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Blistering Apprentice

Blistering Apprentice
Blistering Apprentice
Josh Stevens, pictured with girlfriend Leah Ward, visits with Woodford Reserve Turf Classic winner Divisidero in May. Stevens manages Gun Powder Farms, which helped purchased the Grade I winner. Submitted photos

The Kentucky Derby can essentially be marked a holiday on the calendar within Josh Stevens’ family.
Year after year, blind draws are offered with a $5 chance on pulling out the Run for the Roses winner at the family Derby party. That wasn’t the lone tradition.
‘We’d all sing My Old Kentucky Home,’ Stevens said. ‘It’s a tradition like any other holiday.’
Stevens, a 2005 graduate of North Harrison High School, skipped out on the family Derby party the last few years. He had a pretty big stake in a Grade I race on the Kentucky Derby under-card at Churchill Downs in 2016.
Not only did Stevens get to live the dream of walking from the backside barns to under the iconic twin spires to enter a high-caliber horse in a prestigious race, he was part of a winner.
Divisidero, a route-running turf specialist, closed from mid-pack to win the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. The $500,000 race put Stevens in the winner’s circle along with owner Gun Powder Farms (Tom Keithley and Erica DeVinney), trainer Buff Bradley and others with a hand in Divisidero’s success.
It wasn’t the first time Divisidero visited the winner’s circle on Derby day. The year prior, he won the Grade II American Turf Stakes in his third lifetime start.
Stevens entered the horse-racing business in 2010, and success has found him rather quickly, especially considering his background. Venturing on his own, Stevens is the owner of J. Stevens Bloodstock, where he serves as a general manager of sorts for thoroughbred horse owners.
‘It’s set up like a sports team,’ Stevens explains. ‘I have owners above me, then I would be considered the (general manager), then the trainers are the coaches. The farm is another coach … I keep the conversations going.’
Stevens started the full-service thoroughbred management business in 2014, and, when a husband and wife ownership group out of Pennsylvania contacted him, the business infrastructure was set. Since then, Gun Powder Farms has turned a few heads in the industry.
‘This family was kind enough to give me a shot,’ Stevens, 29, said. ‘My main goal when I bring potential owners in is to create a team. Everyone is on the same page and shooting for the same thing. It takes a team to be successful in this business; it can’t be done on your own.’
A University of Louisville business school graduate, Stevens studied the equine business, particularity the thoroughbred industry.
Upon graduation in 2010, Stevens ventured to the heart of thoroughbred country, Lexington, Ky. He took a six-month internship at Margaux Farms, which led to a permanent job there. Unlike many in horse racing, Stevens didn’t grow up on a farm or with connections to the industry. A fan first, Stevens honed in on thoroughbred racing through college studies.
At Margaux Farms, the studying became hands-on.
‘I did everything from mucking stalls in the morning to trying to recruit clients in the afternoon,’ Stevens said. ‘I was working in the barns, learning how to handle the horses, proper medication treatments, how to get the horses ready to race and how to look at a horse.’
Soon, Stevens worked his way up at Margaux to client relations, recruiting and sales. It led to the consulting side, which showed the way to setting up his Lexington-based business in 2014.
‘The down and dirty on the farm stuff, I was really green,’ Stevens said. ‘I jumped quickly into it on the farm and learned first-hand. I could then apply what I learned on the farm to what I learned in business school.’
Setting out on his own, Stevens has a unique perspective he can bring to potential horse owners and clients that others in the industry can’t.
‘From a client perspective, I can look at horse racing from a business eye first, and I’m not a person that’s going to tell you this is how it’s done because it is the way we’ve always done it,’ Stevens said. ‘The investors that come into the business are just as green as I was. I think I can develop a better approach.’
Gun Powder approached Stevens about starting a breeding operation. Its goal was to breed race horses to campaign on the racing circuit and/or sell along the way.
Through a few Keeneland Sales, they purchased pregnant broodmares. It was a starting point, but it would take several years before the foal of the broodmare would race. Where’s the excitement for a new owner, they asked?
From there, Stevens looked to build the supply chain, similar to a baseball franchise having a solid minor league system through drafting.
Gun Powder purchased four or five weanlings (not a year old yet) and the same number of yearlings (horses that are 1 to 2 years old).
‘We bought those four or five yearlings just to get things going,’ Stevens said. ‘We didn’t want to sit around and wait so long for our own horses to start running.’
As luck would have it, one of the first weanlings purchased was Breaking Lucky for a tag of $100,000. Proving to be a great success, Canadian-born Breaking Lucky went on to win the second leg of the Canadian Triple Crown series in 2015, the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Race Track in Fort Erie, Ontario.
Most recently, Breaking Lucky triumphed for his first graded stakes win ‘ the Grade III Seagram Cup ‘ on Monday at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Ontario.
‘He’s got earnings close to $500,000 now,’ Stevens said. ‘It was one of the first race horses we bought together.’
The biggest purchase at the Keeneland Sales early on was Divisidero ($250,000) for Gun Powder. Stevens saw the potential when Divisidero was a yearling.
Now a 4-year-old, Divisidero is considered among the top turf horses in the country. The son of Kitten’s Joy brought Stevens to Churchill Downs twice on Derby day to score wins, including the dramatic score by a head in the Turf Classic, a Grade I. He ran again in June versus one of the best turf horses, Flintshire, placing fifth in the Grade I Manhattan Stakes at Belmont Park in New York.
The Derby day experience is one Stevens won’t forget.
‘That was unbelievable, to be honest,’ he said. ‘It’s a feeling I may never reach again, unless we were to win the Kentucky Derby.’
Having visited Churchill Downs many times growing up, Stevens saw the venue from a different perspective that first Saturday in May.
‘To be on that stage … when I grew up, I always thought, ‘Wow that must be a cool feeling.’ To walk over from the backside of Churchill Downs and see the twin spires in front of you, the crowd looking at you; from that angle, it makes your heart skip a beat,’ Stevens said. ‘Then, to win that race, on that stage, it’s hard to explain. It’s like winning the lottery, but you’ve done the work to put yourself in that position.’
Winning a stakes race, Stevens said all walks of the industry come together to celebrate.
‘It’s a melting pot of people and personalities,’ he said. ‘There are hard business men that can be soft as putty when it comes to their horses … It’s the only business where I’ve seen an owner that’s a millionaire and the poorest groom that may have $50 in his pocket be treated as an equal on Derby day. It’s amazing. A millionaire can instantly hug a groom when you win the race because we all understand we are just as important as the other.’
While Breaking Lucky and Divisidero brought instant success, Stevens said he has horses at all levels of racing. Different clients have different budgets. Some may seek out $30,000 horses at the sale, and others can seek higher amounts. Once the racing career begins, usually at age 2 or 3, it’s best to quickly figure out what caliber race the horse can win at.
‘We use it similar to a stock exchange,’ Stevens said. ‘You want to find each horse’s best level to run at. In claiming races, you want to win those races, but also, if someone buys your horse for $10,000, you wish that horse luck and move on.’
Stevens has horses based at different racing circuits throughout the country. The main operation is at Churchill Downs and Windham Hill Farm near Lexington. Horses also are in Toronto and at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland near where Keithley and DeVinney reside.
As the manager, Stevens phones each of the operation’s trainers about three times a week while also making in-person visits weekly to Windham Hill Farm and Churchill Downs. He also makes drives to watch active horses race at nearby tracks in Kentucky and Indiana. He’ll make quarterly visits to the Canada operation as well as being at big races across the country.
Owners like Gun Powder have believed in Stevens, and the partnership has paid off thus far.
‘They are retired but pour their heart and soul into this,’ Stevens said of Gun Powder. ‘For these owners, in their first full season of racing, they won a Grade II race under the Gun Powder Farms banner. A lot of ownerships, people can go years and spend millions to not accomplish that goal. To follow up this year with winning a Grade I was even better.’
Locally, Stevens turns to trainer Buff Bradley for guiding the Kentucky-based outfit.
‘If you see his name training a horse, it’s likely from one of our ownerships,’ Stevens said.
Looking ahead, Divisidero is getting time off before hitting the turf again this fall. The next rising star for Stevens is filly Nawlins Kitty. She won her first race then crossed the line first in a stakes race at Indiana Grand Race Course before being disqualified for pushing her way through horses. She’s slated to run again on Aug. 13 in a Grade III race at Arlington Park near Chicago.
With each promising horse, the thrill to get back to the winner’s circle is alive to experience that Derby-day emotion again.
‘When we won (Derby day) this year, I was lucky enough to take my mom and dad, and my dad told me it was the best thing he has ever done in his life,’ Stevens said. ‘That’s pretty cool to hear from your dad.’