There aren’t many cowboys from the Old West still working with racehorses these days, so it’s up to their descendants to carry on the traditions of horsemanship from that bygone era.
Larry King’s formative years were spent watching and absorbing that myriad of skills from his late father, and the longtime farm manager for Gil and Marilyn Cambell’s Stonehedge Farm in Williston, Fla. has been applying them ever since.
The farm has seen multiple graded stakes winners developed under King’s tenure, as well as a total of 16 winners in the lucrative Florida Sire Stakes (FSS) series. Last year, Stonehenge homebreds filled out the superfecta in the FSS Affirmed.
This July 31,the 66-year-old King celebrated another milestone success as a pair of Stonehedge homebreds ran one-two in the FSS Dr. Fager at Gulfstream Park.
“I told somebody today, ‘When you ride around Ocala and look at all the farms and all the horses, all the people shooting for the bigger races, I’m surprised we can even win a race, because there’s so many horses,’” King said. “It’s certainly not easy to do.
“Everybody’s excited when you win. It was a lot of fun, and in three more weeks we’ll try again (in the next leg of the FSS series). They’ll have to pop up and be special.”
With a lifetime of horse experience, King knows special when he sees it. It all hearkens back to his youth, a nomad-like experience following his father, Joe, from racetrack to racetrack all around the United States. Some tracks were recognized and official, while others were anything but.
“He was a cowboy from out West, and came from a long line of cowboys,” King said of his father, who served as an Army surgical technician during World War II. “He worked the ranches, then got into running Quarter Horses. He trained performance horses, like cutting and reining and stuff like that. We’ve always been in horses our whole lives.”
Larry King remembers riding his dad’s Quarter Horses at the bush tracks of central Louisiana; his 87-pound weight was the perfect advantage during the back-country match races.
“It didn’t matter how old you were, just if you were light enough,” King said. “I was probably between 9 and 11 years old. Nobody abused horses or done nothing like that, it was just a rough life. Those people were tough… it’s a different world.
“We went to places in Mexico and stuff where there were knife fights. I remember daddy tellin’ me to go get in the truck! There were no rules.”
After the first 13 years of his life had been spent traveling the racetracks from Louisiana to West Virginia, and everywhere in between, King must have been relieved when his father was offered the position of farm manager at Waldemar Farm for Howard Sams. Under the elder King’s horsemanship skills, the farm produced many top runners, including the 1975 Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure.
Joe King saw the difficult nature of the future classic winner right away, and assigned his son to care for the obstinate colt.
“He was quite the handful,” Larry King remembered. “You could work with him all day putting his halter on and off, rubbing his head, and you could leave and go to lunch and it was like you never touched him.”
Foolish Pleasure didn’t look like much when he arrived at the 1973 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale as a part of the Waldemar consignment.
“There’s a lot of stuff that throws off the experts,” King said, chuckling. “He was crooked; he turned out horrible, and he was back in the knees. One big buyer came by the consignment, and Daddy led him out and said, ‘This is the best colt in the barn.’ I’ll never forget what the man said: ‘If that’s the best you’ve got, don’t show me anything else!’”
Foolish Pleasure commanded a final bid of just $20,000, and while he never outgrew his difficult nature, the colt did go on to win seven Grade 1 races, including the Derby, for owner John Greer and trainer LeRoy Jolley, earning $1,216,705.
King recalled watching the Kentucky Derby on television with his father: “What a dream. We really felt like we’d had a part in it, and that was something special.”
After taking over the farm manager position when his father retired, King was unsure what his own future held when Waldemar Farm was sold to Gil and Marilyn Campbell in 1988. The couple renamed the facility Stonehedge Farm South.
“My wife said, ‘What do we do?’ King recalled. “I said, ‘Well, we’re gonna go get some boxes.’ Then the next thing I know the new owners came up to me and asked me to stay on.”
Working at the same farm for just shy of five decades has allowed King to play a major role in its expansion to over 500 acres, as well as the development of some of Florida’s top Thoroughbreds.
“We just have a ⅝-mile track, we breed, we foal; we do it all,” said King. “Me, I mow a lot of grass! Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, they like to do it from the ground up. We’ve had success with it.
“I just wanted to fish, and they allow me to do that. I will never leave here unless they sell it or run me off. I’m here to finish it off. My nephew, Jamie King, he runs the training operation. I’ve got good people on the farm.”
Looking at the pedigrees of the farm’s FSS winners from the past two years, sire Cajun Breeze has also been a major part of that success: the Stonehedge exacta in last month’s Dr. Fager featured two colts both sired by Cajun Breeze.
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The appropriately-named Cajun’s Magic is that latest FSS winner, but King revealed that the talented 2-year-old colt’s trainer, Michael “Beau” Yates, was the man behind Cajun Breeze making the move to Stonehedge.
“Michael used to ride for me here at the farm,” King explained. “I know his mother, and I still know him well. When his dad passed, he inherited a nice little farm with a training track, and we were diversifying our trainers. He’s a good horseman; he’s got horseman blood, back from his grandpa. You really can’t teach all that to people.”
Yates had bred Cajun Breeze, a speedy, stakes-placed son of Congrats, to a few mares of his own.
“He’s not really set up to stand a stud, so I went and looked at his foals that he had,” said King. “Mr. Campbell asked me what I thought. This horse bred good, he could run, all his foals looked great, he’s an outcross to everything we had, he nicks to nearly every mare, and they can run. He’s had small, small crops; we’ve kind of been lucky, because we’ve had the only ones. When we start breeding some outside mares, we might have some more competition!”
Yates also predicted the Dr. Fager exacta a month before the race was run.
“We were very impressed how they broke their maidens, of course,” King said. “But then you hear about this horse and that horse, going back and looking at replays, and I thought, ‘Man, these other horses really look good.’”
King needn’t have worried. Cajun’s Magic and Dean Delivers finished a neck apart, ten lengths better than the closest competition.
“Somebody once said it was the water, somebody else said it was the limestone in the soil,” King said, asked to explain the farm’s success. “I wouldn’t dare say we’re better than anyone else. It’s just excellent land, and we try to breed using common sense… But I’m proud of what we’ve done because we haven’t had half-million-dollar mares or big sires. We just raise them right, and start them right, and we get a little lucky.
“It’s also gratifying to see the Campbells have success after all they’ve put into the game.”
Other major successes for the Campbells include a 2016 Florida leading breeder title; 2011 Kentucky Derby starter and G2 Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go; 2016 Preakness starter Abiding Star; breeding and racing Ivanavinalot (West Acre), G2 winner and dam of champion Songbird; breeding $2.4 million-earner Marlin; breeding and racing millionaire Blazing Sword, G3 winner Always Sunshine, G3 winner Well Defined, and G3 winner Friel’s For Real.
Looking back at his own role in all that success, King deflected the praise.
“I’ve been very fortunate with my job, and with my wife,” he said. “I’ve been married 42 years, and had the same job for 48. It’s been a dream life; everything fell into place.”
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