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FOAL TO FINISH LINE

April 2006




By Craig Harzmann

The chain of events that brought Jerry and Ann Moss to Churchill Downs last May can be considered almost magical, for what ultimately resulted in Giacomo’s thrilling victory in the 131st Kentucky Derby — at 50-1, it was pari-mutuel upheaval — started as nothing more than a whim a long time ago.

Giacomo, it turns out, was a project over two decades in the making, over three if you trace the Moss operation back to its nascent stages. At the insistence of a colleague, Jerry Moss bought into his first racehorse back in 1970, albeit with reluctance. Over time, however, his interest became more than just passive. The stable burgeoned through the years — they’d buy some here, breed some there — but never were the Mosses able to unearth that one true gem, that one capable of changing things forever.

 

 Payoff for patience: Jerry and Ann Moss’ Giacomo
winning last year’s Derby

“I will tell you that every April I’d get a little depressed knowing that we weren’t going to have a Derby horse,” admits Moss, who with friend and musician Herb Alpert founded A&M Records in the early ’60s. “I always dreamed about going to the Derby, always wanted to win that race, always had that in my mind. Everybody does. If they don’t they’re just not saying the truth.”

That Giacomo even participated in last spring’s Derby, let alone won it, is a feat that borders on the miraculous.  This was not a colt like Fusaichi Pegasus, a multimillion-dollar messiah on the auction block, or Real Quiet, a bargain-basement steal. The Mosses did not acquire him as a baby, praying that there was potential to be tapped, nor did they pick him up as a ready-made prospect, one with experience already under his belt. Giacomo, in fact, has never even been for sale.

Instead, he is the dividend of the Moss’ breeding and racing pursuits, the long-range embodiment of their patience, passion and foresight. The couple raced his dam and selected his sire, in essence planning his future. They saw him through his birth, through his precious first years, through his transformation from that carefree youngster bursting with promise to a professional athlete of the highest caliber. They’ve known every step he’s taken and every move he’s made — every bump, every bruise and every stride of progress. Whenever he heads into battle, it is the Moss’ signature colors he majestically sports. By definition, Giacomo is a homebred.

There were 35,918 Thoroughbred colts and fillies born in North America back in 2002. Long-shot Giacomo was the one who outshined them all on last year’s first Saturday in May.

“It’s an awesome concept,” Moss professes. “The whole thing is just quite amazing.”

 

 Arthur B. Hancock III with 1982 homebred Derby winner Gato Del Sol, now 27, at Hancock’s Stone Farm.


When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, Giacomo is among what is now an elite but diminished corps. For the better part of the 20th century, Derby-winning homebreds were the rule, not the exception. From 1930 through 1974 alone, horses bred, raised and raced by their owners, including such notables as Twenty Grand, Swaps, Carry Back, Northern Dancer and Riva Ridge, accounted for two out of every three Derby winners. Almost every Triple Crown champion, for that matter — the lone exception being Seattle Slew — was homegrown. 

But the landscape of Thoroughbred racing in America has changed, perhaps irreversibly. Since 1975, only a handful of homebreds have managed to capture the Derby, including a scant five — Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Grindstone (1996), Smarty Jones (2004), and Giacomo — over the last 20 years. Such a dramatic shift is impossible to ignore and begs the obvious question: Why do today’s owners, instead of breeding for long-run greatness, now prefer to buy their way to the country’s greatest race?

“There’s a pretty easy answer to that, honestly,” says John Veitch, currently the chief state racing steward in Kentucky. “We live in an era of instant gratification. It’s very difficult for people to be that patient anymore.” 

Formerly the private trainer for two of the country’s most fabled breeding establishments, Calumet Farm and Darby Dan Farm, Veitch has witnessed this metamorphosis firsthand. The reduced number of homebred Derby winners in recent times, he says, isn’t all that surprising.

 

 Giacomo as a foal in 2002.


“You’ve got to understand,” he explains, “that the whole complexity of our business has changed in the respect that in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, even into the ’60s and ’70s, the vast majority of the better horses in America were bred and retained by their breeder to race. A very high percentage of Thoroughbreds that are produced today are bred and raised to be sold in the commercial market. It’s a commercial operation now where at one time it was a sport.”

History has recorded that Thoroughbred racing throughout most of the last century was purely that, a sport ruled by families — the Whitneys, Woodwards, duPonts, Vanderbilts, Phippses and Guggenheims among them — whose names today still resonate with influence. By and large, the game was theirs and theirs alone, an aristocratic arena in which competition was fierce and sportsmanship had its limits. 

“They bred to race,” says Veitch. “Their emphasis was on winning.”

During this golden era, that attitude drove the sport to extraordinary heights. Legacies were established, racing was king, and its upper-crust players spared no expense in the quest to outdo their peers both on the track and in the breeding shed. They amassed broodmare bands of exquisite lineage and bred them to the most sought-after of stallions, some of whom had been purposely imported from overseas. Their breeding divisions closely resembled factories, producing endless lines of durable equine talent. Their personnel, hired to develop champions, were the best in the business.

And their grail was the Kentucky Derby. The standard for excellence was set highest by Warren and Lucille Wright’s Calumet Farm, which from 1941 through 1968 won the Derby on eight occasions, all with homebreds.  Included among the Calumet pantheon were two Triple Crown legends — Whirlaway, the stable’s first Derby winner, and Citation.

Explains author and racing historian Edward L. Bowen, “A lot of people who raised great horses stood them at stud, and their primary purpose was to breed the next generation of their own horses. They were not as aggressive in trying to sell.”

Eventually, however, the pastime of staking millions to raise prized Thoroughbreds was supplanted by a new desire — raising prized Thoroughbreds to make millions. When exactly the shift toward commercialization began cannot be pinpointed, for the process was gradual, but the factors involved were quite visible. Beginning with Nashua in the mid-1950s and moving forth with greats like Buckpasser and Secretariat, the trend of stallion syndication began a rapid growth, making bloodlines that had once been inaccessible to the breeding populace more available. Coupled with this phenomenon was the skyrocketing value of bloodstock at the nation’s yearling sales. In 1967, Majestic Prince — a future winner of both the Derby and Preakness Stakes — became the highest-priced yearling buy ever, selling
for $250,000. 

“That helped the momentum of the sales,” Bowen believes. “The fact that you could pay what was then a record price for a horse and wind up winning the Derby and Preakness gave a lot of positive feel to the yearling market. I think as a trend, a higher percentage of the best-bred stock has been offered at the yearling sales in the last 30 years than was true prior to that.”

The numbers bear that out. Less than a decade after that milestone, a yearling colt from the first foal crop of Secretariat went for six times Majestic Prince’s price, and the enthusiasm only heightened from there. (Seattle Dancer, a yearling half-brother to Seattle Slew, fetched $13.1 million at auction in 1985; the price stood as an all-time record until this past February, when a two-year-old son of Kentucky stallion Forestry went for a whopping $16 million at a Florida Fasig-Tipton sale.) With this infusion of eminent blood finally in the market and well within reach, many were lured from afar — English, Irish, Middle Eastern and Japanese investors would become the most notable of new interests — and with the 1980s in full swing, those regal pedigrees that were once solely concentrated on American soil were now being dispersed on a global scale.

Contributing to this period of transition, too, was the quiet, collective demise of the nation’s private breeding establishments. Those who for decades had so dominated the game — storied stables including Idle Hour Stock Farm, Belair Stud, Greentree, King Ranch, Darby Dan, Meadow Stud and even Calumet — had not only fallen from stature; they’d all but disappeared.

“By the end of the ’80s, it was almost a done deal,” comments Veitch. “What was once a very desirable and socially prominent sport to be part of, all of that is gone. Almost all of those families are a thing of the past.”

Of course, basic statistics dictate that bringing up a Derby winner from scratch is next to impossible. During the height of Calumet’s reign, the average number of Thoroughbred foals born in North America every year was approximately 7,500. Such a figure pales in comparison to the foal crops of today, which hover around 37,000 annually. Throw in the vicissitudes of the four-year odyssey that takes a Thoroughbred from conception to the Churchill Downs winners’ circle and you have an accomplishment of epic proportions.

“The odds now are much more difficult,” observes Bob McNair, “so it’s a bigger challenge.”

To the general sports world, McNair is best recognized as the owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans. Those in racing circles, however, know him and wife Janice as the couple behind Paris’ Stonerside Farm, today one of the most extensive private operations in the game. The McNairs ran third with homebred Congaree in the 2001 Derby. This year, their hopes are pinned on another Stonerside prospect, Bob and John.

“You probably have a better chance when you’re buying because what you’re doing is selecting out of a much bigger pool of horses,” McNair explains. “With your homebreds you’re limited to the ones you’ve bred, and it’s a much smaller pool. To succeed in my view, you’d have to have extremely high quality of broodmares, and the stallions you breed to just have to be great matches because the numbers you’re dealing with are limited.”

But even those with the greatest of wealth, the most prodigious of breeding stock and the best of intentions have been denied — sometimes interminably — on the first Saturday in May. For nearly a century, the Hancock family has been an American institution, its name as synonymous with the Thoroughbred industry as Kentucky bluegrass.  Under the auspices of second-generation horseman Arthur B. Hancock Sr. and his son, A.B. “Bull” Hancock, well over 200 stakes winners and numerous national champions were bred, born and raised at the family’s historic Claiborne Farm in Paris, but none of them — despite the two men’s dedicated efforts — ever carried the Hancock colors to a Kentucky Derby victory. (Hancock Sr. did breed 1939 Derby winner Johnstown, and another, Jet Pilot in ’47, he bred in partnership, but both horses raced for different owners.)

It wasn’t until 1982 that a Hancock homebred, a gray colt named Gato Del Sol, managed to reach the Derby summit. Since then, few breeders have been able to rival the achievements, especially on the Derby front, of Kentuckian Arthur B. Hancock III. Gato Del Sol, age 27, still resides at Hancock’s Stone Farm in Paris, which through the last quarter-century has also been the birthplace of popular Derby heroes Sunday Silence and Fusaichi Pegasus, runners-up Strodes Creek and Menifee, plus Risen Star, a winner of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. (Fusaichi Pegasus was sold as a yearling and Risen Star as a two-year-old.) Breeding with the Derby in mind is a goal that cannot be oversimplified, but according to Hancock, it is still feasible. Although there are no guarantees — “Anything can happen in this game,” he says — certain fundamentals can at least put aspirants in position to obtain a Derby-caliber runner. Foremost among them is the careful selection of mates.

“The first thing to do is to breed them right. You need to consider the pedigrees,” Hancock begins. “A lot of people today are breeding for speed. It seems like they’re more commercial at the sales. But if you’re trying to breed a horse to win the Derby, the first prerequisite is to make sure that you have a sire that could get a mile and a quarter, a mile and a half, and a dam with some stamina, too. You’ve got to have that. What you want to do is maximize their genetic potential.”

There is more to the equation, however, than bloodlines alone.

“You’ve got to get them all grown up in one piece,” Hancock continues. “Being a good farmer is an art. Like we say, if you take care of the land, the land’ll take care of you, and if you take care of your horses, your horses will take care of you. I believe in that.”

To that end, Stone Farm provides its foals with the optimal conditions for success, from its quiet, spacious fields right down to the hay they eat and the well water they drink. The underpinnings of the Stone program, Hancock emphasizes, are the farm staff, whose painstaking care and commitment are essential in molding the impressionable youngsters of today into the Gato Del Sols, the Risen Stars, and the Sunday Silences of tomorrow. From there, however, the balance of the journey rests in fate’s hands.

“You’ve got to have good luck,” Hancock confesses. “There’s been other horses that we’ve done the same thing with who didn’t do a damned thing, but that happens. If you do all those things right, you’re going to have certainly disappointments, but then you’re going to come up hopefully with that one that makes it all worthwhile.”

For Jerry and Ann Moss, that one arrived in the spring of 2002. It would be over three years, however, before the world would come to know that colt as Giacomo.        

Considering that the Moss breeding program is relatively small-scale, it is no less than monumental that they struck Derby gold with a homebred. What began as just dabbling in the early 1980s, however, has since evolved into a first-rate operation. Their band of broodmares today numbers close to 20, most of whom were superior performers on the track and all possessing a depth of pedigree worthy of only the industry’s finest stallions.

“These are all the kind of mares,” says Moss, “that can throw off that one that’ll change everything, and that’s what we keep going for.”

One of them, a bay named Set Them Free, did just that, remarkable given the fact that her first two offspring never even made it to the races. Even Moss admits, though, that her son Giacomo was not regarded as a bona fide Derby candidate for quite some time. Like many of the Moss homebreds before him, Giacomo had a choice upbringing, romping around the lavish paddocks at Lexington’s Mill Ridge Farm before moving on to Florida to begin his more serious lessons. Initial reports indicated that Giacomo was earning decent grades, that he was progressing well but was certainly no prodigy. Nonetheless, the young gray was given every opportunity to grow into himself, to find his own stride as he was nudged toward the big leagues. Like Hancock, Moss views this ingredient as among the most vital.

“The word ‘develop’ has got to come into this. The most important thing you can do is spend the time to develop a horse,” explains Moss, who was inducted along with Alpert into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March. “I don’t want to liken it to the music business, but in a way it is. For example, if you sign a band you really like, you want their first experience in the recording studio to be pleasant, to be fun. You don’t want them to have a “down” time, or then they look at the recording studio like work. You want them to sail through it, have a great time, and come up with some stuff they never knew they had inside of them. And the same thing is true with a horse. You don’t want to rush him. You want to take it nice and slow.

“At least when you breed a horse, you know pretty much what you’ve got,” Moss concludes. “Every step of the way there are no surprises. To breed and win a Kentucky Derby, it takes a lot of luck, needless to say. Everything has to fall into place. Everything has to be perfect. And I got a taste of it.”

 Not for Sale

As this issue goes to press, here are eight homebreds with a shot at winning the Kentucky Derby:

• Barbican, Darley Stable

• Bluegrass Cat, WinStar Farm

• Bob and John, Stonerside Stable

• Dawn of War, Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey

• Dr. Pleasure, John C. Oxley

• Lawyer Ron, the estate of James T. Hines Jr.

• Music School, William S. Farish, James Elkins Jr. and  W.T. Webber Jr.

• My Golden Song, Centaur Farms

 

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