It was her ability to kill a deer that likely landed Laura Young her first job at Southwind Farms.
|Photo by Mark Hall|
|Laura Young, her husband, Chris Pazdan, and son C.J. have dedicated themselves to managing New Jersey's Southwind Farm|
In 1992, Young, responding to an ad placed by farm manager Dominick Santarelli, drove up the winding Southwind driveway after a fledgling career in caretaking and success as a barrel racer. She had barely heard of this breed called the “Standardbred,” but she had a natural way with animals of all kinds.
An avid hunter since childhood, Young was reluctant to put on her application that her hobbies were hunting and fishing, but did so when encouraged by her mother to represent herself openly and honestly.
|Photo courtesy of Laura Young|
|Young feeds her family with the game that she hunts and processes herself|
Santarelli, however, was a fellow hunter, and he knew a kindred spirit when he saw one. He quickly hired her to muck stalls and provide general labor help.
It proved to be quite a hire.
Eighteen years later, it is now Young who manages the livestock that is Southwind and has helped the farm become one of the premier breeding facilities in racing. She has managed stallions such as Artsplace, Valley Victory, Muscle Hill and Chocolatier; she has cared for some of the breed’s best broodmare bloodlines and helped them raise the foals that may become the champions of tomorrow.
And in the midst of it all, she has married, and borne a son while battling cancer, proving that for the best of farm managers, there is no such thing as a job.
|Photo by Mark Hall|
|Artsplace is one of Laura Young's favorite sires with which she worked.|
“Farm management is a lifestyle,” she said. “My husband and I look at the facility through farmers’ eyes, as if it was our own. When you hold something so dear to your heart like we do with Southwind, it just naturally makes you good at running the facility.”
Strolling through the stallion barn of Southwind Farm, covering the mere yards that separate 2005 freshman trotting champion Chocolatier and 2009 Horse of the Year Muscle Hill, Young is clearly at home. It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago she didn’t even know what the term “Standardbred” meant.
That becomes more understandable when she explains that her only equine experiences were isolated to barrel racing, a sport at which she had excelled.
|Photo by Mark Hall|
|Young and her husband were married at Southwind in 2008, and now work together at the farm.|
“All I knew were Quarter Horses and Appaloosas,” she said with a smile. “The only thing I noticed about Standardbreds was that they were all bay. I was like, ‘There are no colors here!’
“And everybody would talk about the Meadowlands. I had this picture in my head that the Meadowlands was like this land of moss and meadows. I didn’t know it was a racetrack. I had no clue. Gradually I figured out that there was a lot more to [this business] than just a bunch of horses hanging out in the pasture.”
Young could be excused her ignorance, having grown up in Trenton, N.J.’s capitol and one of its toughest cities, as the daughter of a taxidermist and a gunsmith. But she quickly learned her new trade—and she almost just as quickly moved up success’ ladder.
She soon went from stall mucking to equine care, and by decade’s end knew the farm as well as anyone. It proved fortuitous.
One early February morning in 1999, Santarelli did not come into work, and when Young found him, he had suffered a debilitating stroke. With the farm rudderless after losing its leader, Young did the only thing she could—she took over.
“I knew the process; I knew what needed to be done, and I just kind of took the initiative,” she said. “I took over all the paperwork and everything and just kept things running. He was in and out of the hospital that whole breeding season.”
|Photo by Mark Hall|
|Laura Young attending to Muscle Hill in the stud barn|
Southwind went with a new farm manager, as it headed into the new century, but by 2003 he was moving on. That was when the Skolnick family, owners of Southwind, came to Young and said, “You’ve been here forever. Do you want to do it?”
“We were so enamored with Laura’s passion and determination for the industry that we decided to become unconventional,” said Alan Skolnick. “In those days, it was not the usual practice for a woman to become a farm manager in the equine industry. It was even more unconventional for someone who had recently emerged from their teenage years! But we said, ‘She can do the job, and we are going to extend ourselves.’ We have never regretted it.”
She admitted the challenge was at first intimidating.
“I think the freakiest part was coming into Dominick’s office,” she said. “Everything out there I was very comfortable with, but coming in and just dealing with the people was what I really needed experience with--communication.”
She admitted it was not, at first easy. Try as she might to develop relationships, customers persisted in pointing their questions to Skolnick instead of his new manager—but he would bounce them right back.
“People know who I am now--they know the responses they’re going to get from me,” she said. “I’m not just some kid, some girl in the office that knows how to type. And I’m going to deal with them just like a man would.”
|Photo by Mark Hall|
|Without a full-time veterinarian on staff, Young does much of the semen collecting, analyzing and shipping herself.|
One thing that Young did know how to do from her earliest days was seek out the knowledge she needed. She immersed herself in equine science courses at several different colleges, on topics such as equine breeding management, equine behavior, artificial breeding, foaling, nutrition, crop and agricultural management—even acupuncture. She trained in palpation and ultrasounding mares, as well, literally having had her hand in everything.
She soon had help.
Just two years after taking the farm’s reins, Young took nearly as big a leap of faith and put her photo and profile up on the Internet dating service Match.com. Lacking any straight profile images, she opted for the one that best represented who she is—she posted a photo of herself with a recent deer kill.
Chris Pazdan, also a hunter, could not resist—and became both Young’s partner and an integral part of the farm and its success.
“We grow our own hay and straw, and my husband does all that,” said Young. “He was farming some of the lands in the area. Mr. Skolnick said, ‘I wouldn’t mind trying to grow our own hay,’ because it’s very expensive to have it trucked in here. Even after lay out the initial stint, as far as buying the bailer and feed and fertilizer, in the first year was $50,000.”
“She is environmentally passionate, and nature and large animals are something she has always been interested in,” added Skolnick.
“When you have that kind of passion, you always succeed. She works at her trade 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It does not matter if it’s a holiday, or if it’s 2 a.m. or 2 p.m. If something has to be done, if it is something that is helpful or affects the health of her animals, she is there personally.”
But what Southwind grows best, without question, is horses. In addition to standing some of the world’s best Standardbred stallions, Young will oversee the breeding of more than 300 mares in a single breeding season, and last year maintained a 90 percent conception rate. Among the top mares on the grounds are Tsunami Hanover, dam of $2 million winner Southwind Tempo, $500,000 winner Southwind Tabor and $300,000 winner Hula’s Z Tam; and Articulate Hanover, dam of $700,000 winner Southwind Allaire and $400,000 winner Ariane Du Haras.
In 2009, Articulate Hanover was also responsible for the farm’s sales topper, as her daughter, Southwind Agnes, combined with Chocolatier to produce the filly Southwind Amiga, a $180,000 purchase at the Lexington Selected Sale.
Young is hoping for similar success at next month’s sale, but those moments in the ring are, of course, just the culmination of long days, weeks and months worth of work for Young. Southwind operates without a staff veterinarian, so it is Young who starts each breeding day at 6 a.m., lining up all the mares that need to be checked and palpated that day.
She and a trio of vet techs handle all their own ultrasounds, and she oversees all collections and distributions from the stallions.
“It’s a huge expense to have a veterinarian on staff,” she admitted. “Just having one come in on a daily basis to check mares, we were spending at least $100,000 a year. Mr. Skolnick said, ‘Hey, what if we bought an ultrasound machine? Do you think you could learn how to do it?’ I said, ‘Sure.’
“Everything we can possibly do where we don’t have to have a vet we do it, and it saves us money, but we know our limitations, too.”
And those limitations are, unfortunately, a part of any life filled with animals. For Young, her greatest heartache on the job came Oct. 30, 2006, when Artsplace succumbed to the laminitis from which he had been suffering for two months.
“When we loaded him on that trailer to take him to the New Bolton Center in September, I knew he wasn’t coming back,” said Young. “It’s just something you know. Everybody who could fit in the truck went with him, and we pretty much said our goodbyes at that point.”
And health issues were just beginning to have a negative impact on Young’s life—in the worst--and best--of ways.
Just months after Artsplace’s death, a routine gynecological exam revealed Young was suffering from cervical cancer, and she was soon started on chemotherapy drugs. Weeks later, however, she found out she was pregnant.
“I was like, ‘Yay! Now what?’” Young recalled with a laugh. “They told me it was my choice if I wanted to maintain the pregnancy. I was considered high-risk, but I said, ‘I’m going to maintain this pregnancy and do what I have to do.’”
With all cancer treatments stopped, Young went monthly for exams—and she continued to work every day at Southwind, and admitted that breeding and foaling season that year had a different meaning to her. She collected Chocolatier until May and then handed off duties to her staff. Christopher Jonathan Pazdan, known as C.J., was born on Oct. 13.
Young resumed cancer treatments in March 2008, and today remains in remission.
Just two months after her treatment, she began the next stage in her life when she and Pazdan married at Southwind, right in front of the main barn.
“I would not have dreamed of having it anywhere else but here,” said Young. “Southwind is our home, and being able to experience a beautiful place like this is something we wanted our family and friends to be a part of--especially on our wedding day.
“Our son is now almost 3, and he is so fortunate to be able to grow up here. I hope he has an interest in horses but if he does not I won’t be disappointed. He will learn morals and values that other children lack in a society where it is needed more than ever. He is a part of our team here at Southwind. Everyone lights up when they see him. We have a family atmosphere here, and he really tops it off.”
“Laura does not work for our family,” Skolnick agreed simply. “She has become part of our family.”
C.J. is also part of another Young/Pazdan tradition—that which hunts for the family’s food in the form of large and small game, and welcomes the stuffed and mounted mementos from those hunts into their home.
For Young, who also handles all the butchering and processing of the meat they harvest, hunting provides more than a food source. It is part of the fabric of her being, a skill and lifestyle that help make up who she is.
“I have been hunting since I was in my mom’s belly,” she said. “I love just being out there in a tree. There is no peace like sitting there, and then all of a sudden you’re covered in snow, and you see a deer coming through the woods. Or even if you don’t see any deer; you just see the birds or whatever, and it’s so peaceful, so relaxing, and it puts you into nature itself.
“I really believe it’s helped me raise these horses a lot better. I can sense when these deer are there, and I can sense what they’re going to do next. It’s like that with the horses, too.”
As far as what’s next for Young, she said she never stops trying to be better at what she does and helping Southwind do the same. The farm’s next stallion on the horizon is freshman champion Sportswriter, one of the last sons of Artsplace. Young’s professional goals include reaching a 100-percent conception rate and continuing to attract the industry’s top stallions, while her personal goal is to give the farm’s foals the best foundation possible to help ensure they make it on the racetrack.
Indeed, if Young’s passion for what she does equated directly to success, there is no question every foal raised by Southwind would have the potential to be a champion.
“My husband and I like to play the lottery, and we always say that if we ever won, we would not tell anyone and just keep working for Southwind, because we love it so much,” she said. “Who knows--maybe we already did win.”
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