06/04/2008 11:00PM

Better Than Honour treated like precious jewel

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - John Sikura keeps a close eye on Better Than Honour, and with good reason. A 12-year-old Deputy Minister mare, Better Than Honour already is a unique commodity as the only dam to produce back-to-back winners of the Belmont Stakes: the colt Jazil in 2006 and filly Rags to Riches in 2007. If her son Casino Drive takes this year's Belmont, her value, both as a financial and an historical asset, will soar.

Only eight mares have ever produced a pair of American classic winners, but none has done what Better Than Honour has, which makes her value difficult to assess. Bloodstock experts and breeders say that if Casino Drive makes it a three-peat, his dam could be worth between $12 million and $15 million. The current world-record broodmare price, set by Playful Act last year at auction, is $10.5 million.

Sikura, who owns the mare in a partnership that also includes Mike Moreno of Southern Equine Stables, says only that Better Than Honour already has "stallion value," meaning her worth approaches what people ordinarily would pay for an active stallion capable of making money back in stud fees. Indeed, Better Than Honour's payoffs have been substantial. Her five foals to appear at auction so far have sold, collectively, for $6 million, and, at age 12, Better Than Honour should have years of productivity left.

Needless to say, Sikura makes sure she's always under a watchful eye.

"She's kept in a paddock by herself on the main driveway, where every time I come to work or go home from work, I pass her," said Sikura, 50, owner of Hill 'n' Dale Farms in Lexington. "She's in a high-traffic area so that we can always see her. If there's ever bad weather or a problem, if she ever needs to be turned out or brought in, it's easy and she's accessible."

Sikura bought Better Than Honour twice - first privately from Robert Waxman in 2000, then again in 2006, before Jazil's Belmont. In between, Better Than Honour has kept improving her produce record.

Sikura bred and raced the first of Better Than Honour's foals, the 2001 Storm Cat filly Teeming, but he sold Better Than Honour herself in 2002 to Stanley and Ira Gumberg of Skara Glen Stable. He did so regretfully, he later acknowledged, but the Gumbergs' offer - in excess of $2 million - was too good to turn down.

The deal worked out especially well for the Gumbergs. Better Than Honour was carrying an A.P. Indy filly when they bought her, and they sold that daughter, Magnificent Honour, for $925,000. They bred both Jazil and Rags to Riches, selling them as yearlings for $725,000 and $1.9 million.

Better Than Honour changed hands again in 2004, when the Gumbergs sold her to Coolmore for $2 million. She was carrying Casino Drive, and although a Coolmore group called Shell Bloodstock would get credit on paper as the colt's breeder, the mating was planned by the Gumbergs.

"Mineshaft was a multiple Grade 1 winner, and we thought it was a great combination of tremendous physicals with very strong pedigrees on both the top and the bottom," said Ira Gumberg, 54. "On the top side, A.P. Indy crossed with Mr. Prospector is the mating for Mineshaft, and then the Deputy Minister-Blushing Groom is the crossing that comes with Better Than Honour's family. From that perspective, we thought it was an unusual combination. Physically, Mineshaft was a strong-boned horse, which we thought matched up well with Better Than Honour."

By breeding to Mineshaft, the Gumbergs were following a pattern similar to the one that got Rags to Riches. The 2007 Belmont winner is by A.P. Indy, also Mineshaft's sire. (To get Jazil, they bred Better Than Honour to Seeking the Gold, a son of Mr. Prospector.)

Casino Drive was born on March 7, 2005, at Creekview, a division of Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. But he wasn't there for long. The Coolmore group sent him to auction as a weanling in Sikura's consignment at the 2005 Keeneland November sale, well before Jazil and Rags to Riches would emerge as stars.

"He was a long, elegant horse, slightly straight in his pasterns, a good walker," Sikura recalled. "More of an elegant, classic-type horse rather than the typical buy-to-resell type horse. The typical foals that are coveted at auction are those very mature, well-muscled, advanced, precocious types.

"A Mineshaft colt out of a mare that gets a mile-and-a-half horse is probably not the most commercial in nature because of who the buying public is. It's not a reflection on the horse; it's more a reflection of that marketplace."

Coolmore withdrew the colt from the sale. But he had already caught Shay Knight's eye. Knight, a retired trainer who now acts as a bloodstock consultant, recommended the colt to Dr. Mark Dedomenico, a West Coast-based heart surgeon and pinhooker, as a potential resale prospect.

"I thought he was an outstanding-looking colt, and he was one of the first foals by Mineshaft to be sold, and, you know, he was a tremendous racehorse with a great pedigree," said Knight, 73. "I liked his overall balance, and he had a great walk. You want them to step out a little bit and have a presence about them and make sure he walks correctly. He wasn't all that developed, but you could look into the bone structure and just imagine what he would develop into."

Knight and Dedomenico struck a private deal for Casino Drive, paying $350,000, then sent him to Denali Stud in Lexington to mature. By the 2006 Keeneland September yearling sale, the colt had blossomed. And Jazil had won the Belmont just three months before, launching Better Than Honour's classic spree.

"He was a very good-looking yearling, and I talked myself blue in the face to people I knew about him, but they'd all say, 'Aw, he's gonna bring too much for what we want to pay,' " Knight recalled. "And, actually, we thought he'd bring a little more than what he did, to tell you the truth. But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. We were speculating."

The gamble paid off when bloodstock agent Nobutaka Tada, representing Japanese entrepreneur Hidetoshi Yamamoto, paid $950,000 for the colt.

"He was from a great family," Tada said of Casino Drive. "The thing we liked the most about him was the way he walked. He was very athletic with very smooth action."

Yamamoto brought Casino Drive to Japan with thoughts of running him on the turf, but plans changed in 2007 when he, Tada, and trainer Kazuo Fujisawa watched Rags to Riches become the third filly in history to win the Belmont.

"We watched the race together with the owner at Tokyo racetrack, and we were very moved the way she won," Tada said. "We told each other, 'We have to go there next year.' We knew he was good then, but we didn't know how good he was. We still don't know. He could be so much better than we have seen."

Casino Drive has won both his starts, a Japanese maiden race and the May 10 Peter Pan, by a combined 16 3/4 lengths.

Sikura, unhappy he sold her back in 2002, bought Better Than Honour privately in partnership in 2006, a few months before Jazil's Belmont. Having gotten her back at Hill 'n' Dale, he's not taking any chances with his treasure of a mare, who was bred to Distorted Humor this year.

"We treat her like a horse," he said, "but with an asset of that considerable nature, you'd be foolish if you didn't do everything you could to make sure she's protected. I want to keep her close and keep her settled.

"It's kind of like owning a Monet painting, and when there's only one - if you think about it too much, it makes you nervous."