Chasing Down the Derby

  • Shaun Tolson

Nearing the end of the third day of Keeneland’s yearling sale in September, a bay filly enters the sales ring. She is sired by Indian Charlie, a Grade 1 stakes-winning horse with a bloodline that connects to Northern Dancer (winner of the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and considered by many to be the most influential sire of the 20th century), but she also has connections to Seattle Slew and Secretariat. According to Barbara Banke, who bought a majority share of Curlin after his first race in 2007, this filly is teeming with potential. Like Curlin, who also had an alluring pedigree, this filly is enticing for her athletic features.

“Curlin hooked me,” Banke says. “He never had a bad day or a bad week. He ran in the rain and the sun, in Dubai and in California; he was tough as nails. Most people don’t get a Curlin in their lifetime; but now I’m greedy.”

At this juncture of the auction—Book 1, which comprises the blue chip yearlings of this year’s sale—prices are at their highest for the 12-day event. Bloodstock agent John Moynihan, who buys horses on behalf of his two clients, Banke and Bolton, compares this stage of the auction to that of a classic car sale. “You have to keep your standards very high,” he explains. “It’s like looking for a Ferrari. If you don’t find the Ferrari, you don’t buy. We’re always trying to find that great prospect.”

Banke concurs, but when it comes to yearling sales, she prefers to buy horses that fly more under the radar. “In Book 1, you need both breeding and conformation or you will have overpaid,” she says, explaining that in the premier group of horses, an animal’s bone structure, posture, and gait must be as eye-catching as its bloodlines. “In Book 2 you can focus a little more on athleticism over pedigree.

“It’s great to find a diamond in the rough, but it’s better to breed them,” she continues. “We don’t coddle them; we try to toughen them up. We pride ourselves on being able to do that.”

That may sound a bit harsh—like a Cold War Soviet gymnastics training program—but the “toughening-up” process at Banke’s Stonestreet Farm in Lexington, Ky., isn’t carried out through overly strenuous workouts or grueling training regimens. Instead, it happens years before a horse ever meets a trainer; before the horse is even born. It all comes down to calculated breeding, and for Banke, the chairman and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines in Fulton, Calif., the process is not unlike cultivating a vineyard of grapes that someday will produce a superlative wine. If owners want a horse with a competitive spirit—but they don’t want to spend the seven figures to buy one as a 2-year-old—they must first find the horses that embody such a will to win and hope that those characteristics are passed on to their progeny.

Much is left to chance with such a strategy, which is why auctions can be a desirable place for Thoroughbred owners. Plenty can happen from the time a horse is 1 year old until it turns 2 (an age when it will start racing), and how a horse looks as a yearling is not necessarily how it will shape up as a 2-year-old. However, owners buying at auction at least have more control over the acquisition of a horse in the sales ring than they do over how a horse turns out through selective breeding.

Without question, Banke and her team would love to own the filly currently in the sales ring, but it’s unclear if they’ll end up with her. They’ve set their limit at $350,000, and once the bidding inches above that it seems clear that they’ll have to move on. “So much for three-fifty,” a Stonestreet staff member whispers to Moynihan, who is sitting next to her. Moynihan continues to survey the horse in the ring and does little to acknowledge her statement.

The hammer hits at $390,000 a couple of minutes later, and only then, when the bid spotter acknowledges Moynihan near the back of the auditorium, do Banke and the rest of her team learn that their bloodstock agent had pursued the filly beyond their original limit. “You bought her?” that same staff member asks in a shocked tone.

Some members of the Stonestreet team have a hard time adjusting to the news, but that doesn’t mean their trust in Moynihan has wavered. Furthermore, there’s a sparkle in Banke’s eye as the filly is led out of the sales ring. “If she runs, you have to come to all of her races,” Banke tells me.

Only time will tell if the filly will possess the talent and the spirit to win on the racetrack. For now, Banke can only hope that she will. But then, hope is the only guaranteed asset that comes with the purchase of a yearling.

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