Thursday, May 7, 2009

At what price, greatness?

Phenomenal filly Rachel Alexandra, devastating winner of the 2009 Kentucky Oaks, has been sold to Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable for an undisclosed sum, with the racing industry buzzing that she's being pointed toward facing colts in the May 16 Preakness or maybe the Belmont Stakes in June.

And it leaves me me to wonder: Is this the ultimate proof of the adage that every man has his price?

Yes, racehorses are bought and sold every day. And just as cream rises to the top, the most exceptional horses -- particularly when originally owned by comparatively modest connections -- tend to find their way up the financial ranks into wealthier stables.

Saturday's Kentucky Derby was a prime example. Surprise 50-1 winner Mine That Bird had been a $9,500 Keeneland yearling. But when the gelding from Belmont-winner Birdstone's first crop established himself as a talented 2-year-old by winning three straight blacktype races at Woodbine -- including the Grade 3 Grey Stakes, securing a Canadian 2-year-old championship -- he was sold privately. Mine That Bird in barely a year had become a $400,000 horse bound for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, dealt away by Dominion Bloodstock, D. Ball and HGHR Inc. to Double Eagle Ranch (Mark Allen) and Buena Suerte Equine (Dr. Leonard P. Blach); Allen being flush with cash from the $30 million sale of his family's oil field services company.

Jess Jackson of course has been down this road before. When Curlin, a $57,000 yearling, looked every bit the freak in breaking his maiden for Midnight Cry Stable as a 3-year-old at Gulfstream Park in February 2007, an 80 percent interest was sold to a team of Jackson (founder of Kendall-Jackson Wines), Satish Sanan's Padua Stables, and San Francisco investment banker George Bolton. Their price for four-fifths of a horse: $3.5 million. Their reward: The bulk of $10,501,800 in earnings and four U.S. championships, including back-to-back Horse of the Year titles.

But this one is different. This one is Rachel Alexandra.

It isn't just that she's won seven of 10 races in her young career, including a trio of Grade 2 events and the recent G1 Oaks by a seemingly effortless 20-ish lengths, earning more than $958,000 already for L & M Partners -- Dolphus Morrison and minority stakeholder Michael Lauffer.

It goes beyond the fact that the daughter of Medaglia D'Oro would have to be considered about a 1-to-5 shot for Eclipse Champion 3-year-old filly. And that if dollar signs, not thrills and glory, are the primary motivator, she would -- barring catastrophe (racing or reproductively) -- make millions more for Morrison and Lauffer on the track and for years to come with her foals at the sales.

It's about sentiment. And loyalty. And strength of convictions.

Rachel Alexandra wasn't bought by Morrison at any sale or at any price. He was the filly's breeder, who also bred her dam, Fair Grounds stakes winner Lotta Kim (Roar-Kim's Blues, by Cure the Blues), and Lotta Kim's blacktype-winning half-siblings Lotta Rhythm (by Rhythm) and High Blues (High Yield). This filly is the ultimate dream for a smaller breeder; the Grade 1-caliber culmination of a decade-or-more process that began with a four-win, non-blacktype runner in Kim's Blues who proved to be a heck of a producer.

But Morrison took the sentiment a step further with this filly. He named her Rachel Alexandra -- after his granddaughter. At what price does one sell outright his grandchild's namesake?

When the time to race came, Morrison turned the filly over to his longtime trainer, Hal Wiggins. The two have worked with one another since Morrison transitioned from racing Quarter Horses into the thoroughbred world some two decades ago. And they've had their very good days, including eight stakes wins by the Lost Code mare Morris Code, bought as a yearling by Wiggins as agent for Morrison, a runner who earned the duo nearly three quarters of a million dollars.

How sick must Hal Wiggins be right now? He just won the biggest race of his life in the Kentucky Oaks; his first-ever Grade 1. And in less than a week, the filly that took him there -- the best horse he ever conditioned, who might have brought him a Breeders' Cup, perhaps an Eclipse -- is sold and led away from his string to a barn where they muck the stalls of graded stakes horses every day.

"My wife was hurt, because she knew it was hurting me," Wiggins told The Blood-Horse Thursday. "I talked to her this morning, and I told her the sun was going to rise just like it does every morning. Time does a whole lot no matter what it is, and we have a lot to be thankful for, so we keep thinking about that."

How many boxes of Band-Aids is that broken heart gonna take?

Morrison, a steel company president away from the track, did sell Lauffer an interest in Rachel Alexandra last fall. But he chose to maintain majority ownership and retain principal decision-making power over campaigning her. And that's where strength of convictions come in.

Trackside and nationwide, wise guys say Rachel Alexandra could've won the Derby. Considering a 50-1 shot that nobody saw coming arose to claim the Roses, in a pretty average Derby time, it's certainly possible. But Morrison believed she didn't belong in that race, for a number of reasons.

"I thought it was dumb to come right behind Eight Belles with something that possibly could cause that kind of problem," Morrison told The Blood-Horse, though he praised that ill-fated filly's trainer, Larry Jones, for taking the Derby trail with Eight Belles in light of likewise having a favorite in the Oaks, eventual winner Proud Spell.

Morrison also cited the undeniable risks the Derby presents to any contestant -- intact, gelded or female.

"I just don't like the idea of 20 horses clang-banging her and knocking each other's brains out in that first 200 or 300 yards trying to get to that first turn," he continued in the Blood-Horse interview.

But Morrison's opposition to running his famed filly in the Derby went beyond the risk to her health.

"I’m kind of weird," Morrison told The Blood-Horse. "I think the Derby is a colts' race and it’s there to showcase the horses that are the top potential stallions. It’s kind of stupid for some jerk with a filly to screw that up."

So now in under a week, Morrison and Lauffer sell Rachel Alexandra to Jackson, and if she does show up in the Preakness, the sellers almost have to have known when they took the money where she was headed.

At what price do you sell a filly when you expect the buyer will take her in a direction that you believed was wrong?

Granted, the Preakness is a different race. For starters, it just isn't "The Derby." Figuring for scratches, there will probably be 10 or 12 starters at Pimlico instead of the Churchill classic's 19 or 20. And while about half of those will be running back from the Derby -- including, as of this writing, winner Mine That Bird -- the other half will be colts and geldings who weren't good enough to gain Derby admittance; fair to say a softer group.

But if she tries the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra will still be a filly in against boys, likely asked for everything she has for a mile and three sixteenths, when form suggests she might win Pimlico's Grade 2 Black Eyed Susan at 9 furlongs versus fillies in a relative canter.

Maybe having seen how the Derby played out, Morrison's mind was changing about whether fillies should run among colts. If so, he could've said as much -- and noted the two races' different circumstances -- and few in the industry or its fan base would've thought ill of his change of heart. Many would likely applaud his sportsmanship for giving Mine That Bird and the boys a run for their money. But Morrison, 74 years of age and long a commercial breeder, has now suggested he's getting too "up in years" to concern himself with Rachel Alexandra's potential profitability for him after racing and, we can infer, the effect such a dramatic win would have on her value as a broodmare. (Jackson, 79, sure has given thought to such things; when retired, Rachel Alexandra is already destined to meet Curlin.)

In fact, Morrison says he'd have sold Rachel Alexandra as a 2-year-old except he didn't think he'd get what she was worth.

So that's what it comes down to -- money. And Morrison, like Jackson, has been down this road before. He knows what it's like to sell the dream.

Morrison in 1999 bred a filly named You by mating You And I to the mare Our Dani, by Homebuilder. He saved her from being a cheap sale as a Keeneland yearling by buying her back for $9,000, put her in training and raced her twice (a win and a place), then sold her privately to Edmund Gann. You won eight of 21 starts for Gann ... five Grade 1 stakes ... final earnings $2,101,353.

"I have some regrets," said Morrison of You, "but given the facts at the time, I'd do the same thing again."

And he did.

For most people in the racing business, these these horses are indeed commodities. Even when they bear your granddaughter's name.

Before you light the torches and organize the mob, trust me when I say I'm not particularly being critical here; not of Morrison for selling Rachel Alexandra, nor of Jackson for buying her perhaps in hopes of testing her against colts. I don't know either gentleman, though from their histories, I have every reason to believe that both men absolutely love horse racing and admire the animals who give their all for the game. So I, as an observer, respect both of them. And from the earthy nature of Morrison's quotes, I have a feeling the small town Kansas boy in me would like that man a lot.

As for running fillies vs. colts, I can see points on both sides, but likely wouldn't hesitate to put a girl of mine in the gate against anyone's boys if I truly thought she could whip 'em. And besides, horse racing's house isn't merely big enough for differing opinions; with a glowing tote board in the infield and betting windows at every turn, that house is built upon them.

But at a time like this, when a homebred filly who has done everything her breeder could hope for is sold away, I'm compelled try and get inside that seller's mind. Because if I had bred a filly like this one, named her for my daughter, and had just shared her Grade 1 glory with a friend and trusted partner in horsemanship for 20 years, I'm not sure Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin would have the kind of cash reserves it would take to buy me out.

But who knows. It's said that every man has his price.

I'd be eager to know exactly what that number was for Dolphus Morrison.


  1. Welcome to the blogging world! You're off to a great start.

  2. Fair post on an interesting topic with lots of pros and cons, can't really blame Morrison for taking his chips off the table, I'm sure there were 8 to 10 million reasons why! Welcome to the blogosphere.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.