Chasing Down the Derby

Case Clay, the president of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., looks over the mare as she’s led around the paddock. In that instant, the horse aggressively pulls her head away from the handler’s grasp, and Clay gets a good look in her eyes. “Oh, she’s going to win!” he says, suppressing a laugh and hiding a grin. Two days from now in Lexington, Ky., Mizdirection is set to cross the block at a “mixed” auction consisting of weanlings (horses just weaned from their mothers), mares, and fillies. Three Chimneys Farm will serve as the agent for Mizdirection during that sale, and it stands to reason that a win here would only increase the odds that she will sell for a considerable amount.

About 20 minutes later, Clay is standing by the rail, watching the horses as they’re loaded into the starting gate at the opposite end of the track. “Nervous?” I ask him.

“Not really,” he replies. “You know, I typically don’t get nervous before a race.”

Moments later, the bell rings, the gates open, and the horses bound down the track.

“Now I’m nervous,” he says. “There are so many more variables that come into play as soon as the gates open. So much can go right, but you can still have a bad start. When the gates open, the uncertainty comes back into play and sometimes the best horse doesn’t win.”

Fortunately for Clay (and for the partnership that owns Mizdirection), it’s a good start for the mare. She breaks out of the starting gate and establishes her position on the outside, but she’s soon overtaken by Reneesgotzip, a 4-year-old filly, and Tightend Touchdown, a 4-year-old gelding, who sprint out in front of the pack. The filly holds the lead for much of the race, but with only about 200 yards to go, her main pursuers, most notably Tightend Touchdown, begin to make up ground. It looks as though the two 4-year-olds will duel it out for first. Mizdirection will have to settle for third, provided she can make up some ground. All of a sudden, however, the seasoned mare begins closing in on the leaders.

In only five seconds, she sprints from five lengths back to an even position with the filly, but the mare isn’t slowing. Just like she did the year before, Mizdirection surges past the leaders to claim her second Breeders’ Cup victory. “There’s no greater thrill than to own a horse that goes from last to first,” Clay says. “It can’t be described unless you experience it.”

Mizdirection’s come-from-behind victory isn’t quite that extreme, but her last-second surge is dramatic all the same, and according to Clay, the mare’s ability to repeat such a performance against a field of top racehorses—most of them males and many of them younger—is her crowning achievement. “If you find a filly that can beat the colts, they’re usually pretty special,” he says. “Back-to-back Breeders’ Cups as a filly is remarkable.”

The buzz surrounding the 2013 Breeders’ Cup is a positive sign for horse racing; and while it’s unlikely that the sport will ever regain the popularity that it enjoyed during the mid-20th century, recent activity within the industry—specifically at auctions—suggests that its popularity is on the rise. Ironically, it comes at a time when the number of races and the number of foals born each year are at their lowest levels in almost a quarter century.

Back in 1988, more than 45,000 foals were born, but by 2012 that number was estimated at less than 23,000. In 1989, more than 74,000 horse races were held across the United States, but by 2012 that number had dwindled to slightly more than 45,000. Conversely, the total value of the purses for those races has steadily increased, from slightly more than $675 million in 1988 to more than $1.1 billion in 2012. It may seem like there’s more money to be won and less competition to face, but with fewer races there’s also less opportunity for owners to establish their horses’ abilities. Geoffrey Russell, the director of sales for the Keeneland Association in Lexington, Ky., puts the odds for top success in perspective: “23,000 foals are born in North America each year,” he says, “but only 20 horses start in the Kentucky Derby, and only one wins.”

For every Mizdirection that makes headlines and captures titles, there are thousands of horses that never set foot inside the winner’s circle. Even so, success can come in numerous forms, and there are many different strategies to finding it.

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