Probably the place to start would be Kentucky Derby Day, Saturday, May 6, 2000. I had spent the night at my friend Jeff’s parents’ house on Glenmeade Road in southeastern Louisville. We had just finished our first years at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, bonding over bourbon (his family was in the business and we both were, uh, learning about the spirit), music (Grateful Dead, Luscious Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins and Snoop Dogg, among others) and Kentucky basketball (the Golden Years prior, to be sure, and yeah, the 1999-2000 team who were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the second round. We sure did have fun at that home game vs Arkansas). Jeff was a gracious host, taking me to Moby Dick, a Louisville landmark where they make “a whale of a sandwich,” and even pulling out a little of the family’s bourbon stash for a tiny nip before bedtime.
In 1999, I was a freshman at UK. I was majoring in Animal Science and living the college life as an eighteen-year-old in the dorms. I was a Hoosier in the Bluegrass State, but was acclimating nicely. I worked at Ted Bates Farm and Sales Agency in Lexington, foaling out mares in the winter and spring and hand-walking sales yearlings in the summer. I slept in Mr. Bates’ office in the main barn for two summers, when school was out of session. It was a pretty great gig; easy commute to work, learning from one of the masters, and he let me use his membership at the Lexington Country Club across the street to take a shower and eat meals. I once pushed my luck and kicked back on their plush couches after a long day of walking yearlings, watching ESPN on the huge lounge TV after dinner. Word got back to Ted and he just told me “no TV at the country club.” Understood. I did…OK academically that first year. I helped a mare foal during halftime of the Titans-Rams Super Bowl. I was bitten by a yearling who would go on to sell for six figures that September (still have the scar on my left forearm) The spring semester wrapped up, I sold my textbooks and a group of us hopped on 64 West to Louisville to get ready for the first Saturday in May. I’d gone to a couple of Kentucky Derbys before with my family, but this one was different. I was now an adopted Kentuckian, I had Kentucky friends who knew the routine, and we were ready for the 2000 Run for the Roses.
We’ll come back to Louisville in a bit. So now, it’s July, 1998. One of the best stallions in the history of Thoroughbred breeding and racing, Mr. Prospector, is 28 and like a quarterback who’s done everything but win the Super Bowl, Mr. P has done everything but sire a Kentucky Derby winner. His resume at the time: a Preakness winner, a Belmont winner, two Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners, a BC Juvenile winner, a Horse of the Year, four two-year-old Eclipse Champions, a three-year-old Eclipse winner, three champion sprinters, and an older mare Eclipse winner, and that’s not counting his European Group 1 winners like Miswaki, Machiavellian, Kingmambo and Distant View. While his lack of a Derby winner was merely a blip on his record, it still was a bit of a head scratcher.
About twenty-five miles from Mr. Prospector’s home at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, across some of the most prized soil on Earth, with limestone deposits that give growing Thoroughbreds the bone needed to compete for Kentucky Derbys, Travers Stakes and Breeders’ Cups, is Keeneland Racecourse. Keeneland was home to the July Selected Yearling Sale from 1943-2002. The July sale was known for the cream of the crop yearlings, the blue-bloods, and the intense and legendary bidding wars between the biggest players in Thoroughbred racing for them. In 1985, a brother to Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew sold for $13,100,000 there. Since 1983, twenty-one yearlings by Mr. Prospector had brought $1 million or more at the sale, with Woodman fetching $3 million in 1984, and with yearlings by Mr. Prospector topping the sale in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1997.
So now, let’s head to central Indiana in the late 80’s. No big Thoroughbred farms where we are, and Hoosier Park was still a few years away. My initiation to racing came when my family would visit Kentucky during spring breaks and summers. Often, those trips involved visits to Claiborne Farm, where living history was presented to me, a wide-eyed kid, thinking “this is Disneyland.” Secretariat got the ball rolling. Soon after, I was subscribing to The Blood-Horse, sinking into the numbers of the business, and making connections of pedigrees to high class runners. When Unbridled won the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic that fall, I thought, oh, he’s a grandson of Mr. Prospector, that stallion we saw at Claiborne, he must be good.
After a few years of visiting farms and tracks, and reading The Blood-Horse, and watching Chris Lincoln on ESPN, my family started breeding Thoroughbreds on our own. We had no idea what we were doing, but we had Joe Taylor’s Complete Guide to Breeding and Raising Racehorses. We literally had the book in the stall with us when our first mare was foaling. Sweet Lady Jo’s first foal entered the world without a hitch, thanks to Mr. Taylor. We sold the foal that November at Keeneland, and Johnny Jones of Walmac Farm bought her. We would have seven more foals from our two mares, five of those foals winners. We learned by doing, and there were great moments and not so great moments, but the memories still remain. While all of this was going on, I was learning pedigrees, and by then, Mr. Prospector was Kentucky basketball or the Dallas Cowboys, an institution. In 1997, Overbrook Farm retired a son of Mr. Prospector to their roster, a blue-blooded prospect if there ever was one. A half-brother to Storm Cat, he wasn’t much of a racehorse, only a maiden win at Keeneland and an allowance win at Hollywood to his credit, but Pioneering fit the bill for Sweet Lady Jo, and in 1998, we were the proud owners of a beautiful chestnut Indiana-bred, whose grandsire was Mr. Prospector.
My Dad and I had been going to the July Select sale at Keeneland for a few years. Our first trip was 1992, when Mr. Prospector’s son Numerous topped the sale, going for $1.7 million. We had fun checking out some of the most exclusive horseflesh in the world for a few days and then we would go home, re-energized about our small operation. We would set up camp at the back walking ring, evaluating conformation and pedigrees, guessing sales prices, and doing it all over again. By 1998, I was starting to feel like I knew what to look for in a yearling. I remember on the Tuesday night of the auction reading an Indian Charlie while we ate dinner at our hotel. Now, if you know Indian Charlie, you know it’s not exactly a just the facts publication, but there was a quote about hip 228 that seemed pretty reliable. “He’s Superman.” Ok, noted. I went to our room after dinner and pulled out my catalogue. Hey, he’s by Mr. Prospector, interesting. Out of a nice Danzig mare, good family, I’ll keep an eye out. So Wednesday’s selling begins, and it’s solid trading, but nothing crazy. A Storm Cat colt for $950,000, a Seeking the Gold filly for $1.2 million, and this was really interesting, a Japanese-bred Sunday Silence filly from a fantastic American family that went for $1 million. So, a lot of good stuff. But, I’d made a note for hip 228, and didn’t want to miss him. Often sales companies will place what they deem as a top prospect toward the end of the sale, and such was the case here, as 228 was the next to last horse through the ring of the entire sale. Well, I’m here to tell you, twenty-two years later, I can still see in my mind’s eye that colt coming into the walking ring. It was unbelievable. Have you seen the clips of Lebron James in high school? That’s what this was like. This Mr. Prospector colt was a man among boys, and that’s not even close to doing him, or that moment, justice. There were jaws on the floor. He was so much the superior yearling in the sale that even I, a teenaged gawker in the back, knew this was the goods. A few minutes, and $4 million later, I knew I had my 2000 Derby horse. If any horse was ever born to win the Kentucky Derby, it was that one.
A few years go by. I graduate from high school, we sell our gorgeous chestnut grandson of Mr. Prospector, the Rams win the Super Bowl over the Titans as I’m cleaning off a brand new foal, I sell my class textbooks, and we head to Louisville.
It’s Derby morning and this group of friends is a barnful of yearling colts demanding to be turned out. We hop on 264 and park in Raho’s friend’s yard. A bit of pre-gaming goes down. We walk to Central Avenue, pay our $50 for general admission. Now, we’re in the tunnel, heading out to the Churchill infield. On 364 days of the year, the infield is pretty quiet, but on the first Saturday in May, the Churchill Downs infield is a tornado, a spinning overload of people, sights and sounds. About twenty of our closest friends, and a few thousand we’ll get to know before the days done. I have some experience at the racetrack, and knew, especially on Derby Day, to get your bets in early, so I head to the infield betting window, and ask the teller for “Race 8, $100 to win on 12.” Look, I really tried. I told everyone I went with, and everyone that asked me, that Fusaichi Pegasus was the pick. But, you know how those things go, and that’s why we run the races. The Derby field heads to the track, I get my first My Old Kentucky Home as a Kentuckian, I see one jockey’s helmet during the running of the race, but a little over two minutes later, I’m up $330, and the colt that my Dad and I saw as a can’t miss yearling is now the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
The spring in Kentucky turned into summer in Kentucky. Fusaichi Pegasus had a troubled 2nd in the Preakness, I got somewhat better at backing the tractor into barns, I made efficient trips to the Lexington Country Club and we went to the July sale again. Fusaichi Pegasus would win once more, on September 23 at Belmont in the Jerome Handicap. He called it a career after a sixth-place finish in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic, which I watched from Lexington with many of the same friends who were there in May. Check out the chart from the 2000 BC Classic , that was quite a field. For going seven wide that day, pretty good effort from the Derby winner.
Fusaichi Pegasus was sold for stud duty for between $60-$70 million, and his introductory fee in 2001 was $150,000. While certainly a solid stallion in his own right, siring Grade 1 winners like Roman Ruler, Champ Pegasus and Bandini, and getting twelve graded winners overall, he wasn’t able to carry on Mr. Prospector’s legacy, something that seemed like a foregone conclusion when he retired.
I know it’s not exactly rooting for the underdog. He sold for $4 million, he was by one of the best Thoroughbred sires ever. He was raised on a farm that had already raised two Kentucky Derby winners. But what my Dad and I saw that July night at Keeneland was the culmination of ten years of learning about the Thoroughbred business. The pedigree, the physical. He was THE specimen. It felt like we had bought him. And then he wins the Derby, and I’m there with friends that I still see? Friends who go to each other’s weddings, and text each other ridiculous photos from twenty years ago, and bust each other about silly things from WAY back in the day. I was there on the two biggest days of his life, with people I love, and that’s pretty cool.
Happy anniversary Fu Peg, hope you get a treat this Saturday.