11/28/2010 1:50PM

Mr. Lucky


Fair is fair, so if I am going to poke Seth Hancock and Edward Evans for retiring their perfectly sound and happy 4-year-olds Blame and Quality Road to stallion duty, thereby depriving racing fans of two bonafide stars who provided both continuity and reliable pari-mutuel investment, then it is only right to rattle Mike Pegram's cage about his sale of 3-year-old Lookin at Lucky to the Coolmore stallion machine. 

As colleague Steve Crist pointed out in a recent column, Lookin at Lucky was the first 2-year-old colt since Spectacular Bid (1978-79) to earn championships at both 2 and 3. Driving this trend is the fact that the ensuing years have been dominated by the Breeders' Cup, which began in 1984. Rather than allow the top 2-year-olds to meander through the final months of the season, seeking the best races that made sense in terms of their development, owners and trainers now point for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which more often than not determines the champion. Such an artificial schedule imposed at a critical time in the emergence of young talent has thinned the ranks of top 2-year-olds before they even make it to their classic season.

Which makes Lookin at Lucky all the more precious to the sport, as well as valuable to those who held his future in their hands. Still, I deluded myself into thinking that we'd at least see Lookin at Lucky perform in 2011, when he would have begun the year as the top older horse in training, with such main track events as the Santa Anita Handicap, Met Mile, Stephen Foster, Whitney, Goodwood and a return to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in store. Say it ain't so, Big Mike.

"Unfortunately we've all got a price, and they found mine," Pegram said earlier this week, in the wake of the announcement that Lookin at Lucky would be standing at Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Kentucky, for a fee of $35,000. "We kept on saying no, but it's just like the quarter horse business -- you don't know you've got a price until you hear it. You hate to do it, but on the other hand, if you never sell a horse in this business, you will go broke."

Hancock and Evans, both second generation leaders of the breeding industry, have little in common with the way Pegram has gone about his racing business. Their dads left them Claiborne Farm and Buckland Farm, respectively. Pegram's father had a McDonald's franchise, which provided an entree for Mike to eventually build into a small empire. After shifting from quarter horses to Thoroughbreds,  Pegram went years rarely spending more than a hundred-grand for an animal. His best horses were relative bargains, and as such, they were not what you'd call commercially bred. Pegram's Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet was by Quiet American. His Dubai World Cup winner Captain Steve was by Fly So Free. His sprint champion Midnight Lute is a son of Real Quiet.

Given that nobody was beating down his door for those horses -- at least not until Midnight Lute won his second Breeders' Cup Sprint -- it should come as no surprise that Real Quiet, Captain Steve and Midnight Lute all raced as 5-year-olds. Lookin at Lucky, on the other hand, is by Curlin's sire Smart Strike and out of a Belong to Me mare, which gave him the juice to command whatever serious stallion money was out there.

Pegram was the principal owner of Lookin at Lucky along with his Arizona partners, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. Mike declined to disclose the terms of the deal, which is fine, since it's just monopoly money to the rest of us and presumably they did the math: roughly, 100 mares x $35,000 = $3.5 million, which is a pretty good year's work for a stallion who only stands in the U.S. Top that with whatever Coolmore can get for Lookin at Lucky in Australia, and the numbers begin to dwarf what he could have earned on the racetrack. Except for one thing ...

"If Dubai was run on dirt, we probably would have reconsidered selling him," Pegram said. "What that race is worth, winning it would have gotten us out next year, and made sense keeping him in training. But with the Dubai World Cup being on 'poly,' the World Cup was not in his future." 

Although Lookin at Lucky trained constantly on synthetics and ran well when asked, he enjoyed his greatest success on dirt tracks. The new Meydan Racecourse in Dubai has a Tapeta synthetic surface.

"If we were faced with standing him ourselves, we would have raced him instead," Pegram said. "But in today's economy, when there's more risk than there is possible gain, you really have to reevaluate how you've been thinking in the past."

On the day after this year's Breeders' Cup, in the wake of Lookin at Lucky's fourth-place finish to Blame and Zenyatta in the Classic, Pegram paid a visit to Silverbulletday at a Lexington farm with J.R. McKathan, one of his advisors. Like his colt, the filly version of Silverbulletday was a champion at 2 and 3, and worth a great sum as a broodmare when she came to the end of her racing career at 4.

"I took the acid test with her," Pegram said. "And she has not been successful as a broodmare. Standing there, with Lookin at Lucky going through my mind, I looked at J.R. and said, 'I'm gonna tell you something real stupid. I'm glad I never sold this mare.' I felt it from the heart, and at that point in time I thought I'd probably be the same way with Lucky."

Too bad for us, though. Not since the great reaping of 2007, when the 3-year-olds Street Sense, Hard Spun and Any Given Saturday were hustled off to stud, has the retirement of a young star hit with such impact. If nothing else, it has become clear that the only way to generate any long-term star power in the face of the pressures exerted by the breeding market is to pray -- fervently, loudly, and on your knees -- for nothing but great mares and geldings to lead the sport out of the wilderness.