photo by John Funkhouser '04
by Cynthia L. McVey
Founded in 1939, O'Sullivan Farms in Charles Town, W.Va., is the oldest and largest thoroughbred breeding farm in the state. Managed by John Funkhouser '04, it is also what Thoroughbred Times has referred to as "a prototype for a family-owned Thoroughbred breeding farm."
John Funkhouser '04
"It really wouldn't work without all of us," says John of the team effort with his parents and brother. While John and his father, Randy, work on the breeding program from genetic profiles to birthing and raising the horses, John's mother, Clissy, and his brother, Joe, work on the administrative side. His mother is a CPA who manages the books. Joe is a lawyer who also serves as the farm's racing manager.
The venture was started by John's great grandfather, R. J. Funkhouser, who made his money during the Great Depression as an industrialist, purchasing a package of three companies from J.P. Morgan: Nestlé Chocolate, Pond's cosmetics and the O'Sullivan Rubber Company, after which the farm is named. The profit from these ventures funded an early retirement and an opportunity to, as his grandson puts it, "dabble" in horse breeding.
When John's grandmother, Ruth, took the reins, the dabbling ended and O'Sullivan Farms began to build its program and its reputation in earnest. She was joined by her son, Raymond J. "Randy" Funkhouser II, and their partnership changed the face of the horse racing industry through the creation of the West Virginia Thoroughbred Development Fund and the West Virginia Breeders Classics.
"As a result of their collaboration, West Virginia has one of the top three breeders programs in the country," explains John, who was raised on the farm and returned after graduation from Hobart to join his grandmother and parents.
The farm saw its turning point that same year, when the family arranged for three of the best stallions in Virginia to stand there.
"Once we did that, everyone wanted to ship their mares to us. We really expanded over the next two years significantly and had to build two new barns. West Virginia never saw the likes of the stallions we had here," explains John.
Among them was "Black Tie Affair," who earned United States Horse of the Year in 1991 along with winning the Breeders' Cup Classic that year at Churchill Downs. "We were lucky enough to stand him here starting in 2005 and for a number of years before he was pensioned," he says.
O'Sullivan Farms has a number of different revenue streams. Through the breeding program run by John and his father, people send their mares to be impregnated. Once they are, they are returned home for the year and sent back to O'Sullivan in time to be foaled out. On average, they foal out 70 to 100 mares a year—most of them in the middle of the night.
"For some reason, most are at night or early in the morning," laughs John, noting he has recently become engaged and his fiancé joins him in the nightly ritual and will soon take over some additional business duties.
The farm also breeds its own mares then sells all but two or three that it keeps to race. Among the most successful of its own racers was "Confucius Say," one of West Virginia's only millionaires and the winner of the 2001, 2002 and 2007 editions of the West Virginia's Breeders' Classic Stakes.
"We bred, trained and raced him and we were able to expand the farm because of him," says Funkhouser, noting there is now a stakes race named for Confucius Say. "There's nothing more exciting than watching your horse, the baby you raised, come across the finish line first. It's the culmination of all of our efforts."