An Enduring Partnership

August 21, 2020

Spring into action, love, faith and communication are critical components in couple’s success.

A chance meeting led to a lifetime commitment.

For Mason Springs’ Marcus and Crystal Ryan, their sojourns until the time they met were very different, but fate would have them come together on hallowed ground in the Thoroughbred industry, Saratoga, N.Y.

However, their paths were very distinct and not similar in how they became involved with the sport of Thoroughbred racing. And lady luck meant more than a trip to the winner’s circle. It meant finding love and fulfillment, in a world renowned for its vagaries and adversity. Marcus from Ireland and Crystal from Michigan, would traverse more than the miles to reach a shared goal, one that would help transform their lives, and lead to their farm in Aiken, and their presence at the 2-year-old sales with Mason Springs.

Finding themselves

Marcus became involved with the equine industry, first by riding ponies, and then through buying and selling and going to pony fairs, eventually transitioning to horses.

But at first, it seemed as if Marcus was just going to have a routine life, working an 8-to-5 job, and not being involved with horses as his vocation.

“I thought it was too much hard work, farming,” said Marcus. “I tried doing demolition. I tried doing construction, quarry work and a few other things. I soon realized I didn’t have a passion for it.”

But there was something that Marcus was passionate about, and he would successfully make the transition at first, but had to modify certain things in his life to follow his true calling.

“When I first started working with horses, I had $150 for the week, seven days,” said Marcus. “I was earning about $400 a week working Monday through Friday, so it was a huge adjustment. I was living with my mother and father, thank God. They supported my decision, anything that I wanted to do as long as I was happy. It made me appreciate being up every day and doing something that I love, rather than just going in and doing something because I was earning good money.”

Crystal’s introduction to horses was through her mother, and they were of the backyard variety, but those early experiences would help shape her life as she pursued her passion, but initially it was with another discipline.

Early experiences

Marcus would find himself working for several trainers, and although he was working, he wasn’t making the transition to riding in races. It wasn’t until he went to the United Kingdom, where he had the propitious opportunity to go work for a trainer of renown that things would start changing.

“I moved to Henrietta Knight’s and she had just trained her third King George winner, Edredon Bleu, I was there for that,” said Marcus.

England provided Marcus with a great deal of exposure to the sport, allowing for a number of enviable opportunities.

“It was unbelievable. All the cameras were there for the Cheltenham races. All the faces were there. I was working for Terry Biddlecombe, who was a three-time champion jockey in the 1960s, so many names and faces,” said Marcus.” You’re just always on the television, so you’re right in the heart of it. I was a little boy from the country into the big time business.”

However, when Marcus went home to Ireland, he didn’t have the same success, working for smaller trainers, and that’s when someone gave him some sound advice.

“A fellow said, ‘You’re better off working with good horses as bad ones.’ And then I got a job with David Wachman, who’s married to Katie Magnier, who’s John Magnier’s daughter,” said Marcus. “I saw a nice operation close to us and great horses. I got to ride Dansom (winner of the Phoenix Stakes), who was champion 2-year-old filly that year, took on the boys and won a lot of races. We had Luas Line, who won a couple of big races over here in the States at Belmont (the Garden City Handicap). We had a lot of good horses.”

Unlike Marcus, Crystal’s experience with racehorses had been with Standardbreds in her native Michigan.

Changes in location

Marcus found himself changing gears once again, this time securing a new opportunity with another renowned Thoroughbred operation.

He would shift his focus to the 2-year-olds in training sales, working the breeze up horses and the auctions, but he had his heart set on a more permanent position, and it was through a friend that he would find his new posting at Ballysheen, which was owned by the brother of His Highness Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum. He would then move to Darley in England, and it was through his job there that he came to the United States in 2010.

“I started out doing the rehabbing on Rice Road in Keeneland with Johnny Burke and then had some good times in Saratoga,” said Marcus. “I met my wife there. She (Crystal) told me I should come down to Aiken and that was the only place that they (Darley) were doing 2-year-olds. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come down and see it.’ It took a little bit of a transition. It’s been a good place for us, to raise our daughter (Anjali). Life’s what you make of it. You have to go with it. Nothing happens to quick there (Aiken). But it’s a good place. The water is good, the air is good, you get a little bit of a winter, but the winter is easy on us. It’s certainly better than an Ireland winter.”

It was also a change in locales for Crystal that would eventually lead to her becoming involved with the Sport of Kings. But prior to making that transition, she had an opportunity to work with the man known as the “Father of Modern Day Reining,” who holds the distinction of being a member of the National Reining Horse Association Hall of Fame, American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame and the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame, Dale Wilkinson, with Crystal relocating to Georgia from her native Michigan.

“I still love it (reining), and hopefully can retire to that,” said Crystal.

However, it was while Crystal was at the AQHA World show in Oklahoma that she realized that maybe reining wasn’t something that she wanted to do at the professional level, and that’s when fate stepped in.

“The lady I had went with was from Arkansas, and she was like, ‘I want to take you by this Thoroughbred Training Track,’ said Crystal. “I went out there and I was like, ‘This is neat.’ I felt like, ‘I fit in around here.’ I said, ‘I would love to get into that.’ And my friend said, ‘The Aiken Training Track isn’t very far from us.’ We were right outside of Augusta (Georgia) at the time. ”

It proved to be very propitious that the facility was in Prescott, Ark. as that would play a role in Crystal’s future.

“I went to the Aiken Training Track and asked Dogwood (Stable), and they were like, ‘We’re alright now,’” said Crystal. “Someone told me that they might need somebody later. And then I went into what was Stonerside at the time, and I said to myself, ‘It looks so beautiful.’ It was so nice.”

Tim Jones was the trainer for Robert and Janice McNair’s Stonerside Stable, and coincidentally Jones was from Prescott, Ark.

“I met with Tim, and I said, ‘You probably want experienced people,’” said Crystal. “He said, “I like training them. I don’t like people bringing their bad habits to the track.’ So, then I was there for forever and a day.”

Lessons Well-Learned

Crystal started with Stonerside at the end of 2003, and remained with the team when Darley bought the operation in 2008.

“We had a lot of autonomy and picked the horses that we wanted to ride,” said Crystal, who said Jones was extremely interested in the actual horsemanship and training. “He liked to do a lot of the round pen work, making sure they were well-schooled before they ever stepped foot on the track, and I love that and still stick to that. It makes their life less stressful and our life less stressful. He’s (Jones) about building them up gradually. Every horse had a chance to make sure they were good and fit before he asked them to go on, and that’s something that we’ve definitely taken away from there, the consistency and dedication.”

Jones’ example of being well-organized made a considerable impression on Crystal, and it was something that she took with her, when she and Marcus began Mason Springs, taking in the invaluable lessons she learned from her mentor and incorporating it into their own program.

“Tim was very organized,” said Crystal. “It’s something that I really admire. You can’t really run an operation well without being organized and on top of things, and I’m grateful for that.”

The foundation while working for Jones, first at Stonerside and then later at Darley, would play a critical role for Crystal, who saw first-hand how to run a world class operation.

“Darley and Tim didn’t cut corners, and we’ve taken that and brought it to Mason Springs,” said Crystal. “You really have to give them a lot of credit because it costs a lot of money. These horses aren’t cheap and it’s nice to be able to go ahead and make sure that they have everything they need to reach their top potential. You think, ‘IF I could do this a little bit less.’ But nope, there’s no reason to even think that. You have to put in the time and money that it takes.”

Starting something new

The Ryans hung out their shingle in 2012, while they were still working for Darley in Aiken, taking the leap of faith, but with a safety net underneath them, said Marcus. The Ryans’ first horse took on added significance because of the circumstances surrounding the day.

“We bought it right on the day we got engaged,” said Marcus.

However, life’s vagaries often call for transformation, and belief and faith would take on extra meaning, in 2015, His Highness Sheik Mohammed decided to leave Aiken, and that served as a springboard for the couple to pursue their dreams, said Marcus.

“Working for Darley, you strive to work for those people because they’re so professional and organized,” said Marcus. “You have great pedigrees and money is no object. So, you get to see a lot of different things. It’s just a great place to be. It really helps us to have the confidence to do what we’re doing. It gives you a little pull, when you say, ‘I worked for Darley for 10 or 15 years.’ People stand up a little bit, ‘Okay, you might know something.’ We’ve had a good teacher, and that’s been good.’”

Sales Success

Mason Springs got off on the right foot with their initial offering, serving as a harbinger for their business, as they enjoyed success in arguably the most challenging phase of the industry, the 2-year-olds in training sales.

“We bought him for $5,000, he was a Political Force horse, and a friend of ours had him,” said Marcus. “He just wanted to get him to a good home. He earned $30,000 for us. He ended up coming third, first time out in July of that year, and he eventually earned $200,000. So, that was good for us. We moved on with another one who ended going to Abu Dhabi, and we sold him for $42,000, which seemed like a fortune at the time. And after that we had a couple of small fillies. But then we had a really big nice horse by Silver Train, one we bought for $7,000 and sold for $125,000. That was fantastic. We were in with some friends and everybody shared in it. It was good publicity. He did okay.”

Mason Springs had a horse sell for $140,000 at the 2020 OBS March 3-year-olds in Training Sale, a filly by Not this Time, who was purchased by West Point, Winanoy and Spadele.

“We got that filly very nice,” said Marcus. “We bought her for $20,000. She was a bit of a handful. She was a live wire. We were hopeful we were going to do something, but she was outstanding. She was a good filly.”

Chance Encounter

Life can unfold in the most unexpected of ways, and sometimes with the most welcome of gifts.

“I never expected to meet my wife in Saratoga,” said Marcus. “I thought I was just going to go to Saratoga to get some experience and just maybe go back to England because my visa would’ve been up. She was that reason that I stayed; she and Angeline. They were my family when I needed them most.”

A Match Made in Heaven

Marcus and Crystal’s devotion to one another has made their commitment to Mason Springs even more significant as their personal bond has enabled them to succeed in a competitive environment, which at times can be challenging, but their marriage has enabled them to overcome those challenges with an unshakable faith.

“I thank the good Lord for her because she sees me at my best and she sees me at my worst,” said Marcus. “She chooses to love me through that, and that counts for a lot. This is a high pressure job. There are a lot of highs and there are a lot of lows, and a good few in betweens. So, we have to roll with the punches, and she’s been there to really urge me onto do things that I probably wouldn’t do without her. I know that for a fact.”

However, the couple’s initial encounter in Saratoga was brief and memorable, but in a historic and idyllic setting.

“We (Crystal, her mother and daughter) were just awestruck driving in there (the Darley property), the former Greentree , feeling a little bit overwhelmed and lost, just looking at one beautiful place after another,” said Crystal. “I thought, ‘Well, somebody can help us out here, and Marcus was the first one we saw. He was walking down the driveway, and we roll the window down, and said, ‘Hey.’ And he said, ‘Hey chicks,’ and he kept on walking. And we’re like, ‘Now who do we ask, that guy’s gone.’”

The initial week of being at Saratoga and grooming the Darley horses, began building the foundation of the friendship, said Crystal.

“I didn’t think I wanted to date anybody,” said Crystal. “It was just really odd, finding someone with a like-minded interest, who wanted to go and do more and to really get their feet in the game for themselves a little more.”

Crystal was impressed with Marcus, when he was the only one who wanted to go to the Belmont Stakes with her, of all the people who were working at Darley in Saratoga that summer.

 “Everyone was like, ‘I don’t want to drive to the city.’ And I was like, ‘But this is the Belmont. It’s only a couple of hours away. Let’s go.’ With him, I knew it wasn’t just a punch out, I’m off my last horse; I’m done. He was passionate about the sport. We started hanging out more, and we started talking about reaching out and getting a horse, and that was it for us.”

Rings and Halters

The couple bought that first horse, the day Marcus asked Crystal to marry her, taking on the gravitas of commitment on multiple levels.

“It was funny, one of the girls who did the Darley Flying Start program, who was working for Jimmy Bell at the time, Jordan Egan was her name, said, ‘Oh, it’s more serious when you buy a yearling together than when you buy a ring,’” said Crystal. “It’s been really great.”

A Winning Combination

The symbiotic relationship between the two works largely in part because they balance one another, with each one drawing on their strengths.

“She’s very organized, very specific about what she wants done,” said Marcus. “If you just stand back and let her do her thing, she’s well-organized. There are things that she lets me do that are mine as in the training of the horses, and whether that’s right or wrong, she’ll give her opinion. But she’ll stand back and let me do it.”

The opportunity to work every day with someone you share your life with has been inspiring, and has helped Mason Springs grow their business and meet the challenges associated with a competitive industry. The collective energy of the team has yielded positive results.

“When you’re together all the time, and you see something that can be done a little bit better than them, it’s usually a little bit of a fight at first, and then it’s okay, you get the emotion out of the way,” said Crystal. “’Let’s really rationalize what’s the best thing to do here.’ Let’s not say it’s your idea versus my idea, let’s just say what’s best for the horse. Or what’s best for our next move or what we need to do.

“A lot of times, it’s just going to the word. Praying together and opening up the Bible, seeing what it says. And usually, it’s something that will knock the pride out of you, and tell you, you better shut up (laughing), or something like that. You’ll catch a hold of yourself when you’re not acting right, or it’s just something loving and kind, that gets you feeling that it’s not that big of a deal. It puts things in perspective. I see a lot of things embracing that. It’s such a beautiful thing. It’s such a gift from God. It’s an amazing game. I’m glad we’re part of it.”

Ben Baugh

@PastTheWire unreal

Jimmy Williams @matt918476 View testimonials