The Bandoroff Family: A Changing of the Guard at Denali

Conrad and Craig Bandoroff, 2019 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York Bred Sale

By Kelsey Riley

There really is something about horses; it seems to be simply impossible to fall out of love with them.

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Craig Bandoroff tried once. Devastated after losing the use of his right arm in a horrific fall at Garden State Park in New Jersey in 1974 less than a year into a promising career as a jockey, Bandoroff decided he was done with the animals. He refocused his attention and enrolled at the University of Virginia–where he met, naturally, a professor that had horses.

“I think, initially, I had the mindset that I didn’t want anything to do with horses and it was probably still a pretty bitter pill to swallow,” Bandoroff recalled. “But by serendipity I met a professor who had a farm and had horses and lo and behold, I started to ride again. I met somebody who helped design a bridle so that I could ride with one hand and I got back into riding pretty seriously.”

The story goes that Bandoroff was bitten by the ‘horse bug’ after making friends as a kid whose father was a jockey, but he insists he was “born with a gene that I love horses.” It is apparent Bandoroff has passed that gene to his 28-year-old son and middle child Conrad who–in the 30th anniversary year of the family’s Denali Stud–is well on his way to taking over management and leading the business into its next phases.

Craig Bandoroff and his wife Holly have certainly set a lofty standard. The farm sold its first million-dollar mare in 1998 at Keeneland November and the results have continued apace. Today, Denali Stud has raised or sold 35 Grade I winners and its consignment has brought in over $650-million, including 55 seven-figure horses. The Bandoroffs managed the broodmare career of Hall of Famer Serena’s Song (Rahy), and the 28-year-olds resides to this day at Denali alongside three daughters and one granddaughter. They raised and co-owned 2011 GI Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom (Leroidesanimaux {Brz}), and celebrated two winners of the GI Belmont S. within three years in 2017 and 2019 in Tapwrit (Tapit) and Sir Winston (Awesome Again).

Holly and Craig Bandoroff | Jon Siegel photo

Craig and Holly Bandoroff have summitted the highest peaks of the sport. But as such things go, the path wasn’t always straightforward, and it certainly wasn’t easy. It took heavy doses of hard work, dedication and determination to get to–and stay at– the top.

Accepting the fact that horses were in his life to stay after his fateful meeting at the University of Virigina, Bandoroff transferred to the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture. It was there that he met Holly, and it was at that time that he called in favours from some of his racetrack contacts and wound up shadowing some of the top horsemen in the business, like Lee Eaton and Fred Seitz. A stint in New York working for Fasig-Tipton and Matchmaker followed, but in 1986 the Bandoroffs were called back to the Bluegrass when Craig received an offer to manage the sales operations of R.D. Hubbard’s Crystal Springs Farm.

“I set up camp there and was involved in the farm end of things and the consigning end of things for Crystal Springs Farm,” Bandoroff said. “One thing led to another and Mr. Hubbard decided he wanted to scale back and have his own horses, and we were at the stage where we wanted to scale up, not back. And so we were fortunate that he let us continue to stay there and lease [the facility] and gave us some of his horses, a base to work from.”
Crystal Springs served as an able base on which the Bandoroffs built the foundation of their business acumen and clientele. In 1990, Denali Stud was born with the purchase of an initial 300-acre plot, which over the ensuing years has grown to almost 800 acres comprising broodmare and yearling divisions in Paris, Kentucky. Looking back, Bandoroff reflects on the leaps of faith required to grow such a business.

“When I talk to young people, like when I give a lecture for the [Godolphin] Flying Start kids or when I used to teach a couple of classes at the University of Louisville, I’d always ask the question to them: ‘what do you think is tougher, starting [a business] or keeping it going? And it’s like the $64,000 question. And we go around the room and inevitably, half of them say starting, half of them say keeping it going. And I’d say, ‘there’s no question. Keeping it going is tougher.’ Now, maybe that’s because that’s the moment that you’re living in. But in the business we’re in or the world we live in, nobody cares what you did yesterday; it’s what are you going to do for me tomorrow?
“That’s pressure. What was it like starting it out? You’re young, right? And you don’t know any better. So you just do it. And if it was 30 years later, you might sit there and weigh the risks and the advantages and the disadvantages. But back then, you didn’t have that many chips. So the couple of chips you had, you were willing to move to the middle of the table.

Denali Stud photo

“I say this all the time: you’ve got to be lucky. You have to meet the right people that give you the opportunity. In some cases it happens by accident. You don’t expect Bob and Beverly Lewis to walk into your life, or numerous other people. I think especially when you’re young, there are probably people that see something in you that you don’t see in yourself. And those things that they saw in you enabled them to give you the chance and the opportunity.”

“I just tried to work hard,” Bandoroff said simply. “And Holly was so personable, she brought that side to it. But I think that’s a lot of it. You meet some people and they like what they see and they think you know what you’re talking about and they give you a chance. Mr. Hubbard wrote a book and one of the greatest things he said in there is: ‘good luck is when opportunity meets hard work.’ And I’ve never heard anything truer.”

It doesn’t take long conversing with Conrad Bandoroff, either, that observe that Craig and Holly have instilled those principles of hard work and humility into their son. The younger Bandoroff said he can hardly remember a time when he wanted to do anything other than pursue a career with horses.

“Some of my earliest memories are coming out to the farm and learning to ride,” Conrad recalled. “As a little kid, anyone can tell you that all I wanted to be was a cowboy when I grew up.”

Conrad at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga as a child | Joe DiOrio photo courtesy of the Bandoroff family

The Bandoroffs’ entrepreneurial spirit, too, shone through in their son’s early days.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to work with the horses until I was bigger, so I’d shine shoes or have lemonade stands,” Conrad said. “And especially when we were in Saratoga I had to find ways to keep myself busy because we were at the sales for long hours.

“It was a great environment to grow up in because I got to see how much work goes into running an operation like this and, especially in my dad’s role, how much pressure and work is required. He was really a strong role model for me at a young age.”

If riding across such picturesque pastures as Denali wasn’t going to pique young Conrad’s interest, run ins with some of Denali’s most memorable horses would surely get the job done.

“Serena’s Song for sure has always been a big part of our lives,” Bandoroff said. “I remember as a kid the home phone could ring at odd hours of the night, and we’d be getting in the car to go out and watch Serena foal. And that was always something that was really special. My dad wouldn’t necessarily attend a lot of foalings, but he’d always be there for Serena when she foaled.

Serena’s Song with her first foal | Jill Williams photo

“And then Animal Kingdom was just a surreal, out of body experience. It was at a time when I was starting to realize how passionate I was for the industry and how much I wanted it to be my future career path. I think that was more than solidified when Animal Kingdom won. And that might’ve been the moment that my parents realized that they weren’t going to be able to dissuade me from coming into the business.

“I’ll never forget watching him cross the wire and seeing my dad overcome with emotion; he kind of got weak in his knees and he fell back into the chair and we were all like, ‘uh-oh, is he having a heart attack?’ And then my mom just kind of smacked him on the arm and said, ‘let’s go. We have to go to the winner’s circle.’ It was a great day.”

Animal Kingdom was raised at Denali | Darley photo

Craig admitted that Conrad’s continuation of the family business wasn’t necessarily what he wanted for his son.

“When Conrad was a little kid he went through this stage where he wanted to come out here and ride all the time,” Craig said. “And so we would ride and he always wanted to be around the sales. And I could tell he had an affinity for the horses, but because we didn’t live on the farm it wasn’t like he was there all the time. But he said to Holly and I, when he was 15 or 16, ‘this is what I want to do. I want to go into the horse business.’

“And I said, ‘no, please, it’s too hard.’ I say to people, I think lawyers don’t want their kids to be lawyers and doctors don’t want their kids to be doctors. And we worked very hard to discourage him. We really did. And I remember, we had a good friend staying at the house and he’d known the kids since they were born. And he said to us one day, ‘why don’t you just start to embrace it and give him a chance?’ Typical of my ways I said, ‘okay, if I can’t talk him out of it, we’ll friggin work him out of it.’”

Conrad Bandoroff at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York Bred Sale | Fasig-Tipton photo

And so Conrad Bandoroff was off to gain a racetrack education from the likes of John Ward and Bill Mott. In 2015, Conrad was accepted into the Godolphin Flying Start programme, during which he spent two years traveling between Sheikh Mohammed’s farms around the world and learning from the industry’s leading experts.

“I think one of the most interesting things about Conrad, from my perspective, is that he was so driven to achieve his goal of gaining acceptance to the Flying Start,” said Holly Bandoroff. “From the time he was in high school, every summer his friends were life guarding, or if they were working at all they were hanging out at the pool or playing tennis or doing little odd jobs. And Conrad was really very driven. He worked for John Ward, he worked at Belmont and for Pete Bradley; the summer he worked for Pete Bradley in the office, he felt like he needed to be in the barn. So he worked weekends prepping Gainesway yearlings to see how someone else did it. It was eye-opening to me really how much he wanted it and how hard he was willing to work. And I felt that was kind of unique for a person his age.”

Andre Fabre with Conrad during his time on the Flying Start course | courtesy Conrad Bandoroff

Conrad admitted his parents were “never too thrilled” about his determination to enter the family business, “but I have a tendency to be a little stubborn at times,” he said. “I may or may not get that from my dad. I knew it was what I wanted to do, so I was going to do it one way or another.

“I think as I showed my commitment to this pursuit they finally accepted the idea of it and once they saw that I understood the time and the work and the pressure that comes with the job; I think parents sometimes worry that their kids see the good parts about the job, but don’t fully appreciate just how hard it is. And anybody in this industry and in any position understands that this is hard work and that we don’t live a nine-to-five life. This is a lifetime commitment.”

In the wider world it is relatively rare to see a business passed successfully down generations, but in the Thoroughbred industry we have seen many of the same surnames continue to pop up throughout history; multi-generational farms and sales consignments are almost the greater norm than the contrary. Conrad Bandoroff said he thinks it is the inherent passion that is required to even step foot inside the Thoroughbred industry that allows such legacies to continue.

“I think a lot of the reason that you have so many family operations pass from one generation to the next is because of that development of the passion for the animal, whether it’s genetically transferred to a child from a parent or whether you develop it from your interactions as a kid,” he said.

Conrad Bandoroff at the 2018 Fasig-Tipton Winter Mixed Sale | Fasig-Tipton photo

Like her husband, Holly Bandoroff was not born into the industry, and she concurred that the all-encompassing hold that the business takes is what makes it viable to be passed along.

“I am not from a horse background at all,” she said. “As I’ve watched the industry, I very quickly learned that it’s all-consuming. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle and it’s a way of life. And I think that people who are raised in the industry, whether they’re the sons and daughters of trainers, farm owners or consignors, there’s just this incredible reverence for the horses, and also for the land and being a steward of the land and understanding how special it is to have a piece of property. And so I do think it is unusual, but understandable that so many families in the horse business have sons and daughters who want to join their parents.”

“I think the young people that come into it–you look at Walker Hancock, you look at Bret Jones, Conrad, Gatewood Bell–they’re successful, and their families were successful in it,” Craig added. “But I think they have a passion. Can you have a passion for going to work at your father’s factory? Maybe. But I would say that’s the only thing I could put my finger on. I think liking what you do, being passionate about something, is a key ingredient to being successful.

“I think one day I’ll hopefully look back and say: there’s my greatest accomplishment. We pulled off this family succession and business is good, the place is still successful, and the kids all still love each other.”        –Craig Bandoroff

“Family succession in businesses is very complicated. You can take courses at Harvard or any business school and it’s challenging. There are a lot of dynamics. We are very fortunate that we have a close family. Conrad has two sisters and the three of them are close and with the way our farm and business is structured, they’re all part of it together. It’s not like Conrad can just go off on his own and he doesn’t have anybody to answer to. But it’s complicated and it’s tricky stuff.

“I’m sure the outside world can look at kids like Conrad and Walker and some of the others and say, ‘wow, what a leg up they had.’ And they did, but nobody handed this to Conrad. I’m just not that type of person. He had to prove to me his passion and he had to prove to me his capability.”

These days, Craig and Holly Bandoroff are taking a much-deserved step back. While still very visible at the sales, they are spending less time on the day-to-day operations on the farm and taking a well-earned breather after more than 30 years done well. And Craig can breathe easier knowing the business is in good hands.

photo courtesy Denali Stud

“Conrad, he’s a lucky person because he got my work ethic and Holly’s personality,” Craig said. “And Holly’s personality is a pretty dynamic thing to have. I’m immensely proud; he’s 10 years ahead of where most people would be because he’s lived it and breathed it for a long time. And even when I didn’t think he was paying any attention to it, he was.

“I think Holly and I have instilled in all our children that you have a responsibility to give back and you have a responsibility to help other people and a responsibility to try to make things better. And I think people can say whatever they want to say about me, but they can’t say I didn’t try to make the horse business better. I’m not going to sit here and say I was successful because I don’t necessarily think I was. But I think Conrad understands that side of it. And if the horse business doesn’t get in his way, he’ll be unbelievably successful.”

Is it more difficult to start a business, or to keep it going successfully? There is probably no hard and fast answer, but Conrad said his vision for Denali’s future involves emulating his father’s “honesty, integrity and certainly his hard work and perseverance.”

“My dad has always been one of my biggest role models and he’s not had an easy life from the time of his accident when he was younger than I am,” Conrad said. “His ability to overcome adversity and his perseverance is something that I’ve always really admired in him and something that I have always aspired to live up to. For him to have started Denali off a 75 acre lease and for it to be at the level that it is now in terms of industry respect and size and scope is something that I know he’s really proud of and I’m really proud of him for.

photo courtesy Denali Stud

“My dad has always impressed to me that doing the little things well is what makes a difference. Working with integrity and honesty goes a long way. One thing he’s always impressed upon me is that you have one reputation, and that’s something that you can’t easily change if you put a black mark on it.

“I think we’re set up to have a really strong future going forward. We’ve got a great team that starts with a really good group of guys in the barns and in our management team. And 2019 was a record year for the sales consignment, so we’re just trying to build off that and trying to keep it going and maintain the level that we’ve been performing at. My goal is for us to continue to be known as a place that produces great horses, Saturday afternoon horses, and for people, when they walk into our consignment, to know that the horses from our farm or from our consignment are capable of being associated with the greatness of the sport.”

“We’re getting close to the point where the future of the farm will be what Conrad wants it to be,” Craig added. “And I’ve said to him lots of times, ‘the way we’ve done it has worked out well, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it.’ He’s marrying a wonderful young lady [Claire Hager] who I think is going to bring a lot to his life and to the table, who grew up in the horse business and knows farming. I have no idea what the future here is going to be, but I think Conrad is a smart young man, and just like his mother and I figured it out, he’ll figure it out. I think one of the keys for anybody like that is, don’t put too much pressure on yourself and just be your own man. Just be your own man.”

Conrad at Keeneland as a child with Craig | Courtesy Bandoroff family

And at the end of the day, Kentucky Derby trophies, Hall of Fame plaques and multi-million dollar sales surely pale in comparison to the rewards reaped from a happy and harmonious family.

“I think one day I’ll hopefully look back and say: there’s my greatest accomplishment,” Craig said. “We pulled off this family succession and business is good, the place is still successful, and the kids all still love each other.”

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