Made from the toughest steel
Terence Collier on the hard knocks, redemption and pastures of plenty of John Sikura
Small-to-medium size, registered Canadian-bred, proven sire line and always punched above his weight in every phase of a long career. Your first guess…? Probably Northern Dancer. However, it could just as easily describe John G Sikura, a dynamo-like enigma and, in his newest and most ambitious project, the owner and architect behind the rebirth of a fabled but long-ago forgotten Kentucky stud farm and estate, Xalapa. Why would a man, comfortably ensconced in a leading stud farm close to the outskirts of Lexington, suddenly up sticks in 2019 and dive into such deep and uncharted waters?
There is not a simple answer, but it is a journey that has many of the requirements of an epic: tragedy and redemption, father and son. This son leaves his Canadian home, on a path not chosen or approved by a successful father widely respected and admired by his peers in the thoroughbred world. The senior John Sikura was himself a teenager when he accompanied his father and mother from their native Slovakia to Toronto, Canada. By 1960, John Senior’s financial acumen had brought him enough money to buy land just north of his new home city, where he established the very first Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm. Astute dealings and his likeable and persuasive personality meant that the business grew quickly. Friends like Nelson Bunker Hunt, John Gaines and Maurice Zilber opened doors.
In 1976, at the tender age of 38, he and his associates began the now commonplace practice of “partnering-up” on the best yearling prospects. At Keeneland that July, the group purchased a colt from the first crop of Triple Crown winner Secretariat for $1.5 million, then an international record for a yearling sold at auction. Unfortunately, the loftily-named Canadian Bound did not live up to either his name or the talent of his sire.
Meanwhile, John Junior, the wayward son, showed some talent on the skating rink in Canada in the rough and tumble world of ice hockey. Having spent most of his youth there, where ice hockey is bigger than soccer, baseball or football, John stood out in programmes at schools and universities which generate talented and fearless young players. In this environment, scouts from professional giants like the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, whose star players enjoy David Beckham-like worship, are quick to sign up a likely prospect.
The pugnacious John, who would willingly tackle any player regardless of size, was skilled enough to play professional hockey in Europe. However, after college graduation and a couple of modest years in the minor leagues, John grudgingly yielded to the increasingly insistent demands of his father that he returned to Canada, to be part of the Sikura family business of breeding thoroughbreds. The prodigal son returned to the fold.
But those years on the ice were far from wasted time. Knocked down, trampled on and scarred by flying sticks, pucks and blades, John still walks into a room with the confidence of an ice hockey player who might not be looking for a fight, but one who is ready to take on anyone or anything, entirely regardless of size.
John Senior, meanwhile, wanted to expand Hill ‘n’ Dale and Kentucky was the logical choice for a new branch of an operation growing in size and stature. In 1981, the second Hill ‘n’ Dale opened a few miles east of Lexington. In a division of duties laid out and closely controlled and watched by their father, John Junior was appointed manager in the Bluegrass and his younger brother Glenn, less restless than his sibling, oversaw day-to-day operations in Canada.
Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste death but once: the words of Julius Caesar to Calpurnia in Shakespeare. It has been 28 years since the tragic incident in 1994 which took the life of John Sikura Senior. Despite a lengthy inquest process, which finally ruled the death as accidental, the scars remain to this day and the subject is one that John Junior has filed away in the deep recesses of his psyche. It is, however, an unavoidable part of our conversation. John’s brother and sister decided amicably that Glenn should own and run Hill ‘n’ Dale in Canada and John would do the same with the farm in Lexington. Glenn has grown his operations there steadily and conservatively, even as the Canadian thoroughbred industry has shrunk to a shadow of its former self.
John is very different from Glenn – but if there is one similarity, neither of them cares much for self-promotion. But for any number of reasons, the aura and legacy of John Sikura Senior has driven the professional life of his oldest son. He must live up to his late father’s sometimes grudging expectations – to maintain the success of the Hill ‘n’ Dale brand in our fickle industry, to challenge and work outside the ‘old boy’ network, the silver-spoon brigade and those with an oil spigot in their back yard. In one of the few moments we speak about his father, he says: “One day we had a father, the next day he was gone. I had two choices: either be content with what we had on that day, or make something that would honour his death and perhaps earn a place among the names in thoroughbred racing and breeding which are never forgotten. Death has that way of really focusing you.”
There was not even a hint of arrogance in that statement. It is the mantra which eventually led him to the purchase, in 2019, of the fabled Xalapa.
Another mantra that would look good on the many caps John wears… “Don’t linger on failure!”
The first failure, if that’s how you would describe “losing Medaglia d’Oro”, was in 2007 when the young, unproven stallion was moved without warning from Hill ‘n’ Dale’s stallion barn to Richard Haisfield’s Stonewall Farm. John had sold his first farm and used the money to buy a portion of the expansive North Ridge Farm. Medaglia d’Oro had just retired from racing and, in 2005, joined an eclectic group of stallions John was assembling at Hill ‘n’ Dale. He was the prototype stallion prospect John needed – not an Eclipse Champion, but a proven Grade 1 winner. Not a son of a most sought-after stallion, but from the sire line of his Canadian hero Northern Dancer. An underdog.
John’s take on the controversy: “I got outbid and eventually screwed out of one of the best stallions we’ve had in Kentucky. I am a firm believer in straight talk and living up to a commitment. Apparently not everybody feels the same way. You learn. You move on.”
The next “failure” ultimately ended as a classic Sikura success story – and coincidentally Medaglia d’Oro features in this chapter, too. Candy Ride was another important young stallion prospect who entered stud at Hill ‘n’ Dale in 2005, moving into a stall a couple of doors down from his racecourse rival, the aforementioned Medaglia d’Oro. Candy Ride had beaten him handily in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar in 2003, but that proved to be Candy Ride’s final racecourse appearance. He stood for six seasons at Hill ‘n’ Dale before a ‘shadowy cabal’ of advisors [we’ve spoken to a lawyer and that’s just about as much as we can say of them] to the syndicate that owned him engineered Candy Ride’s relocation to Lane’s End farm in 2010.
Both Candy Ride and Medaglia d’Oro developed into leaders and breed-shapers. Both slipped through John’s fingers.
Don’t linger on failure...? John grudgingly admits to Candy Ride’s move as being “outsmarted by a man who was just smarter than me… at that time! You learn. You move on.”
The flip side of failure is, of course, success. John enjoyed a huge moment of it when, in 2015, Horse of the Year Curlin was moved from Lane’s End, where he had stood for the first six years of his stud career, and began a new chapter under John’s management at Hill ‘n’ Dale. All the early controversy during Curlin’s phenomenal racing career was behind him – he was a masterpiece on the racecourse for an ownership group eventually controlled by Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Stables.
A significant chunk of equity in Curlin became available in 2015 in a sealed bid process, as a result of a court order following the legal problems which befell three of the stallion’s original owners. In a gutsy move on John’s part, his ‘all-in’ poker-play was the highest bid in the process. He persuaded the Curlin syndicate that the stallion’s future would improve if he was allowed to manage him. It was no hollow promise. From $35,000 in 2015, John raised Curlin’s fee in 2016 to $100,000. He supported the stallion with his best mares and persuaded many other breeders to do the same. As the performance of Curlin’s progeny went from good to exceptional, his stud fee increased to a point where, in 2023, he will cover a large but carefully selected book of mares at an advertised stud fee of $225,000. John’s self-effacing praise for Curlin is simple but noteworthy: “The horse has done all the work and the achievement is his.”
Curlin is now ensconced in the magnificent stallion barn at Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa. He is the flagship of John’s operation there, along with leading sires Ghostzapper, Maclean’s Music and Violence. There are now twelve stallions in residence at Xalapa and every one of them will ensure a steady stream of broodmares to the breeding shed there, which, like the rest of the stud buildings, has been restored to aesthetic splendour.
I got outbid and eventually screwed out of one of the best stallions we’ve had in Kentucky. I am a firm believer in straight talk and living up to a commitment. Apparently not everybody feels the same way. You learn. You move on
John does not yield specific information or linger on the reasons which led to the sale of the first two iterations of Hill ‘n’ Dale and his subsequent acquisition of Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa. He will tell you how he had one of those “too good to refuse” offers for his second farm on Yarnallton Pike and Leestown Road. He will tell you how he fell under the spell of Xalapa the first time he drove through its rusty gates and weed-adorned stone walls, but how he bided his time and waited until the vendor’s asking price and the price he wanted to pay aligned. The vulgarly curious could find the answers and amounts at county clerks’ offices, but that’s all meaningless in the grand scale of things. However, the huge investment to buy the farm and an equally large budget for the magnificent construction projects both completed and on the drawing board are classic Sikura thrusting plays. In 2008, he owned Broodmare of the Year Better Than Honour in partnership and was the underbidder, to his partner Mike Moreno, when, at $14 million she became the world’s record-priced barren broodmare!
The journey from John’s previous home near Lexington to his family’s current residence on the new Hill ‘n’ Dale is a thirty-mile drive, but for an aficionado of the equine world, it surpasses a spin on the Autostrada del Sol or the trip up the Pacific Coast Highway. The main artery from Lexington to Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa is the Paris Pike, a fifteen-mile stretch of American thoroughbred history. It winds in bucolic splendour through the farms of billionaires, an address book like Burke’s Landed Gentry. Gainesway, Walmac, Elmendorf, Normandy Farm, Whitney and Payson Farms line each side. Even in the most miserable weather, there is no prettier drive, with mares, foals and yearlings the only livestock to the horizons. As you drive through the small town of Paris en route to Xalapa, you pass by the fabled Claiborne Farm, through the lands of Arthur Hancock’s Stone Farm and the huge Godolphin outpost of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s far-flung Kentucky operation. It’s an upscale part of the horse world.
Several miles further on, the roads shrink to narrow lanes, stone bridges and tall stone walls. If your GPS hasn’t lost its signal by now, you arrive at the gates of Xalapa. In contrast to the flatlands which make up the paddocks of much of Kentucky’s breeding farms, here there are deep, rolling folds in the land and foggy bottoms over the wide and deep creeks. It is a property which feels exactly like the beautiful land around Kiltinan Castle in County Tipperary in Ireland, aged and softened by centuries. We are in bourbon country in Bourbon County, but you might just as easily imagine a potheen still in the shed of the modest homes of the workers in this remote part of Kentucky.
With a boundary wall stretching 12 miles and a land area of over 1,400 acres, it is easy to become lost in the hills and dales here, in what would be entirely inadequately described as a farm. This is an estate and John Sikura has become its steward and custodian. He has taken on this responsibility with relish. In Europe, even much smaller estates might have come with a title – Lord of the Manor, Earl of Something. Without any intention of offending the aristocracy, perhaps the most fitting ennoblement of John’s role at Hill ‘n’ Dale would be ‘Seigneur’. The core operation – the stud and breeding farm – has been completely reworked, old eyesore fences torn down, paddocks shaped into the land rather than on top of it. There are still hundreds of acres of untamed forest land, magnificent oaks and huge maples. Scores of deer roam and swans swim on the lakes, while foxes and coyotes control the rodent population. There is rarely the sound of a combustion engine and, when one paddock is being mowed, the mares and foals will be moved to a part of the estate where all you can hear is the wind. It is a very tranquil and calming place – and it is magical.
John and his family are at home here now but, like most things in his professional life, he does not allow sentimentality to rule. He bristles if somebody suggests that Hill ‘n’ Dale is off the beaten track. “It might add 40 minutes to a round-trip to breed your mare here, but then you have to wait eleven months to see the foal,” he says. “If I have the right stallions here and you are considering breeding to one of them, an extra hour should not be the influencing factor in your decision.”
In his life and business philosophies, John makes lightning-fast decisions but bases them on plans for the long haul. The complex transfer of his thoroughbred operation from one farm to the other was accomplished in months, rather than years. Moving his wife Angie from just outside the city of Lexington to the edge of Bourbon County took some diplomatic handling, but the family has come to respect John’s judgment and have settled willingly and comfortably into Xalapa’s principal residence.
John and Angie’s three boys, Jes, Jackson and Jayden, are all at college, but return eagerly to the splendour of their new address. John hopes his children, any one or all of them, will take on the stewardship of Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa when the time comes, but, as a postscript, he reminds me they will have to prove to be smart enough and willing to take on the responsibility. No silver spoons here. “One day, there might be a new owner of one of the world’s most beautiful farms,” he says. “Who knows what the future holds?”
He has been in several successful business partnerships which no longer exist. It is not that easy to stay close to him. “You express yourself through your business and most of these partnerships did not break up acrimoniously,” he explains. “They served their original purpose and they ended. I would pick up the phone and willingly put more partnerships together, often with the same people. You can’t argue with the marketplace and that, not friendships, determines success or failure.”
The only sentimentality he allows himself is a look back to the glamour and heritage of horse racing and to the hope that Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa and the name Sikura might someday earn some of that same respect. He mentions the thoroughbred operations of such stalwarts as the Whitneys, the Mellons, the Phippses, the Galbreaths and, of course, Calumet. “They made the game in America: they developed all the great families right here that we venerate today,” he reflects. “I am so happy to see the Breeders’ Cup back at Keeneland because it showcases us to a world-wide audience. It’s a beautiful spectacle and so much more relevant here than a couple of days in a big city with no horse heritage. When Breeders’ Cup was considering Lexington as the host town for the location for its 2015 event, I was one of the loudest voices, other than the locals, supporting their choice.”
Could John Sikura one day have his own chapter in “Famous Horsemen of the 21st Century?” When I ask him to name his hero of the horse world, with little hesitation he falls back on his Canadian roots and comes up with hometown hero E. P. Taylor.
“Here’s one man whose vision and determination changed horse racing and breeding in Canada from obscurity to an industry of national pride,” Sikura explains. “He was responsible for building the present-day Woodbine and founded the Jockey Club of Canada. For his Windfields Farm, he brought stallions from the US and Europe into Canada. He led all North American breeders 19 times… Northern Dancer, Nijinsky, Viceregal, the list goes on and on. There’s never been another like him.”
One of John Sikura’s oldest friends and partners in the horse business is the amiable Canadian Ted Burnett, who has run with John from his teenage years on some pretty exciting journeys. There is nobody out there except Ted whom I would rely on to add insight to the man’s qualities and personality. Here’s Ted’s take: “John is an intense person with a touch of genius and a quick wit. He has an uncanny ability to detect talent, quality and opportunity. Once he senses an opportunity, he has an insatiable determination to convert opportunity to success. When John Sikura smells a deal, he has the ability to execute and close, and in my opinion he has the best nose in the business.”
John certainly has a nose for a pedigree. Take his star stallion at Xalapa, Curlin. He is a son of Canadian super-sire Smart Strike, half-brother to Canadian Triple Crown winner Dance Smartly. He is out of a mare by Deputy Minister, Horse of the Year in Canada, son of Viceregent, in turn a son of Canada’s immortal Northern Dancer. It might have been pre-ordained that John Sikura and Curlin’s roads to fame would eventually cross at Hill ‘n’ Dale at Xalapa, a fitting home for a champion.
You can take the man out of Canada, but you can’t take Canada out of the man.