05/02/2007 11:00PM

The do-it-yourself Derby approach

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Thoroughbred auction prices have been booming in recent years, and that has prompted some racehorse owners to turn to homebreeding in their quest for a Kentucky Derby horse.

The last three Derby winners - Smarty Jones in 2004, Giacomo in 2005, and Barbaro in 2006 - were all bred by their owners rather than purchased out of the auction ring. And seven of this year's Derby contenders are homebreds: Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Cowtown Cat, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Stormello, Street Sense, and Tiago.

The trend toward homebreeding is influenced by two major factors, owners say: the rising cost of acquiring bloodstock at sales and the increased flexibility a breeder gains when he is producing for himself instead of for the fashion-conscious market.

"It used to be there were very few homebreds at the Derby," said James Tafel, who bred and campaigns Street Sense. "You'd see a few. Arthur or Seth Hancock or Will Farish or one of the major breeders might have a Derby horse, but most of them were sales horses."

Tafel is fond of saying that he, like many owners, "backed into" breeding when he had a nice filly who was worth more in foal than not.

"I breed primarily to race, with the option to sell," he said. "When we're having a really bad time at the track and need to make some money, we may sell a yearling or two, or we will sell a broodmare in foal."

One of the main advantages Tafel finds in breeding his own runners is that, while he aims to breed horses who are fashionable enough to have residual value, he isn't enslaved by the fashion du jour. If he likes a sire who isn't hot in the market, he can still use him.

"As a homebreeder, you have that option," Tafel said.

When he bred his maiden mare Bedazzle to the first-year stallion Street Cry in 2003, Tafel was going against his usual criteria for buying a horse: mating unproven stock.

But the market often sees "unproven" as pure promise with no downside. When the resulting foal, Street Sense, turned out to be handsome and correct, sales companies urged Tafel to sell him. He didn't, though he did eventually sell Bedazzle.

"The bottom line was, I couldn't buy a horse like Street Sense," he said. "He would have been too expensive, and here he was, out of an unproven mare by an unproven stallion."

Other homebreeders, like Jerry Bailey and Lance Robinson of the Gulf Coast Farms partnership, try to maximize their benefits by breeding for auction but retaining interests in their best horses when the buyer is agreeable. Cowtown Cat, a Distorted Humor colt, is a case in point. Gulf Coast sold him to WinStar Farms for $1.5 million at the 2006 Barretts juvenile sale, but approached WinStar about buying back into him. WinStar agreed, and the colt now runs for the partnership.

"It's the best of both worlds for us," Bailey said. "At the end of the day, the windfall in the horse business is owning all or part of a stallion. That's the big bucks. We have to be astute in keying on which are our best horses, and we need to keep offering them at public auction. We have to make sure the good ones bring good money, and if they don't we'll go the next step of racing them. But you have to have the right horse to do it.

"It's very hard these days to buy horses as 2-year-olds and make a profit on them. So we market some of our homebreds as 2-year-olds, buy some horses to sell as 2-year-olds, and then stay in on some of the good ones. That's the best of both worlds for us. When you breed 110 mares, you have to have lots of ways to

market them."

Homebreeders might find their private stock in greater public demand now that so many homebreds have made it into the Derby starting gate. After all, nothing is more fashionable than having a horse with a chance in the Derby.

"That's the goal, to try to breed a good racehorse," said Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, adviser to Derby-winning homebreeders Jerry and Ann Moss. The Mosses won the roses in 2005 with Giacomo and have Tiago in contention this year. "And even if we are breeding something that's commercial, we still try to have it be the best racehorse possible."

Dam of a Derby winner: 'priceless'

Set Them Free, the dam of Giacomo and Tiago, has accomplished a rare feat in having two foals reach the Kentucky Derby. If Tiago wins, Set Them Free will become essentially priceless as the dam of two Derby winners. But Ingordo-Shirreffs says the Mosses probably wouldn't be tempted to sell.

"I can never imagine they'd do that," she said. "She's priceless to us already, by the way, because of what she's accomplished."

Jerry and Ann Moss bought Set Them Free for just $45,000 at the 1992 Fasig-Tipton Calder select 2-year-old sale.

Set Them Free was a sprint specialist, and her matings to sires better known for getting a distance seem to have done the trick for the Mosses. A mating to Sea Hero got Sea Jewel, a Grade 3-winning and Grade 2-placed filly. Bred to Holy Bull, Set Them Free produced Giacomo.

Tiago is the first of two foals Set Them Free has had by the Pleasant Colony horse Pleasant Tap. The second is a 2-year-old named Alonzo, who Ingordo-Shireffs said is at a training center and expected in California in about a month.

"Originally, the Mosses owned a share in Pleasant Colony, and we loved him," she said. "He just seemed like the perfect classic kind of horse. Pleasant Tap fit the parameters in many regards: He had a classic pedigree, he had run in California so he liked our surfaces out here, which was important at the time, and he had stamina. Basically, what we try to do is breed long and dirt and, in our case, because we run out here, something that has proven history running in California."

Set Them Free's yearling colt is by Giant's Causeway, and the 17-year-old mare is expected to visit Coolmore's "Iron Horse" again this season.

"We're trying to add a little diversity to it," Ingordo-Shirreffs said. "We love Giant's Causeway." She said that her husband, trainer John Shirreffs, "has had several and loves them all. We thought we'd branch it out a little bit.

"We're very proud of her," Ingordo-Shirreffs added of Set Them Free. "We thought winning the Derby was making history, but now to be in this situation - it's absolutely fabulous."

Buy-ins range in price

The majority of Derby contenders this year did go through the auction ring at least once. The most expensive was Cowtown Cat, a $1.5 million Barretts March 2-year-old. Any Given Saturday brought $1.1 million as a Keeneland September yearling, but was bought back by WinStar Farm, which later sold ownership interests in the colt, first to Maverick Racing and then to current partner Padua Stables.

The least expensive horse on his last public auction price was Teuflesberg, a $9,000 yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall sale in 2005.

The average final auction price for those contenders who went through the ring suggests that getting a Derby horse at auction is a fairly expensive proposition: $299,333.