Unlikely Japan - By Evan Hammonds

We hold these truths to be self-evident: The sport of Thoroughbred racing is the greatest game played outdoors. Thoroughbred breeding is a business. We are reminded of this every time a horse goes through the sale ring or we receive notice that a stallion has been retired to stud, has been relocated to another operation, or has been sold to interests in another country.

The marketplace is truly international. Keeneland sales officials noted buyers from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Korea helped bolster the bottom line at its November sale earlier this month.

This week brought us a news item that came with a jolt: California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1) winner and two-time Horse of the Year, was being sold by Taylor Made Farm to Japanese interests (see page 18).

The son of Lucky Pulpit has been a popular addition to the Taylor Made Stallions roster, with the farm even creating a cottage tourist industry around the flashy chestnut. It wasn’t as if he weren’t popular among breeders. In his three seasons at stud in North America (2017-19) California Chrome covered 145, 133, and 143 mares, according to The Jockey Club’s Report of Mares Bred.

While several other Derby winners have been sent to Japan—2011 winner Animal Kingdom was just sold to the Japan Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association in October—the news came as a shock to California Chrome’s faithful fans, and there has been a high level of backlash, which is to be expected in this day of social media “hot takes.” California Chromies (@CalChrome) has more than 17,800 followers on Twitter.

Another Derby and Preakness winner and Horse of the Year sold to Japanese interests was Sunday Silence, trained by the great Charlie Whittingham. The life and times of Whittingham, the “Bald Eagle,” are explored in depth in our cover story by features editor Lenny Shulman (see page 44).

“After we sold him, we got telegrams, faxes, and phone calls to the office,” owner Arthur Hancock III remembered. “It was stuff like, ‘How could you do this?’

“Look, I’m man enough to stand up for whatever I do. I made the decision, but it was in the best interest of the horse, the best interest of Stone Farm, my family with six kids, and also Charlie.”

Sunday Silence’s exportation was a bit different than California Chrome’s. The former, a son of Halo, raised by Hancock and raced by Hancock, Whittingham, and Dr. Ernest Gaillard, was popular with racing fans but had been met with indifference from Kentucky breeders.

“I might have gotten a lot of grief for that (selling him in 1990), but I didn’t sell him. The American breeders sold him,” Hancock said.

“I knew everybody in the world, and I had John Adger helping me and Phil Owens helping me. I must have called 100 people…everybody I knew in France, England, here, and everywhere. Nobody would take any shares in him.

“The first thing I ever heard about it was when Charlie called me one day, maybe four or five months before the colt retired. It was after his 3-year-old year, and he said, ‘You know, it’s a strange thing, Arthur; nobody is coming by here to look at Sunday Silence with the idea of breeding to him.’ When he said that, I said, ‘Well, maybe they know he’s coming here (Stone Farm).’ He said, ‘No, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about breeders just wanting to look at him with the idea of breeding a mare to him when he retires.’

“At the time I didn’t think too much about it, but he was exactly right.”

Hancock sold Sunday Silence for a reported 
$10 million, and the horse went on to become the most accomplished sire in Japan, topping that country’s leading sires list 13 times and siring 172 stakes winners.

“Who knows if California Chrome will make a stallion?,” Hancock mused. “California Chrome had a lot of heart and was a great racehorse like Sunday Silence. None of us knew for sure what Sunday Silence would do. As it turned out, he’s one of the greatest sires ever in the world.

“Charlie had a saying: ‘Never say anything about a horse until he’s been dead at least 10 years.’ ”

Time will tell.

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