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Kentucky Confidential


Buying a Derby Winner: A Few Rules and A Lot of Luck

John Ward (Eclipse Sportswire)

How in the world do you buy a Kentucky Derby winner?

Predicting a yearling or even a 2-year-old in training purchase has what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby has a ridiculously low probability. There are too many unknown variables at the time of purchase, most importantly how the horse will react to the stress and competition of the racetrack.

You can buy horses with Derby potential. There are hundreds sold every year, and there are a few dozen good trainers and bloodstock agents who can root those prospects out for you.

As good a place to start as any is with Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, who talked about what it takes in his book “Traits of a Winner.”

“You must remember that you are not shopping for a Derby winner as such,” Nafzger wrote. “You are looking for a yearling [in your price range] that has a good shot at becoming an allowance winner and, if you are lucky, might even graduate into the stakes ranks. And if you get even luckier and catch lightning in a bottle and have a Derby contender, so much better.”

Nafzger won the Derby with auction purchase Unbridled and homebred Street Sense.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times. His clients bought Silver Charm and Real Quiet at auction, and bought War Emblem off the track.

“There’s not a book on how you get them,” Baffert said. “In the last 10 or 15 years, I have bought at least 300 horses I thought could win the Kentucky Derby. You never know. You’re just buying something that is made the right way, and you hope it can run to its pedigree and looks.

“The more I buy, the more I can tell this one might have a chance or this one doesn’t, but until you run them a few times you won’t know if they have what it takes to win the Derby. It’s just something that happens.”

Trainer John Ward won the 2001 Derby with 2-year-old-in-training purchase Monarchos and also bought 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus as a yearling. Ward said some of the things you can do to increase your chances of buying a Derby winner.

“First they have to qualify on pedigree. You’re looking for a horse that has the genetics to go 1 1/4 miles that early in its life,” Ward said. “Monarchos’ pedigree looked thin up close, but it went back to a good Darby Dan family that has produce Derby winner after Derby winner.

“If you want to win the Derby, you need the genetics, and the female family is more important on a Derby horse than the sire. You might be able to win the race by a sire not known for endurance, but I don’t think you can win it without a female side with classic blood.”

Ward said disposition is an important part of a Derby horse.

“You want a horse that is alert and can withstand the rigors of a sale,” Ward said. “It’s a good test because the horses are taken in and out repetitively for three to five days. It shows how much resilience they’ve got if they show as good at the first part of the sale as the last part. For the most part, a very special animal can mentally bounce back. There’s nothing that knocks them down or depresses them.

“The presence is the other factor you have to have. They’ve got to be able to handle their surroundings, wherever they are.”

“You might be able to win the race by a sire not known for endurance, but I don’t think you can win it without a female side with classic blood.”Fusaichi Pegasus cost $4 million as a yearling, the most expensive Derby winner in history. 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide sold for just $22,000.

Bloodstock agent Mike McMahon’s family raised and consigned Funny Cide. McMahon continues to search for his own Derby winner on the buying end through McMahon Bloodstock, based in Versailles, Ky.

“You have a less than 1 in 10,000 chance starting off, but if you take out the obvious sprint horses and mares who haven’t produced good foals, maybe you can get it down to 1 in 1,000,” McMahon said. “Your chances aren’t impossible by any means, but there is a lot of competition for the best chances. The first rule is you rule out all the fillies. Then you look for big, scope-y colts who are bred well enough to be a 1 1/4-mile horse. Then you try to find something in your price range.”

McMahon said it helps if the buyer does not require the horse also to be a good 2-year-old.

“That lets you do a lot more,” McMahon said. “If you’re looking for a 3-year-old, you don’t necessarily have to buy a yearling that’s muscular. You need a well-balanced horse, but you don’t need one that looks precocious and has a hip like a quarter horse. You can buy more leg and give a horse more time.”

At the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale, McMahon’s client Jim Egger told him he wanted a horse to win a Derby, but not the Derby. Egger winters in Phoenix and wanted a horse for the Turf Paradise Derby.

In book nine of the September sale, McMahon found a Pleasant Tap colt out of mare named Nanas Cozy Account, by Langfuhr. He was bred for two turns and had some scope, which means good length and height, McMahon said. McMahon engineered a deal to buy the colt privately for $15,000 after it failed to reach its reserve in the ring.

Named Beer Meister, the colt won the 2011 Turf Paradise Derby, after which Egger and his partner turned down an offer to buy the horse. Beer Meister returned to finish fifth in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby. The horse he beat at Turf Paradise — Twice the Appeal — won the Sunland Derby and earned a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

“Unfortunately we missed the bulls-eye in the Sunland Derby,” McMahon said. “The Derby dream is very present, but the big stables are on it. It’s a big challenge to beat them. It’s very much David vs Goliath. Anybody who goes for it should be commended. It’s a great challenge.”

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Silver Charm was bought privately from Video tape by Bob Lewis. Ask Eion Harty for the story.

Posted by Murray Johnson on April 29, 2011 @ 3:55 am

Thanks for reading Murray. My research indicates Silver Charm’s owner got caught speeding at $100,000 and had to buy him back. Baffert and team bought the colt post-ring for $85,000. Is that not your understanding?

Posted by petedenk on April 29, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

Post-ring sales are now included in many auction records, but not so back then.

Posted by petedenk on April 29, 2011 @ 3:16 pm

Author PhotoAn award winning newspaper journalist from Chicago’s south side, Pete Denk moved to Lexington, Kentucky, in 2005. He wrote for Thoroughbred Times for five years, as a staff reporter and later as sales editor. Denk headed up the Times’ auction coverage for three years. Still based in horse country, he now works as a freelance journalist and consultant. More by  ›