We didn’t pay that much attention—or have much in the way of retention—while enduring an English literature class at the University of Kentucky, but we remember a quote from poet James Russell Lowell given to us by famed broadcaster Jim McKay in an introduction to the national television coverage of the 1991 Belmont Stakes (G1):
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days.
It was a glorious June afternoon at Belmont Park, one in which Preakness Stakes (G1) winner Hansel held off Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Strike the Gold by a head in the main event.
Nearly 30 years later these are indeed truly rare days. The Belmont Stakes will be June 20—two weeks later than originally slated—and will be the first classic in the Triple Crown series. In late May we learned of a few horses whose connections thought waiting for the July 11 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) was a better path to the Sept. 5 Run for the Roses, which is quite a classic shift.
Soon came the news that Godolphin’s gritty Maxfield had suffered a condylar fracture that dropped him from further 3-year-old events. Several other sophomore contenders have gone by the wayside in recent weeks, which has diluted the cast for the nine-furlong Belmont.
While the topsy-turvy 2020 continues in the insular world of Thoroughbred breeding and racing, as well as outside of it, it’s refreshing when some conversations come off as relatively normal, so to speak. Checking in with Mill Ridge Farm’s Headley Bell after longtime clients John and Jerry Amerman’s Admission Office narrowly won the June 13 Louisville Stakes (G3T) at Churchill Downs, we asked him to recap handling a breeding season during a pandemic.
“Like everybody we went through it day by day just trying not to get sick, number 1, and thankfully it doesn’t sound like anybody did get sick, which is incredible. Everybody took precautions, to the best of their abilities.
“We dealt with the noncardioform placentitis issue (BloodHorse of Feb. 15) at the beginning, which was a real nuisance, but we got through that. Overall, people have told us fertility has been really good on stallions.”
Mill Ridge stands only one stallion: the Amermans’ Oscar Performance.
“We had 120 mares for Oscar Performance, which was more than in 2019 when we had 118; it’s been fantastic,” Bell reported. “His foals were really good, but we are an isolated situation.”
Bell has plenty of clients, the Amermans included, that breed to the major stallions in Central Kentucky. COVID-19 didn’t seem to slow business in the breeding sheds.
“That side of things didn’t seem to vary too much,” Bell said matter-of-factly. “We just carried on. We don’t chase the first-year stallions. We’ll breed to Uncle Mo and those types that have really big books, but the farms work with you. There weren’t any changes from year to year.”
By mid June, Bell can report:
“We had a good breeding season, and now we are just checking mares. So, now we’re all trying to figure out the next step…the next phase of everything.”
The immediate next phase is the juvenile sales market that was jump-started at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales’ June auction that concluded June 12. The auction was the first major venue for commerce since the OBS March sale that ended March 18.
“The sale was the first step,” Bell said. “Considering it all, there seemed to be plenty of money around. Hearing from the guys that are in the trenches…they said it was ‘selected’ before and it’s even more selective now. All of the ‘withdrawns’ are a huge factor. Now you have inventory, and what are we to do with this inventory? That is the biggest question: How are people going to manage that? There might not be a whole lot of choices other than to race, and that is going to affect the next phase, which is the yearling sale purchases.”
As for the yearling market, “You always have to be cautious…you had to be cautious before, and it’s even more so now,” Bell said. “There is demand for the horse, but the big question is going to be the foreign contingent. That is a big thing. Will they be able to travel over here; whether they are able to interact, or will they even want to interact?”
Those are questions in June that beg for answers before September’s song.