A Horse’s Tale

Jen Goddard ’94 and her 16-year-old horse, Nixon.
Photo: Tom Kates

A Horse’s Tale

One of the boarder horses at Levaland Farm.

One of the boarder horses at Levaland Farm.
Photo: Tom Kates

Ask Jen Goddard when she became interested in horses, and she’ll reply, “In the womb, I think.” Although she laughs when she says it, she’s not kidding. Her father had to drag her off a pony ride kicking and screaming at 1½. Growing up, Goddard read every horse-related book she could get her hands on and tied as many school assignments to horses as possible, choosing horse anatomy as the topic for her science projects and horse racing for statistics.

With four girls to care for, though, her parents couldn’t afford lessons. So Goddard was 14 before she was able to ride with any regularity, taking a job at a local horse farm cleaning stalls, leading trail rides, or doing whatever in exchange for access to the animals she loves.

Goddard rides her other horse, Sterling, as her dog, Trooper, tags along.

Goddard rides her other horse, Sterling, as her dog, Trooper, tags along. Below, with three barns on site, Goddard uses the attic of this one to store hay.
Photos: Tom Kates

With three barns on site, Goddard uses the attic of this one to store hay.

On the farm, she also learned of her ability to calm and work with difficult horses, even when others failed. A black-and-white pony named Patches that Goddard occasionally rode in her free time clued her in. “I thought she was the best little pony in the world,” says Goddard. Then one day a girl leased the pony and wanted a ride. Patches refused. When anyone approached the pony with a saddle, she pinned back her ears and kicked. So the farm’s owner asked Goddard to try. A little fearful, she took the saddle and walked up to Patches. “She looked at me and her ears popped up, and she nickered and moved over, like, oh, if you’re going to ride me, that’s OK. I knew I must be doing something right with her.”

Goddard’s first horse, an appaloosa mare named Apache, was a “gift” from the farm’s owner. Everyone was afraid of the horse. Goddard, however, felt bad for her and slowly worked with the animal until she could ride her. “There were decisions about her training that I later found out were right, but at the time I was just making innate decisions,” says Goddard, who went on to learn all she could about what is called natural horsemanship, which entails training horses with sympathetic methods rather than force and tools. “It’s about understanding how they think and working with them.”

Goddard learned another valuable lesson at that farm. A couple of years after she began working there, the farm went under. “At 15 years old, I saw a lady who knows a heck of a lot about horses but has no education whatsoever on how to run a business,” she says. “No matter what you get into, you still need to know how to run it. And that opened my eyes, because at the time I was a really good writer, and I thought I wanted to major in English. But I decided I needed to get a business degree.”

Upon graduating from Babson, Goddard didn’t immediately think, “I should buy a farm.” She didn’t have the money. So she worked in different finance-related jobs, was married, had a child, and, of course, bought a horse (Nixon)—not necessarily in that order. Then in 2005, she learned that she would lose her job but receive a year-and-a-half’s notice along with the promise of a bonus for staying until the office closed. Using the time to explore her options, she and her husband bought Levaland Farm (Middleboro, Mass.), where she helps start young horses, trains horses with behavioral problems, and offers boarding services. She’s never looked back.

The work is hard. Besides cleaning stalls and maintaining the farm, training unruly horses is physical and, at times, dangerous. Goddard manages a staff of nine and boards 27 horses, whose owners present their own challenges. She also handles the farm’s finances, legal issues, and marketing when necessary (although most of her business is by referral).

The payoff: Levaland Farm makes a profit—not a large one, but a profit nonetheless, which Goddard says is no easy feat in her business. And all day long Goddard gets to be around—and talk about—the animals she loves so dearly. “When I was little,” she says, “I watched The Black Stallion and thought that’s going to be me. I’m going to win over the wild horse just because it knows I love it.” Turns out she was right.

Matt Gatsas ’99 at the Belmont Park racetrack in New York, where he boards many of Sovereign Stable’s horses.

Matt Gatsas ’99 at the Belmont Park racetrack in New York, where he boards many of Sovereign Stable’s horses.
Photo: Sharon Castro

Matt Gatsas doesn’t ride horses. He never wanted to. But he loves the animals, their grace and beauty. He grew up watching Thoroughbreds, with their majestic lines and spirited dispositions, race at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. When he was young, his family would pack a lunch and go for an outing at the track. As Gatsas grew older, he continued to visit with his father and uncle. “Not enough people know about horse racing,” he says. “It’s beautiful. It’s an event.”

The idea of owning a Thoroughbred never crossed Gatsas’ mind. The expensive hobby seemed out of reach until his father and uncle sold their family business and found themselves with some discretionary funds. Gatsas was a junior at Babson majoring in investments at the time. “My dad and uncle bought a few racehorses,” he says, “and one was really good.” Gander was his name, and as friends watched the horse succeed (Gander earned $1,824,011 during his seven-season career), they asked Gatsas’ father and uncle if they could buy a share of the next horse.

Thoroughbreds at Belmont Park on their way to and from their morning workouts.

Thoroughbreds at Belmont Park on their way to and from their morning workouts. Below, Gatsas and his trainer, John Terranova.
Photos: Sharon Castro

Gatsas and his trainer, John Terranova.

Those requests got Gatsas thinking. After graduating from Babson, he had taken a position as an assistant coach of football at Saint Anselm College. Gatsas enjoyed his job, but the excitement around Gander spurred him to look at different options for buying Thoroughbreds. “The nature of the business is not profitable,” he says. “I’m going back to a saying I heard while at Babson: Don’t invest in anything that eats while you sleep. It’s a bad investment. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but with my father and uncle’s success and people asking, we developed the strategy for Sovereign Stable.”

Launched in 2001, Sovereign Stable (Manchester, N.H.) sets up partnerships for owning Thoroughbreds. The company acquires the horses, puts together a limited liability company, and then people buy a share of the LLC. Thirty years ago, such an arrangement was looked down on in the racing world, says Gatsas. “Thoroughbred racing was the sport of kings,” he says. “But everybody wanted to get involved, and now partnerships are becoming more accepted and almost the only way to go because of the increased price of horses and the cost of their daily upkeep.”

Over the years, Sovereign Stable has purchased and sold close to 150 Thoroughbreds. Gatsas says they’ve experienced some successes: One horse in particular named Negligee won a $500,000 race and later was sold for $625,000. “There are few thrills in this world more exciting than when your horse crosses the finish line first,” says Gatsas.

Just as quickly, though, Gatsas will talk about the losing nature of the hobby. He calls the partial owners “partners,” saying horse racing is not an investment. Rather, he actually calls it a losing proposition. “Very few horses make money,” he says. “Somewhere around 18 percent of owners make money. I’ll say to people if you’re trying to make money, put it in your own business. You’ll do better there.”

Being wealthy won’t increase your odds of winning either, an equalizer in which Gatsas takes some pleasure. The highest amount paid for a Thoroughbred at public auction was $16 million in 2006 for a horse named The Green Monkey. After three races, however, and with no wins, the horse retired to stud due to injuries. I’ll Have Another, the horse that won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes this year, was bought for $35,000. “The one with the most riches doesn’t always get the best horse,” says Gatsas. “There’s a lot of luck involved.”

Most of the partners in Sovereign Stable come in understanding this and join for a love of racing and of the animals. Partners can visit horses during their workouts and meet the trainers and jockeys. On race days, they gain access to the stables, paddock, and, if they’re lucky, the winner’s circle. Despite business obligations, Gatsas still tries to go to the races as much as possible. “Horse racing is a grown-ups’ Disney World,” says Gatsas. “If you want to have fun, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have.”