We the People, born at Henley Farms in Scott County, is among the favorites to win the Belmont Stakes June 11. We the People is the first foal born at Henley Farms, an 80-acre thoroughbred farm on Newtown Pike with eight broodmares.

Jana Barbe, who owns the farm with her husband Roy, wasn’t planning to breed horses when they bought the farm. The Barbes, who are from Chicago, were mainly looking for a place to retire many of the show horses they enjoyed riding.

“My husband and I had always talked about buying a small farm in Kentucky,” Barbe said.

The 2008 recession changed the Barbes’ plans.

“The horse industry is built on disposable income, so a lot of farms were on the market at favorable prices, and our broker called one day and said: ‘you are going to love this,’” she said.

Roy Barbe was certain that they were going to buy the farm, but Jana was incredulous.

“I said: ‘you are out of your mind, we were going to buy 10 acres, we live in the city of Chicago, we know nothing, we do nothing, this farm comes with a tractor, we can’t do this,’” she said.

Roy held firm.

 “This is the dream,” he said.

The Barbes closed on the farm on April 30, 2012, which was special to Jana Barbe because it was two years to the day after they had to put down her “horse of a lifetime,” Henley, for whom the farm is named. 

The Barbes found all but one of their old show horses and brought them to the farm: “we brought all the old men back,” said Barbe. They still have their daughter’s first pony, who is now 31 years old, living on the farm.

But Henley Farms soon became more than a retirement home. The Barbes hired a farm manager, Marilyn Little, whose father, Marvin Little Jr. was “an icon among horse breeders. . . and had a very successful thoroughbred breeding career.” 

Eventually, the older Little asked the Barbes if they wanted to invest in a broodmare. Jana Barbe saw them accidentally getting deeper into the horse business as part of the allure of the area: “that’s the thing about being in Kentucky, you dip a toe in, and you think ‘it’s just a toe, it won’t consume me,’ and then maybe you dip your whole leg in, and we wound up investing in a couple of broodmares.” Those first experiences were positive: “we enjoyed the experience, particularly because they kindly let us participate in foaling and let me play with the babies.”

Marvin Little Jr. died in 2017, but he had given the Barbes the confidence to go into breeding themselves.

“We said ‘we could do this on our own, we have the farm, and we have empty paddocks and empty stalls,’” said Jana. The operation began with three broodmares. The first broodmare they bought, Letchworth, was the mother of We the People, who is Henley Farm’s first foal. Henley Farm sold We the People as a weanling to a partnership that included the Versailles-based WinStar Farm.

In some ways, the Barbes were surprised by the immediate success.

“Nobody could possibly anticipate that the first foal that you ever have for your business would turn out to be a graded stakes winner and running in the Belmont, but here we are,” Jana Barbe said.

We the People won the Grade 3 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on May 14, and will run the Belmont Stakes on June 11. The Barbes are not taking the success for granted.

“It’s like a lightning strike, people can be in this business their whole career and not run in a Triple Crown race, so we understand how blessed we are, how unusual this is,” she said.

Despite the shock of the quick success, We the People being an impressive horse came as no surprise.

“He was formidable at birth. . . he came out with an attitude, he came out strong-willed.” Barbe said. The horse’s attitude sometimes made him hard to manage: “When we were doing his sales prep, he couldn’t walk behind another horse, he had to be in the front. . . We The People was very aggressive.”

Henley Farms has taken an unusual route to having a Belmont Stakes favorite, but Jana Barbe says Kentucky keeps drawing you into the horse business.

“Kentucky is very seductive,” she said.

The Barbes will miss being at the Belmont Stakes to attend their daughter’s graduation with a MBA from Northwestern University, but Roy Barbe is confident they will be at the next one. Letchworth had a colt with 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming in 2020, and Barbe expects to see him there.

 

Peter Wilson can be reached at pwilson@news-graphic.com.

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