11/28/2010 1:50PM

Mr. Lucky

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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. 

Blackseabass More than 1 year ago
Jay, I noticed the same thing F Mitchell did but it doesn't really matter. The original Hancock married into Ellerslie ( i believe) shortly after the civil war. The old adage applies that its not Whatcha but Whoya know that matters. Yes Claiborne is one of the original breeding ops . that embarked on the trend of breeding for sales and reducing the stoutness and durability of the breed. JMO. I guess it makes sense for Pegram to sell Lucky but how much money does any one guy need. I agree with others that Pegram seems a little more regular than most of the rest of the "horse community" most of whom are more severly inbred than the horses are. Those "Royals" will eventually find themselves at square one again and be racing amongst themselves down a dirt road with no actual players that care a whit.
Jeff T. More than 1 year ago
Again Jay, another great article and debate for the ages. There is nothing more that I could add that hasn't already been said. The reason for my comment is to thank you for the wonderful article on Bobby's remaining crew. This article was easily your best and the classiest tribute to one of the greatest.
Maggie More than 1 year ago
O.k., so the breeding industry continues to cut it's nose off to spite it's face...When people finally quit going out to the track altogether, will that be incentive enough to keep a horse in training long enough to generate a following for a horse? Do these owners read up on how racing is losing fans and attendance every year? Thank goodness Zenyatta stayed in training as long as she did!
PM More than 1 year ago
From the number which has been mentioned there is no one on here who would blame those guys. I thought it was strange they sold Lucky, now not so. Congrats to them, they got silly mad money.
Ron Jones More than 1 year ago
Just one little quibble: Real Quiet did not race past his 4-year-old year. Think back and you'll remember the legal hassle over his sale price.
dafo More than 1 year ago
the idea that an owner should be poked for selling a horse is rediculous. mike pegram has been a great ambassador for the sport. when he brought lucky to oaklawn, he and tice didn't sit in the "jockey club" they were having a brew in the sports bar. when the iron is hot and apparently coolmore heated the iron one would have to do what is best for his business if indeed he plans in staying in the sport. horseracing needs more "kings" like pegram. we should all thank him for putting the capital on the line so we could get goosebumbs enjoying the performances of such great horses.
Mr. Ed More than 1 year ago
Hovdey-san, I believe you are correct in your view that it is a shame that Lookin' at Lucky will not race next year. And many people have mentioned various reasons why retiring colts after their 3 year-old season is obviously detrimental to the sport. I have a specific belief about this situation that you may find interesting, and may be worth your while to investigate (since you are making some noise about the "early-retirement syndrome" anyway). My belief is that when colts are retired before the end of their fourth year (at least -- possibly before the end of their fifth year) they are too immature and undeveloped physically as well as mentally to be legitimately effective as studs. In other words, I believe the current early-retirement practices are a very substantial reason why each succeeding crop of colts is getting weaker and weaker, while fillies are getting stronger and bigger. It's like pairing up "the graduate" with "Mrs. Robinson;" could anyone realistically imagine that the offspring of a mating like that would produce anything other than a baby girl? A 3 year-old colt is still a college-level athlete, and to send him off to "stud" to a bunch of mature, very, uh... experienced mares will undoubtedly result in him getting "psychically dominated" until he matures into being more of a "man" of a horse, and able to produce robust colts. It really does not matter what the "scientific community" may think of this idea. I am appealing to your instinct. What do you think? Check it out....
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Hi Jay, (real-deal) You as always make some of the best, well reasoned and thoughtful arguments for the sport of horse racing (real upset, there). Imagine, horses racing! (It's easy if you try). Something along the lines of today's Hollywood Derby would suffice. If that finish didn't get the heart pounding I'd probably suggest shuffleboard. Kudos to Garret Gomez for another fine ride. It was a tad rough, but it was great, thrillin' racin'. And the finish was a walk off. No drum beat of "to the breeding shed". (Money's what I want). But in your plea for the racing of horses YOU did printed the Z word once, so I must look back if just for an instant. OK, so here's the scenario. A horse completes a triple of the Stephen Foster, Whitney Stakes and BC Classic at Churchill Downs where he defeats the previous years' BC Classic winner straight up. The previous years BC Classic winner came into the race with a greater body of work, however, and five Grade 1 wins at 4 different tracks for the current season. So when they vote for horse of the year, the defeated horse in the current year wins the HOY Eclipse Award as the 5 Grade 1 wins and greater body of work rules the day. The vision of some over-medicated, hallucinogenic lunatic? No: it actually happened and the year was 1998. Awesome Again was the Foster, Whitney, BC Classic winner, although the Foster was just a Grade 2 back then. Skip Away was the defeated, defending BC Classic champ with 5 Grade 1s and the greater body of work, and hence – 1998 HOY. They got the vote right. And granted, Skip Away ran in open company while adding the G-2 Suburban and G-3 MassCap. So although it wasn't in open company, Zenyatta does have 5 Grade 1 wins at 4 different tracks. And she did go to Arkansas to face defending HOY Rachel Alexandra in the G-1 Apple Blossom. It wasn't her fault that RA bowed out rather than come up a cropper. But the point would be that limited campaigns have there drawbacks - Awesome Again was actually 6 for 6 vs. Blame's 4 for 5. What Awesome Again did in the past, and Blame did (or didn't do) leaves the door open for a horse that, though beaten in head to head completion, has the better resume. And isn't a resume what Rachel Alexandra was really about in last years HOY vote? Regardless, 12 years later, Skip Away(18 wins - 9.6 mil in earnings – danced every dance) is remembered fondly by even casual racing fans. And so are the late Sonny Hines and his wife Carolyn, who were respectively the trainer and owner of Skip Away. Mention Awesome Again (12 starts – 9 wins) and you are likely to get a blank stare as if to ask: Who was he? I suspect that situation will be similar down the road with Blame (13 starts – 9 wins) and Zenyatta. Because the former was so lightly raced he will be soon forgotten and only remembered for being the horse-for-course that got the perfect trip to upset Zenyatta. The latter, on the other hand, will be long remembered as an All-Time great (19 and 1 ain't so bad). The connections will come to mind also – each one. For now, people fondly recollect the first time they saw Big Z. They will remember her last race as well. Heck, even the doubters will remember her last race. There could even be a movie down the road where the 2010 BC Classic at Churchill Downs is recreated. It would be in the movie about Zenyatta. I don't know how the Horse of the Year will turn out, BUT some people will look at the body of work for the two and vote their conscience. Because the Foster, Whitney and BC Classic triple has been trumped before. In 1998 (long-long-time ago). Thanks for your time and consideration in this matter. hi-ho silver away!
Scott Ricketts More than 1 year ago
Amen Jay!! But as Pegram said "everybody has their price"! Sad reality!
Stacy More than 1 year ago
Sorry to say it but the industry does this to themselves. They staunchly support the new stallions and therefore the farms have the cash at hand to spend. If he has 200 foals (not an unreasonable number since he could cover 220) that's 7 million dollars and then if he has another 100 down under at the same fee that's 3.5 so with a three year depreciation schedule he'd earn them somewhere around 25 million.