Love for horses turns into ‘7/24 business’

La Jolla real estate investor Donald L. Cohn is living out a dream breeding, training and racing thoroughbred horses from his 225-acre ranch, Ballena Vista Farm off of Old Julian Highway in Ramona.

Cohn’s dream, however, nearly turned into a nightmare when the Witch Creek wildfire broke out near his horse farm last October.

“The fire started about two miles from the property,” Cohn said. “The wind was doing 60 to 70 mph blowing in our direction. I was there about an hour after it started. We were forced to evacuate about 8:30 that night by the sheriff. Some very important horses were there. In one of our stalls was Brother Derrick, who was the Kentucky Derby favorite that year.

“It was pretty traumatic to have to evacuate and leave those horses there. Thank God the wind blew in the right direction for us. We lost our secondary home, all the contents, a few of our minor buildings, a hay barn and the roof of our reservoir. On the plus side, all of the animals were saved and the major structures weren’t damaged. We didn’t lose any operational time.”

So Cohn’s dream, the dream of every thoroughbred horse owner, to someday have one of his charges compete in horse racing’s Triple Crown, continues. “I’ll settle for one piece of the Triple Crown,” said Cohn with a gleam in his eye, “I’m not greedy.”

Cohn grew up with horses as a youngster in Northern California and worked for a racetrack up there. “I took a hiatus for many years until I could afford it,” he said of breaking into the thoroughbred breeding business. “Then I got back into it in the early ‘80s.”

Cohn’s horse ranch is sort of the icing on his long and successful career in real estate development. “I bought it as raw land in 1982,” said Cohn of his pride-and-joy horse ranch. “We opened the farm about 10 years later. I’ve been building it for the last 25 years.”

Cohn has between 200 and 300 horses, most of them not his, on his ranch. “I’ve got about 30, 35 people on the payroll, it’s a significant business,” he said. “We operate a commercial, thoroughbred breeding business training 2-year-olds, and have a facility for injured racehorses, which we do a lot of work with.”

Cohn owns three major thoroughbred stallions, including Deputy Commander, a racehorse currently ranked number two in California.

Being in the winner’s circle at a big time thoroughbred horserace is what an owner like Cohn lives for. He said the experience, both winning and losing a big race, is hard to describe. “It’s a rush when your horse wins a race,” Cohn said. “It can lift you two feet off the ground - or it can put you into a funk for a few days afterwards.”

How do you break into the horse breeding and racing business?

“Beats the hell out of me,” said Cohn, “You just do it.”

Cohn said you start with the basics. You obtain a horse that has fared well at the racetrack, one that has a good body, a good confirmation. “It’s very difficult to find these horses,” he added. “The three stallions we own on the farm that belong to us I purchased in Kentucky.”

Kentucky, acknowledged Cohn, is the “Mecca of the thoroughbred world.” Unlike Kentucky, which has ideal conditions for horse breeding, Southern California is a much more difficult place to do business. “It’s much more difficult when you’ve got to go down 1,000 feet to find water,” Cohn pointed out.

Testament to the difficulty of operating a successful horse breeding farm, there are only a handful of thoroughbred farms left in the state of California that remain active today.

There is a circuit in Southern California that horse owners/breeders like Cohn race, which includes the Del Mar Racetrack in San Diego, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, and, to a lesser extent, the Theraplex in Pomona. “You kind of ping-pong back and forth through the year,” said Cohn about the racing circuit. “They (tracks) never run concurrently.”

At Ballena Vista Farm, Cohn has a quarter-mile track, as well as the facilities for the early breaking and schooling of racehorses. They prepare horses there to go to a full-on training facility to complete their racing “apprenticeship.”

“You really need a five-eighths to a mile racetrack for full training horses,” said Cohn. “You go up to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park and turn them over to a trainer who’s resident in one of those.”

“The more you’re in it - the less you know,” said Cohn of his experience in the horseracing and breeding business.

In his 40-year career in San Diego, Cohn has handled start-up financing for the technology world. Back in the ‘80s, he started Dataquick Information Systems, the first online real estate information system in the United States.

But Cohn’s labor of love remains his horse farm. “It’s a 7/24 business,” he noted, adding it’s a different kind of business than one might expect. “It’s a people business,” said Cohn. “Our reputation is built on people.”

What many people don’t realize is that thoroughbred horses, like their human counterparts, are star athletes. They’re also subject to the same problems, mainly injuries, incurred while practicing for, and participating in, their sport.

“Generally, horses need attention at the worst time of the night, 1 to 4 a.m. in the morning,” said Cohn. “They generally don’t do it (have health issues) to your convenience.”

To race at Del Mar, said Cohn, your horse has to be a registered thoroughbred with proven racing ability, and you have to have a trainer willing to take them on and put them in their stable. An owner/breeder pays a trainer a fee for his work in preparing the racehorse. Then you have to carefully select the races and the jockeys.

Right now, Cohn is uncertain if he’ll have a horse ready to race at Del Mar this summer. “I’ve got three or four in training,” he said, “some that are recovering from various health issues. So it’s getting to look real questionable this season if I’m going to have anything for Del Mar. I hope so.”

What advice does Cohn have for other horse fanciers who might be thinking about breaking into the thoroughbred business?

“Have a lot of patience,” he said. “I always say, ‘Once you start one of these farms, it’s like taking your car back to Hertz with the big sign that says, Don’t back up. Severe tire damage.’ Once you start one of these farms - you’re in.”