The following article by Doug McCoy appeared on Bloodhorse.com on Dec. 11, 2016
At just 36 years of age, Jonathan Thomas’ life has gone full circle.
Thomas grew up in Virginia horse country, living on the famed Rokeby Farm of Paul Mellon. When he went to the track he wound up spending time with Christophe Clement, J.J. Pletcher, and Todd Pletcher. Working alongside those three sharp horsemen provided Thomas a priceless education.
In his six years with the younger Pletcher, Thomas travelled the world and was at the side of some of the game’s biggest stars, sharing in some history-making moments. But while being top assistant to one of racing’s biggest names was an experience Thomas cherishes, the young horseman found his most fulfilling times on the farm, working and developing young horses. Perhaps that initial time at Rokeby had shaped him.
As it turned out, Thomas would find a home at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla. that allows him that farm time as well as continued racetrack work.
“I’ve always been happiest working with the youngsters—the babies,” Thomas said by phone from his Bridlewood Farm headquarters. “There’s something about taking a yearling and starting from scratch, and watching and working with them as they learn, grow, and develop that’s so fulfilling. I can hardly describe it.”
Thomas found that dream job in late 2013, when John Malone purchased Bridlewood. The 800-acre farm was owned for many years by Arthur I. Appleton, one of Florida’s most prominent breeders. Malone, 75, is one of the country’s wealthiest individuals at No. 61 on the Forbes list, and is chairman of Liberty Media.
According to Forbes, he also is the country’s largest landowner, with holdings in excess of 2 million acres. A year after buying Bridlewood, Malone purchased Ballylinch Stud in Ireland.
Irish by heritage, Malone had a long connection with horses through wife Leslie, who has been active in equestrian sports and dressage. He was quoted shortly after his purchase of Bridlewood as saying, “Leslie loves horses and I love beautiful land. When I saw Bridlewood, I fell in love with the property.”
Thomas said one of Malone’s top goals is to rebuild the Bridlewood racing stable.
“Mr. Malone is committed to returning the Bridlewood name to a position of prominence in the business and I was fortunate enough to be selected to be their trainer,” Thomas said. “Our philosophy is a bit more along the European lines in terms of how we develop and manage our horses. We plan on keeping our runners on the farm and shipping them to the tracks to race rather than keeping a large string on the grounds at tracks for long periods.”
Malone has been sparing little expense building his broodmare band. He spent $3.5 million at the 2016 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November sale for Baffled, an 11-year-old stakes producer in foal to Tapit. Baffled, by Distorted Humor, is the dam of 2014 Besilu Stable Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Constitution (by Tapit), group II winner Boynton (by More Than Ready), and grade III winner Jacaranda (by Congrats).
In 2014 at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale, Malone purchased a Tapit weanling for $3 million, a record price for a weanling at a North American sale, and one of four seven-figure purchases by Bridlewood at that sale—the other three were broodmares. The record weanling, named Serena’s Harmony, has not yet raced.
While Malone is Thomas’ main patron, as a trainer he is also in charge of the breaking and development of nearly 200 horses at the farm for more than 30 different owners. Among those receiving early training under Thomas at Bridlewood were graded stakes winners Carina Mia and Destin. Thomas also helped two-time grade I winner Verrazano get his start during his time with J.J. Pletcher.
George Issacs is Bridlewood’s general manager while Thomas oversees the training division. He sends the “grads” on to their trainers at the track once he feels they are prepared to take the next step.
“Most of the clients of Chad Brown and Todd (Pletcher) have their babies sent to us to be broke,” Thomas said. “It’s really gratifying to work with a young horse, see that horse develop, and grow, then watch them do well on the big stage once they’ve left here. There’s no feeling quite like it.”
On the track, Thomas recently saddled a pair of 3-year-old winners on the Nov. 30 Tampa Bay Downs card, when he captured maiden special weight races with Robert and Lawana Low’s More Than Kisses and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners’ first-time starter Big Papi. He appreciates that Bridlewood allows him to train at the farm and saddle some horses at the track.
“I have an owner who is going first-class at every step, building a racing operation I’m confident will be one of the best in the business,” Thomas said. “He also gives me a lot of freedom to be sort of a private/public trainer. We’re going to raise and sell commercially, and will also be keeping some horses to race. And as time goes by, I expect we’ll be active buying some more weanlings and yearlings ourselves.
“That’s where I hope some of what I learned from Todd will help because he’s one of the shrewdest people I’ve been around when it comes to assessing babies. He’s like a general manager of a sports team. He knows a potential top draft pick when he sees one. I think having the skills to spot and purchase the right babies, then have the horsemanship to develop those young horses, makes you a complete horseman.”