May 20, 2008

Riders on the Storm

Handicapping skills can be profitable for more than betting races. Some of my most memorable acquisitions in the bloodstock world were a result of simply applying common sense principles. One involved the almighty Storm Cat, a memory freshened by the news this week that he would breed no more.

I had just arrived in Kentucky (from California) back in 1993 in time for the Keeneland November Sale. Several clients had give me orders to buy mares. One NOT on my list was In Neon because I expected her to sell much higher than my modest budget would allow.

Imagine my surprise when stakes-winning In Neon, in foal to Storm Cat, went unsold at $l60,000, well below her reserve price of $200,000. A handful of agents were buzzing around the owner of In Neon, making low-ball bids. She insisted on full price so I sprinted to the pay phones to call my only client who might play at that level.

John Franks was a taskmaster who demanded a rational reason for whatever we did.
Paying a 25% premium over an RNA was not his idea of good business.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “All the smart and rich players are in the sales pavilion and nobody is willing to pay even $l50,000. Why in heaven should I pay $200,000?”

I had to think fast as more agents hovered around her owner. She might not be on the market very long. You see, In Neon was a hard-hitting stakes-winner who was a Midwest stakes-winner for trainer Jack Van Berg.

In Neon’s first foal Star Recruit was by Al Nasr, a complete failure at stud. Yet Star Recruit won nearly $l million and just missed winning the Santa Anita Handicap. He won all that while racing with a club foot. Bear with me as I digress to tell you that the previous year another client, a Canadian named Peter Redekop told me to buy him the fastest horse in the May sale of 2-year-olds at Barretts. The fastest horse clearly was the colt by Al Nasr-In Neon. But nobody wanted him either and he went unsold at $40,000.
Redekop had changed his mind when informed about the foot.

“You should buy the mare because I had a chance to buy her first foal,” I replied. “And it still bugs me how I let that one get away. If this mare can get a graded stakes winner by Al Nasr, imagine what she might do with Storm Cat.”

“Go ahead and buy her then,” said Franks.

Her Storm Cat foal turned out to be Sharp Cat, winner of seven Grade I races and over $2 million.

I recommended that In Neon go to Theatrical, standing then for $20,000, and the result was another top notcher in Royal Anthem.

The reason that there were no other takers for In Neon, in my opinion, was that she was about as homely looking as a mare could be. I have never doubted that if Franks had been present at Keeneland that he would have passed on her, too.

Peter Redekop and I had another brush with fame and fortune when he sent me to Saratoga to try to find a well-bred filly for a reasonable price.

I gravitated over to a one horse consignment in a distant corner of the sale grounds.
There stood a tiny little filly who represented the entire consignment of Dr. Jacques Levasseur from Quebec. The filly was small but she was the right type to race over the bullring at Exhibition Park in Redekop’s home city of Vancouver.

On a budget of $75,000 I knew it was a longshot to try and buy a Storm Cat filly for that kind of money. I stepped in to try in any event and my heart fluttered when I had the bid at $75,000. I should have been finished but went a couple more bids, confident that my client would not disapprove. We tossed in the towel at $90,000 and trainer Jim Day signed the ticket that evening for Canadian powerhouse Sam-Son Farm.

I consoled my self with the knowledge that the deep pockets Sam-Son operation would have bid what it took to secure the filly they named Silken Cat. Silken Cat won all three of her starts and was named Canada’s champion two-year-old filly.

Four years later, Silken Cat came into my life again. I had been hired by another wealthy Canadian, Eugene Melnyk to scout for the very best yearlings that Keeneland had to offer. He was new to the game and liked to ask Todd Pletcher and I what horses did he “have to have”.

Right from the start I nominated the Gone West colt out of Silken Cat. He wouldn’t be cheap, I observed, but he was the one you had to have.

“Don’t worry,” I recall saying. “You’ll get even by the end of Saratoga.”

Todd was not so sure. The horse had to please him because all the weight of a $2 million yearling would be on his shoulders just as he was beginning his career.

Luckily, I talked him into it and Melnyk had his first Eclipse Award in Speightstown.

As for my prediction, he got even all right, at the end of his SIX year old season. Todd and I crossed paths at Lone Star soon after Speightstown won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. .He shook my hand and acknowledged that my persistence had enabled him to train a champion. Todd is a class act and richly deserves all the accolades that have come his way in the years since.

A Storm Cat descendant of more recent vintage is Home For Harlan, a 3-year-old by Harlan’s Holiday, who set a new track record at Woodbine. The colt, racing in blinkers for the first time, covered 6 l/2 furlongs in l:l4.8l. He is a great grandson of Storm Cat.

We picked him out of the July Fasig-Tipton Sale for $82,000 from the first crop of his sire on behalf of Jim and Susan Hill of Calgary. The Hills are putting together a well-bred stable in their native land