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'Derek' traveled back roads to fame
The sales season for 2-year-olds is about to begin in earnest, which means John Brocklebank and the rest of the crew flying the BC3. Thoroughbreds banner already have packed up and headed West from their base of operations in the town of South Jordan, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City, where their pinhooked yearlings spend each winter learning the ropes.
Brocklebank has high hopes for the 2-year-olds he'll be selling at the Barretts auction on March 14, among them sons of such stallions as El Corredor, Quiet American, and Richter Scale. Chances are, they will get serious scrutiny, and not simply because Brocklebank is becoming increasingly familiar as a purveyor of quality horseflesh. This time around, when Brocklebank works the crowd at Barretts, he'll be known as the man who sold Brother Derek.
In the time it took to run a mile in 1:36 and change on the afternoon of Jan. 14, beating uncrowned division champ Stevie Wonderboy in the process, Brother Derek wrote his name in large letters across the Triple Crown consciousness of North America. Coming on top of an equally impressive score in the Hollywood Futurity, Brother Derek's victory in the San Rafael Stakes was a star-making event, the kind of performance that requires context, and turns the people in his life into semi-celebrities.
If nothing else, Brother Derek, a California-bred son of Benchmark, has proven once again that a good horse can come from anywhere. In his case, the journey has taken him from the banks of the Rogue River in Oregon, to the Taj Mahal of sales rings at Keeneland, to a municipal horse facility in Utah, then on to the L.A. County fairgrounds, where California trainer Dan Hendricks and Canadian owner Cecil Peacock took him off Brocklebank's hands for $275,000 at the Barretts March sale of 2005.
As a 2-year-old sales grad, Brother Derek falls right in line with a popular current trend. Indeed, three of the first four finishers in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile were offered to the public at such auctions, including the victorous Stevie Wonderboy (a $100,000 purchase at Fasig-Tipton's February sale at Calder), runner-up Henny Hughes (a buyback at Barretts for $370,000), and fourth-place Brother Derek. All of them submitted to the rigorous training and public speed trials that go into marketing 2-year-olds these days.
"They have so much in front of them, and yet you can get some idea of their temperament, and even their ability to stretch out," Peacock said. "You see some of them out there being asked to run as fast as they can go, riders snapping the whip. But when they do it on their own, and do it easily, it makes you give them a second look. You have to pay extra for that, but I still think it's worth it, because you could buy hundreds of yearlings and still have none of them turn out."
Peacock went to Barretts last March fully predisposed to give Brother Derek the benefit of the doubt. The Alberta oil man was already the proud owner of his full brother Dontsellmeshort, who had won three stakes as a 2-year-old in 2003.
Both Brother Derek and Dontsellmeshort were bred by Mary Caldwell, wife of the late, legendary Keeneland auctioneer Tom Caldwell. And even though Tom Caldwell died in early 2001, his name - as well as the melodic Caldwell sound - will be around American horse auctions for a long time through their sons, Scott and Chris, and three grandsons in the business.
The Caldwell farm is located near the south central Oregon town of Eagle Point (pop. 5,410), on the road that leads from Medford to Crater Lake National Park. The main attraction of the area is the rushing Rogue, one of America's rare "wild" rivers - defined as free of diversions or dams, generally inaccessible by trail, with watersheds and shorelines that are essentially primitive and unpolluted. Mary Caldwell simply calls it "a little piece of heaven." They named their place Gavel Farm.
"It was 1978, and Tom had just had a heart attack, which meant he would have to cut back on his travel," Caldwell said recently, as Brother Derek's origins began to generate interest. "We were living in Ontario, near Pomona, and we wanted to get a place somewhere away from Southern California. We looked as far away as Missouri, but my brother lived in Ashland, not far from Medford, and told us there were a lot of places up there for sale. Don't ask me why we bought it. We just loved it."
Gavel Farm sits on a three-tiered piece of land, running all the way down to the river, with the house on the upper level and the other elevations dedicated to horses and cattle. It didn't take the Caldwells long to realize that the grass, the soil, and the seasons all conspired to put a high shine and lay strong bone on the local equine livestock, no matter what their ultimate use.
Back in their California days, the Caldwells' broodmare Gavel Gertie already had given them a stakes colt named Cuchillo. In Oregon, Gertie produced a stakes filly, Solamente un Vez (by Relaunch), who in turn produced a promising foal in 1993 when she dropped a filly by the Mr. Prospector stallion Siyah Kalem. The Caldwells named her Miss Soft Sell.
"It was after Tom," Mary Caldwell said. "That was his auction style - the soft sell."
An injury prevented Miss Soft Sell from making the races, but that did not stop her from being a family favorite.
"She was the kind of mare who would come running when Tom would go out to the paddock and call her name," Caldwell said. "She's a beautiful, stout mare. But you
wouldn't call her classic-looking. She's just a good, solid-looking mare. You can touch her skin and it's not soft. It's hard as a rock."
The son takes after his mom. Brother Derek has turned out to be a hard-bodied, medium-size colt without fuss or frills, beyond his distinctive white star. According to Mary Caldwell, his personality began to manifest itself early.
"Chris and I both had a wonderful feeling about him," Caldwell said. "To watch him run, you just knew he was going to be a good racehorse. It was his attitude, his drive. You'd come up to feed him, and he'd always have a little nip at you. There was a lot of fire in him.
"We had another colt, by Swiss Bounty, and they were together in a paddock that must have been close to 15 to 20 acres," Caldwell went on. "You had to close your eyes because of the way they played together. You think, oh my gosh, if they get hurt, that's it. But you've got to raise them rough and tough, like children. Let them get out there and play."
Before Tom Caldwell died, he made it known to his wife that she should make it easy on herself and sell off both the cattle and the horses. She complied, sort of, but still runs a small herd of beef to fatten for market each year. And she kept a few Thoroughbred mares, sending their yearlings to auction.
"It's just as much fun following them when you don't own them," Caldwell said. "At least, I know I get as nervous watching Brother Derek run as if I owned him. You have all these memories of taking him carrots, hauling him across the field. At my age, it really gives you something to wake up to every day."
Brother Derek earned California citizenship through his sire, Benchmark, who covered Miss Soft Sell at Marty Wygod's River Edge Farm near Buellton, in the Santa Ynez Valley. Later, the colt left his Oregon home for the auction at Keeneland in September of 2004, with Brookdale Farm acting as agents for Caldwell. He was one among 4,891 cataloged for the marathon sale, but as far as John Brocklebank was concerned, he was the prettiest face in the crowd. The son of Benchmark-Miss Soft Sell entered the Keeneland ring as Hip No. 3404 on the 10th day of the sale, Sept. 23.
"I can even remember the stall he was in," Brocklebank said. "He was one of those horses that just happens. It's like, wow. He took my heart. I was unconscious while I was bidding on him. I didn't care what he'd go for - I was going to buy him."
The gavel fell at $150,000, some 20 times Benchmark's stud fee at the time. "From the minute we got back here and legged Shane up on him, I loved how he went," Brocklebank said. "He did everything perfect."
"Here" is South Jordan, elevation 4,300 feet, population just over 40,000, located on the high plains just down Interstate 15 from Salt Lake City. Brocklebank and his partner, Shane Chipman, train their horses going to sale at the publicly owned and operated South Jordan Equestrian Park, a multi-purpose facility that includes stabling, indoor and outdoor arenas, a seven-furlong training track, and a polo field.
"There's every kind of horse you can think of there," Brocklebank said. "Roping horses and cattle, barrel racers. There's not much Brother Derek hasn't been exposed to.
"I used to drop my kids at school, and while I did that Shane would get the early horses out," Brocklebank added. "But I made him wait until I got there to bring out Brother Derek. Watching him every morning made my day."
Brocklebank and Chipman are the "B" and "C" of BC3. Thoroughbreds. They leave the three-spot open to a variety of partners who invest in specific horses, pinhooked at yearling sales and then prepared in South Jordan for resale at 2-year-old auctions. Local businessman Craig Tillotson was the third man behind the Benchmark colt, providing not only capital, but the name.
"Derek is Craig's son," Brocklebank explained. "He's a fine young man who is currently serving his mission for the [Latter-Day Saints] church in the Middle East."
Brocklebank and Chipman put Brother Derek to work not long after his arrival from Kentucky.
"Once they get broke and you get a pretty good handle on the horse, we start giving them a little speed, and stressing them to promote bone growth," Brocklebank said. "They'll be galloping along, and then every third day we just kiss to them a little bit and let them pick up their gallops.
"We like to get a real hard breeze into them by the middle of December, because we can get a pretty good freeze here," Brocklebank explained. "Then we go indoors with them and educate them in other ways. It's the perfect time to do that, because we've already stressed them, and it gives them time to get over what we've done with them."
By the time he arrived in the Barretts sales ring last March, sporting Hip No. 50, Brother Derek had already been in Southern California at least a month. His shaggy winter hair had been clipped, and his dark seal coat had emerged, glowing with good health. Brocklebank thought he was selling a monster.
"I get a little bit fired up at these sales," he admitted. "And I really thought he would bring a lot more than he did. I put the reserve at $265,000 because I just knew he would blow by that, so I don't really know what happened."
At $275,000, Brother Derek still was among the top 10 lots at the Barretts sale, although it was a long drop from the $1.9 million topper, What a Song. Brocklebank's disappointment over the final price has turned into paternal pride for what Peacock and his trainer, Dan Hendricks, have accomplished with the colt.
"I was at the Keeneland sales in January when Brother Derek ran against Stevie Wonderboy at Santa Anita," Brocklebank said. "I usually try not to get too emotional watching a race, but I just couldn't help it. I held my cell phone up to a TV monitor so Craig and some friends back home could hear, and I was the only one in the place cheering.
"This is exciting stuff," Brocklebank added. "If Brother Derek makes it to the Kentucky Derby, I'm afraid I'm going to need an oxygen tank."