Striking Gold at the Keeneland Sales

Before the Keeneland September yearling sale became the mother of all sales, there was the Keeneland July yearling sale, which featured the crème de la crème of yearlings in a small but select sale. This was the sale that during the mid-80s boom saw Northern Dancers and Nijinskys going for high seven figures and eight figures, as Sheikh Mohammed and Coolmore began their heated rivalry that would continue for decades.

The decadence reached its apex when a megastar partnership made up of Coolmore’s Vincent O’Brien and his daughter Susan Magnier, along with Robert Sangster, Stavros Niarchos, and Daniel Schwartz teamed up to purchase a Nijinsky II yearling for an outrageous $13.1 million, outbidding Sheikh Mohammed and Allen Paulson. The sheikh had previously established a new record when he bought a Northern Dancer yearling for $10.2 million.

By the mid-90s, sanity once again prevailed, and those kinds of prices were a thing of the past. In 1995, as national correspondent for the Daily Racing Form, I decided to try something different. I would play buyer, or at least bloodstock agent, and select one yearling from the sale whose pedigree intrigued me and then go to Lexington several weeks before the sale to do a background piece on him. I would then return for the sale and follow his every move right up through his time in the ring. I wrote the first part of the feature for the July 8 issue of the DRF and then part two the Sunday after the sale on July 23.

I figured this would provide readers with an inside look at the life of a sales yearling and what it takes to prepare him for the sale, and the pressures and uncertainty of actually selling him.

After careful scrutiny and studying all the pedigrees, avoiding the obvious high prices and looking for a mid-priced, affordable colt, I settled on Hip No. 65, a son of Deputy Minister, out of the Buckpasser mare, Passing Mood. I loved Buckpasser mares, and this colt had a good blend of speed and stamina, and was a half-brother to Canadian Triple Crown winner With Approval.

The colt was being pinhooked by bloodstock agent John Moynihan, part-owner of Walmac Bloodstock Services with John T.L. Jones, who had purchased him in partnership as a weanling for $180,000 from Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency, owned by brothers John and Glenn Sikura.

Following the sale, the colt was sent to Bedford Farm, a 1,200-acre facility near Paris, Ky., which served s Walmac’s satellite farm. The farm, formerly owned by a French syndicate headed by Francois Boutin, was home to the broodmares, yearlings, and weanlings raised by Walmac for public auction.

For the yearlings, this was a time for them to prepare for the most important journey of their lives. When I visited the farm with Moynihan to see the Deputy Minister colt and learn about his background, the yearlings had already been prepping for the sale for a month, exercising on a lunging rein in a round pen, jogging for 10 to 15 minutes, then being walked by hand for 30 minutes.

Because “my” colt had been purchased as a weanling and wasn’t raised with the other horses he had been kept in a separate paddock ever since he arrived on the farm.

Farm manager Bobby Miller said this was done because it was difficult introducing him to the pack at such a late date, fearing he would wind up at the bottom of the pecking order and possibly get kicked or injured.

Moynihan said the Deputy Minister colt had always been easy to handle, but had a good deal of energy and was always full of himself. He said, although the goal was to sell him, he was not in a “do or die” situation, and would only sell him if they got a reasonable price. The colt was smallish to average size and was a May 28 foal, which is quite late, so he had a great deal of scope for improvement as he got older and matured physically.

Moynihan was also pinning his hopes on the fact that the colt’s full-sister, Daijin, was undefeated in four starts that year in Canada, racing in the colors of the Sikura brothers. Daijin had won the six-furlong Star Shoot Stakes before capturing the Selene Stakes (grade I-Can).

After we arrived at the farm, Miller had the colt brought out. He made a splendid appearance, although nothing flashy. As I stroked his forehead, he cocked his ears and lifted his head, accentuating his well-conformed frame, complete with powerful hindquarters and a near-perfect hind leg (as Moynihan pointed out).

“He’s very correct,” Moynihan said. “He was correct when I bought him and he’s stayed that way throughout. With weanlings you never know if they’re going to stay the same as when you bought them. Of all the horses I looked at in the November sale, I thought he was one of the best physical specimens and the best pedigreed colt in the sale.”

When they first bought him, the feeling was that he was extremely small, but they felt he had done a world of growing since the purchase. One of the reasons they went after him was his value as a stallion prospect. They didn’t buy him specifically to resell, but they were certainly prepared to if he brought what they felt he was worth.

Miller said several prospective buyers had already been at the farm to see the colt, and he expected to have about 15 showings before the sale. Passing Mood had died the previous June, shortly after foaling the Deputy Minister colt, and this was the last chance for buyers to obtain one of her offspring.

The Keeneland Sale

It was now several weeks later, and I was back in Kentucky for the sale. What I found was a colt totally different than the one I had seen and played with back on the farm. On this particular morning he was a bit more ornery than usual, as the sweltering heat and humidity had buyers and sellers retreating into the air conditioned sales pavilion and buffet lunch in the Keeneland dining room.

Moynihan sat in one of the few shaded areas outside Barn 10, still trying to get a feeling of how this year’s sale was shaping up and how much appeal the Deputy Minister colt was going to have. He said he was afraid to even speculate, because no one was showing their hand on anything so far.

“It’s been feast or famine,” he said. “You either get the money or you don’t get any of it. All you can do is keep your fingers crossed.”

At 10:30 a.m., Frank Stronach, one of the leading owners and breeders in North America, stopped by to inspect the colt, along with his manager Mike Doyle. As the colt kept pulling hard on the lip chain and trying to turn his head, Cherise Gasper, head of sales for Walmac, explained to Stronach and Doyle that he has a habit of trying to bite the handler.

“He’s a nice kind of horse, though,” Doyle said nonchalantly, not wanting to tip his hand in any way.

Later that morning, the colt was given a heart scan, which measures the heart size and the intake of blood and oxygen. He was rated a “4,” which Moynihan said was “as good as it gets.”

That night, Hip No. 65 was the fourth horse scheduled to sell in the Monday night session. At 7:50 p.m., Greg Partain of Walmac was given instructions to bring the colt out and walk him prior to the sale.. As the colt was given a last-minute grooming outside his stall, he continuously tried to bite his handler.

“He can really get on your nerves,” Partain said. “But he’ll get over this when he gets older. Right now, he’s like a little kid who wants to play. But he’s been a real trouper. He’s been out hundreds of times and he’s stood up very well. When we first got him as a weanling he was just a little thing, but he’s really grown up. When John first bought the colt, people gave him a hard time because he was so small.”

The colt then was walked around near the back of the pavilion, where buyers could get one final look. Among those watching him closely were Stronach and Doyle. As they walked into the pavilion, Gasper gave Doyle some final words of encouragement and wished him luck.

I watched the sale on the TV monitor behind the pavilion. When the gavel fell, Stronach had bought the colt for $375,000, giving Moynihan a 100-percent profit on his initial investment.

Following the sale, I went to Stronach and asked him what he liked about the colt and what the plans were.

“He’s a little immature, but he’s a good-looking colt and I liked the whole family,” he said. “He’s a late May foal and we’re not going to hurry him. We’ll send him to our farm here (Adena Springs in Versailles) where he’ll be broken.”

Doyle added that the colt would then be evaluated along with the rest of Stronach’s young horses, and at that time a decision would be made where he’ll be sent.

“Letting him grow is probably the most important thing right now,” Doyle said.

Moynihan then stopped to congratulate Stronach. “You’ve got a really nice horse,” he said. “I’m glad you got him.”

Moynihan said he was thrilled with the price, feeling anything over $300,000 in the current market was a gift.

“I have mixed emotions about selling him,” he said. “I really believe he’s going to be a very good horse, but at the same time you have to take a profit when it’s there, and when you make a 100-percent profit it’s not a bad deal, especially when you’re buying at that level.”

Following his career

Naturally, I followed the colt closely, feeling as if I, in some way, had a vested interest in him, having picked him out and gotten to know him on a personal level.

Turned over to trainer Danny Vella, he was a decent 2-year-old, placing in two stakes at Woodbine before being turned over to Dave Hofmans in California. That in itself was kind of thrilling, knowing that he had at least turned into a stakes horse.

Fast forward to the following June. As lead writer for DRF covering the Belmont Stakes, I like most everyone was all prepared to witness the first Triple Crown sweep in 19 years after Silver Charm gamely captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes for trainer Bob Baffert and owners Robert and Beverly Lewis. Silver Charm and Baffert had become one of the most popular duos in Triple Crown history, and there was no one who didn’t like the Lewises, especially Bob’s contagious enthusiasm and gracious behavior, win or lose.

So, here I was at Belmont ready to witness history, but with a slight twist. Actually it wasn’t slight at all. One of the colts out to stop Silver Charm was my little Deputy Minister yearling, now named Touch Gold.

I had followed him as he demolished the speedy and classy Smoke Glacken by 8 1/2 lengths in Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes under Gary Stevens. There was brief talk about running him back in the Kentucky Derby, and when it was decided he wasn’t ready, the happiest person was Stevens, who was also the regular rider of Silver Charm. Stevens knew how good Touch Gold was and wanted no part of running against him in the Derby.

To this day, many believe Touch Gold was the best horse in the Preakness after he nearly went down at the start, his nose actually kicking up a cloud of dirt. How he stayed on his feet was truly remarkable. Then after dropping to the back of the pack, he got stopped three times in the race, including twice in the stretch when Free House came in and forced Chris McCarron to take up sharply, almost going into the rail. Despite all that, Touch Gold still was able to finish fourth, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths. His performance was even more remarkable when it was discovered he had grabbed his quarter severely, suffering a nasty quarter crack.

At Belmont Park, I watched each day as quarter crack specialist Ian McKinlay worked feverishly on the foot, trying to get Touch Gold to the Belmont Stakes. McKinlay said it was the worst quarter crack he had ever seen, with 2 1/2 inches of colt’s hoof having been ripped off, exposing raw flesh. The laminae had been exposed and McKinlay had to toughen up the tissue so an artificial acrylic wall could be put on. After 10 days of down time for the healing process to be completed, the horse needed to be able to train and the quarter crack had to be stabilized. Once the hoof got tough enough, McKinlay would wire it all together before the race.

“It’s not the patch that’s going to get him to the Belmont; it’s his toughness,” McKinlay said. “This horse is a monster. He’s so smart that when he wants to get away from you he’ll just drop down to his knees. He knows every trick in the book and you have to keep him busy with carrots.”

Touch Gold had an important work coming up, and Hofmans was sending him seven furlongs to see how the foot held up. Hofmans was looking for a nice easy breeze in about 1:28 and didn’t even mind if he went in 1:30.

With former jockey George Martens up, Hofmans stood in one of the boxes and couldn’t believe the fractions Touch Gold was reeling off.

“Twelve and two, he’s got to be careful,” he said. Martens took him off the rail to slow him down, but Touch Gold still went the three-eighths in :35 4/5 and a half in :48. Despite not being asked, he put in a :23 1/5 quarter to get the three-quarters in 1:11 2/5.

“Geez, that’s a lot faster than I wanted,” Hofmans said. Touch Gold kept pouring it on, completing the seven furlongs in 1:23 4/5.

“So much for 1:28,” Hofmans said. “Let’s go talk to Georgie.” Martens was as surprised as anyone, saying the colt was doing everything easily and was moving “as smooth as glass.”

When assistant trainer Darla Elliott was told the final time, all she said was, “No!”

Back at the barn, Touch Gold’s bandages were shredded from the moist sandy track, but the patch held firmly and he was walking perfectly sound. The colt was blowing hard, which showed he at least got a lot out of the work. Hofmans felt Touch Gold was feeling so good there was no way he was going to work any slower. The foot still wasn’t 100 percent, but McKinlay felt it would keep growing back and be fine by race day.

We all know what happened. Touch Gold set the early pace, dropped back to fourth, and somehow swung to the outside and ran down Silver Charm to deny the colt the Triple Crown, winning by three-quarters of a length, much to shock of Gary Stevens, who thought Touch Gold was finished after being passed by three horses down the backstretch.

When Stronach ran into Bob Lewis after the race he said, “In a way I’m sorry.”

Lewis reassured him. “No, don’t feel that way at all. It was a wonderful day for racing. It just shows what a tough job it is to win this. Someone has to run second, and we had a couple of wins. You’re a champion in every way.”

At the barn, Trudy McCaffery, co-owner of third-place finisher Free House, came over to congratulate fellow Californian Hofmans and to see how Touch Gold was doing. As she lavished affection on the colt, the tears began to flow, just as they did after seeing her own horse and recognizing the gallant effort he put in. She had nothing but praise and admiration for Touch Gold and what he had to endure.

A short while later, McKinlay showed up to check on the damage. He began by sanding and filing the hoof and then removed the patch with a drill. What he saw convinced him even more what a tough horse Touch Gold was.

“What we healed up he’s basically peeled right off,” he said. “It’s raw under there now. The tissue that we got tough enough to hold the glue, he jarred and busted it loose. He’s a very tough horse, believe me. He’s got so much heart. This is an amazing horse.”

An amazing horse. He was talking about my horse…well, sort of. There I’d been standing in the winner’s circle, trying to look as solemn as possible, along with most everyone else, while on the inside I was feeling as proud as a parent who had just seen their child accomplish something special. I could only think back to when Touch Gold was nothing more than a page in a sales catalog and a nondescript-looking yearling on the farm, and now he’s winning the Belmont Stakes and thwarting the Triple Crown attempt of one of the most popular horses in recent years.

No he wasn’t mine and I didn’t risk any money to buy him as a weanling as Moynihan did. But at least for a brief moment I got to experience what it would feel like if I had. And for someone who had spent three decades writing about the accomplishments of others, that was plenty.

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