by Terry Conway
Gayle Gerth tends to look on the bright side of life. Sees the blue sky on the horizon, chasing the clouds away.
A native of Los Angles, she built a wildly successful business that produced electronic massage and relaxation components for use in motion furniture, bedding, executive seating, spa seating, automotive and healthcare seating. The Relaxors were even installed as seating on Emirate Airlines. After 15 years she sold the company in 2004.
Then Gerth fulfilled a lifelong dream, purchasing a 94-acre farm near Lenhartsville, Pa., in early August 2008. Six weeks later the economy fell off a cliff.
"Having just bought the farm, it was a shocker," recalled Gerth. "I wasn't sure how it would affect the business, but we kept moving forward. The glass is always half full to me. No matter how bad it is there are hidden blessings. Sometimes you need to dig deeper than other times, but they are always there.
"After I sold my business I wasn't sure what I would do. I found out how much I love horses-- I found my dream. Everything just kind of fell into place."
Dana Point, CA
Home to Gerth is the Pacific coastal community of Dana Point, Calif., celebrated for its gorgeous harbor and whale watching excursions. The effervescent Gerth bounces back and forth every six weeks or so to catch up on the progress of her Dana Point Farm thoroughbred operation, located about 15 miles west of Allentown, Pa. Her plan starting out was to create a small, quality operation. Dana Point currently has 15 broodmares, nine yearlings, four stallions and four runners at the track. Gerth considers her horses as members of the family.
"When the horses arrive they can be nervous and scared, but then they take a look around and see how peaceful and beautiful it is here," Gerth related. "They learn quickly that we are their friends and they settle in."
The story of how a successful southern California businesswoman became a player in Pennsylvania's thoroughbred breeding industry is one of serendipity. Two years ago Gerth was attending a wedding in Saratoga Springs, N. Y., and on a whim she turned up at the New York Breeders' Sales Company fall mixed sale where she met Maria Vorhauer in the sales office. A lifelong horsewoman, Vorhauer was consigning a sharp looking colt by Johannesburg at the sale.
"I thought she came to look at my colt," Vorhauer says, "Dressed in all white, Gayle was very impressionable and was fascinated by the horses. Turns out she was very much a novice to the thoroughbred world. I explained the sales process and the PA- breeding program's huge growth in recent years. After a while I had to go back to my consignment, so I thought that would be the end of it."
When Vorhauer ran into Gerth two days later, the Californian told her she wanted to buy a couple of babies and ship them back to California.
"I told her that was not a great idea, but we bought two mares in partnership and I took them back to November Hill Farm where I was working," Vorhauer said. "Well, I didn't hear from Gayle for two months and one day she calls and says she wants to buy two more mares in foal. Next up was a place to keep them."
Ron and Barbara Rickline, owners of Xanthus Farm, hooked Gerth up with a realtor. Gerth and Vorhauer looked at several properties before they were bowled over by the Lenhartsville site, even though it had been shuttered 18 months earlier.
"It wasn't in real good shape, but I saw the potential," Gerth related. "Matter of fact, I didn't realize we had run-in sheds, the grass and weeds were so overgrown. The main barn was flooded all the time in a heavy rain, but we got it all under control and turned around."
Sitting at the highest point on the property is the main barn with 32 new stalls and an indoor track around the perimeter for light workouts. They've built a new stallion paddock and barn with an indoor breeding barn and another one with eight foaling stalls with cameras that is part of a farm-wide security system. Vorhauer and the farm staff of four reworked the infrastructure, painting, landscaping and countless other projects.
Gerth and Vorhauer's aim: to turn the farm into a top-notch thoroughbred facility. November Hill Farm, Vorhauer's former employer in Dublin, Pa., has joined forces with Dana Point in a a venture that goes beyond breeding and racing and will offer services such as sales prep, sales representation, buying and selling horses, shipping and lay-ups.
"We will provide each horse with personalized care, no matter if it's a $5,000 horse or a $500,000 one," Vorhauer said. "We want to create one of the top breeding and foaling facilities in Pennsylvania. I'm very fortunate and blessed to be associated with Gayle."
With unfailing energy and dedication, Vorhauer fights the good fight every day, going about her business in a quiet and efficient manner.
"Gayle has provided me with everything I needed and there were never any shortcuts," Vorhauer related. "It makes my job a lot easier. After a year of setting everything up, now we're starting to have some fun. We're working on a three-year plan where we have 10 to 15 foals on the ground each year. If you believe in what you're doing and work hard at it and get lucky a bit, it will work out."
Maria's father Chuck Vorhauer trained Quarter horses and Appaloosas at Quality Acres Farm in Collegeville, Pa. Growing up with horses, Maria caught the bug early on.
"I picked up a lot from my father," she noted. "I consider myself a pretty good horseman. To be successful you need to know all of the horse industry—show horses, racing and breeding, racehorses.
"I love what I do but like most folks in the thoroughbred business it was very difficult for many years to stay afloat. You were robbing Peter to pay Paul. We were just hoping the slots revenues would happen. Even early on you can see the demand for PA-breds."
Racing and Stallions
Under the name of Lainey Bug Stables, Gerth has horses that are in training with Murray Rojas, who is currently one of the leading trainers at Penn National, and Sharon Banford at Philadelphia Park. Dana Point currently has four horses in training including a pair of PA-breds: Queen of the Scene, a 5-year old filly (NY-bred) who has won two of her last four races with earnings of $42,000, and StoneDust, a 4-year old gelding (PA-bred) that has earned $30,000. Bar Fly Blues is a 4-year old mare (KY-bred) that has earned $120,000. In early October they purchased Tejanos Eliminater, a 4-year old gelding (PA-bred) from Kentucky that has bankrolled $140,000.
Dana Point's breeding philosophy focuses on producing quality over quantity. They are standing Wiseman's Ferry, Sir Shackleton, Southern Success and Spartan Victory. The first two are from the highly regarded Castleton Lyons Farm in Kentucky. A son of Hennessy, Wiseman's Ferry captured the West Virginia Derby and Lone Star Derby in 2002 and earned $825,266 from 16 starts. Wiseman's Ferry is a son of Hennessy from the immediate family of top young sires Bernstein and Sky Mesa.
A winner at distances of 7 furlongs to 1 1⁄18 miles, Sir Shackleton was a stakes winner three consecutive years and is a multiple graded stakes-winning millionaire. He set a 7-furlong track record in the Grade 2 Richter Scale Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship at Gulfstream Park. The good-looking stallion's first two-year-olds run in 2010.
"We are delighted that we have been able to arrange for Sir Shackleton to stand at Dana Point in 2010 as we were very impressed with the good work that Gayle and her general manager Maria Vorhauer's team accomplished with Wiseman's Ferry there this season," said Shane Ryan, the President of Castleton Lyons.
"Dana Point has certainly developed a very professional reputation in the Pennsylvania stallion market in a very short period of time. Sir Shackleton's first two yearlings of the sale season to be consigned at public auction sold for $39,000 and $25,000 at the recent Ocala sale and both Castleton Lyons and Tracy Farmer (co-owner) are eagerly awaiting the first runners next year. We believe that the Pennsylvania Breeders Program offers breeders there a tremendous opportunity to gain reward for the big commitment they make to the bloodstock industry."
Gerth and Vorhauer have tweaked their business strategy over the past year, but the focus remains the same.
"When I first started learning about the state's breeding program I became more and more intrigued," recalled Gerth who has survived two serious bouts of cancer. "Like most industries the thoroughbred business is down these days. But we'll weather this downturn like we've done many others. I've worked through hard times all my life.
"Our goal is to elevate the racing stock, to breed the best racehorses in Pennsylvania."