Gift Horse on the Derby Trail

Success in the purchasing of horses is often attributed to seeing what others don’t see; in other words, looking past physical issues or deficiencies that turn other buyers off.

When Carrie Brogden of Machmer Hall Farm attended the 2009 Keeneland January Mixed Sale, she noticed a 3-year-old filly in the book by Unbridled’s Song named Special Me, who she spotted in the back ring getting ready to sell. Not only had Special Me proven a failure on the racetrack, running three times in 2008 and never finishing closer than 16 lengths, she stood only 14.3 hands, no bigger than a decent sized yearling.

But Brogden was familiar with others in her family and they were all big, beautiful horses. She approached the filly’s owner and breeder, David Hayden of Dark Hollow Farm, and asked him, “What on earth happened to her; maybe something in utero?”

Hayden explained that she had been born a month early and that the mare was diagnosed with nocardia placentitis, which is often fatal if not caught in time and treated appropriately.  Even when treated in utero, it can often compromise the fetus with low birth weights and incomplete long bone growth from a premature delivery. 

Hayden proceeded to give Brogden a long list of expenses they had to incur trying to save her -- from paying the full stud fee to breed to Unbridled’s Song to attempting to get her to the races

Having knowledge of the family, the wheels started turning in her head – perhaps she is genetically normal and would make a good broodmare in spite of her size, her poor race record, and her earlier problems. So Brogden, who runs Machmer Hall with her husband Craig, bid on Special Me and got her for a paltry $6,000.

As Hayden said, “We knew she was special, but just not for us. We’ve been in this business for over 40 years, and sometimes you win big and sometimes you lose big. We lost on this one but won when we claimed Safely Home, the dam of Safely Kept and others, for $11,500. We still relish in all of Special Me’s accomplishments.”

Special Me’s first foal, named Restricted List, by Street Hero, sold for $17,000 as a weanling and then was pinhooked as a 2-year-old for $110,000, but wasn’t much on the track.

However, her second foal, a filly by Mizzen Mast, named Stonetastic, sold at the Keeneland yearling sale for $77,000 and went on to earn over $470,000, winning or placing in seven stakes, including a victory in the Prioress Stakes. Her third foal had vetting issues and was sold cheaply to Korea.

None of Special Me’s foals were on the small side and that was the case again in 2013 when she dropped a strapping colt by Twirling Candy, of whom Brogden was a big fan when he raced. She went to visit him and found him to be a very impressive individual, who was light on his feet and walked like a cat. She also liked the fact that his trainer, John Sadler, always felt he was an extremely gifted colt.

Brogden decided to sell the colt as a weanling at the Fasig-Tipton Keeneland November mixed sale, and he went for $135,000 to Lane’s End Farm. She actually almost scratched him from the sale, thinking he was such a great mover she could eventually sell him to someone who would be more interested in racing him than reselling him.

The colt, however, was consigned to the Keeneland September yearling sale by Lane’s End, but came up with a minor vetting issue, so Lane’s End withdrew him and decided to keep him. He eventually was sent to trainer Chad Brown, who told Brogden he felt the colt, now named Gift Box, was the best of all the Lane’s End 2-year-olds and he believed he would relish a distance of ground; in fact, the farther the better.

When Brogden sold Gift Box’s half-sister by Mizzen Mast to Mike Ryan as a yearling last year, it was Chad Brown who signed the sales slip, so he likely already knew what he had in Gift Box.

In his career debut at Saratoga, racing in William S. Farish’s familiar silks, Gift Box was bumped from both sides at the start, dropping back to last in the 10-horse field. He made steady progress after that and closed well to finish third behind the wire-to-wire winner Sheikh of Sheikhs on a track playing for speed. The final time was a solid 1:10 flat. Of little consolation, but interesting to note, he did gallop out clear past the first two finishers.

That was it for sprints. In his second start at Belmont, Brown entered him in a grass race, as main track only, going 1 1/16 miles to get a distance race in him and it was taken off the grass and run on a sloppy sealed track. He raced between horses in mid-pack and was able to swing out for a clear run at the pace-setting Matt King Coal, who had sprinted clear of the field. But Gift Box was relentless, closing with great determination, and wore down Matt King Coal to win by a nose, with an incredible gap of 18 lengths back to the third horse, earning both horses a strong 93 Beyer speed figure. To show what kind of horse Gift Box had to run down, Matt King Coal came back to break his maiden going a mile by 5 3/4 lengths, earning a 96 Beyer speed figure. He hasn’t run since.

Brown thought so highly of Gift Box he brought him back in the grade II Remsen Stakes at 1 1/8 miles against the Nashua Stakes one-two finishers, Mohaymen and Flexibility. Gift Box saved ground in his first two-turn race and then demonstrated a brilliant turn of foot on the far turn, splitting horses and bursting into contention, actually getting his neck in front of Mohaymen for third as they turned for home. But he was unable to keep up with Mohaymen and Flexibility in the stretch, and despite racing a bit greenly, switching to his left lead late and being steered to the inside with Flexibility drifting out in front of him, he still managed to finish a good third, beaten three lengths by Mohaymen, which as we witnessed in the Holy Bull, was a big effort for a horse coming off a nose maiden victory.

Gift Box has turned in two half-mile breezes at Palm Meadows, in :48 4/5 and :49, as he moves closer to his 3-year-old debut in the Risen Star Stakes.

Not bad so far for a horse out of a $6,000 pony-sized mare who was born prematurely and almost died and couldn’t run a lick on the racetrack.

This year, Special Me has a Candy Ride yearling, who Brogden said is already as big as her. She has had offers to sell Special Me, who currently is in foal to Speightstown and is booked back to Honor Code. As Brogden said of her, “Sometimes what is outside is not always what is inside.”

We’ve already seen what is inside her son as he prepares to embark on the Kentucky Derby trail.

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