponsored by the Louisiana division of the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, the National HBPA Convention will be March 13-17 at New Orleans’ Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel in the French Quarter. Details on registration and agenda will be available soon at nationalhbpa.com.
“We want the HBPA convention to provide food for thought, different perspectives and well thought-out suggestions and strategies on how to better our industry,” said National HBPA president Leroy Gessmann. “We do not turn a blind eye to our problems, and we welcome constructive criticism. But it is in all of our best interest to celebrate everything that makes horse racing and its amazing equine athletes and human participants so special.
“With that, I am honored Mr. Clay Whitham has agreed to be our 2018 convention keynote speaker. Clay brings not only insight from managing a small but highly successful breeding and racing operation but as a skilled businessman as well. Following Kentucky Downs’ Corey Johnsen, Oaklawn Park’s Eric Jackson and Tampa Bay Downs’ Stella Thayer, we feel Clay fits the pattern of our previous speakers. He will be able to express positive inspiration and correlate that with a rock-solid business perspective. I can’t wait to hear his observations as to what racing is doing right, and how we can improve.”
“We really enjoy being part of the Thoroughbred industry,” Whitham said. “Speaking at the National HBPA Convention seems like an opportunity to give something back, to share. We certainly support what Eric and the National HBPA are doing.”
Janis Whitham and her late husband, Frank, started in the Thoroughbred industry more than 40 years ago after growing up on farms and being involved with Quarter Horses. Their breakthrough came when Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally acquired the Argentine mare Bayakoa on the Whithams’ behalf. She became the first two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (1989-’90), then worth $1 million and which at the time twice required the Whithams to put up a $200,000 supplemental-entry fee to make her eligible to race for the $450,000 first-place purse. The Breeders’ Cup rules for supplements and making Southern Hemisphere horses eligible for the program subsequently changed.
“My father was a conservative fiscal person,” Clay Whitham said. “He just had that much confidence in the horse. He thought she was much the best and wanted to make sure that the horse and trainer Ron McAnally got the chance to prove what they could do.”
If Bayakoa’s foals were not all that memorable on the racetrack, her daughters produced the likes of the Ian Wilkes-trained Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, now a stallion at Adena Springs; Grade 1 winner and millionaire Affluent; graded stakes-winner Walkabout, and the stakes-placed Izarra and Moonport. Affluent produced the Whithams’ 2017 Grade 3 Iowa Derby runner-up McCormick.
The Whitham broodmare band mostly traces to three mares bought by Frank and Janis: Bayakoa, Listen Well (from whom graded stakes-winners Listening, Beautiful Noise and Linda descend) and Tuesday Evening (whose descendants include graded stakes-winners Green Sun, Madame Pandit, Mea Domina, Fiscally Speaking and most recently the well-regarded McCraken).
The Whithams breed to race, but they also sell some yearlings each year. Among the horses tracing to Listen Well is her great granddaughter La Coronel, winner of Keeneland’s Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup for owner John Oxley.
“Part of the challenge for everybody in this industry is to figure out how your operation is going to work and what is sustainable,” said Clay Whitham, whose three brothers and sisters also are involved in the stable to varying degrees. “I am a banker. I work every day with customers who are trying to make their businesses work. From a business standpoint, you’ve got to break even before you can make money. In the horse business, people approach it from different perspectives as far as their expectations. We do want our program to be sustainable, to come as close as it can to paying its way.
“But as a horse owner, it isn’t all financial. You better enjoy what you’re doing, because that’s part of what you’re getting out of it. As a smaller owner, we say, ‘Bring on Juddmonte Farms.’ We enjoy the competitive side of it.”
Said Hamelback: “Clay and the Whitham family embody the best of our sport. They have stuck with their established bloodlines and successfully produced good and sound horses. They have a proven program and one that ensures each horse will be given every opportunity to become great. The payoff for that perseverance and steadfast belief, along with their love of the sport, can easily be seen in Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, a horse I know very well and one I have tremendous hopes for as a stallion for the future. From their perseverance you also see multiple Grade 1 winner Affluent, descendants of their great champion Bayakoa, as well as most recently the stakes horses McCraken and McCormick.”