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A homegrown hit
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Jerry and Ann Moss's connection to their Kentucky Derby winner, Giacomo, goes back to 1992, more than a decade before the gray colt was born.
That was the year they paid $45,000 to buy a juvenile Stop the Music filly, later named Set Them Free, at Fasig-Tipton's Calder sale. Thirteen years later, her son gave the Mosses an unexpected place in sporting history with his 50-1 victory in the Derby.
The Mosses certainly had no premonition that Set Them Free would produce a Derby winner for them, and neither they nor their advisers are claiming special brilliance in their home breeding program - just a studious attention to breeding horses the way they want to, and a lucky break here and there.
"I really think this is a gift that the racing gods give, and we just feel blessed that they chose us," said Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, the Mosses' racing and bloodstock manager.
One of the luckier breaks, as Moss tells it, came when he and his wife met Ingordo-Shirreffs about 25 years ago. Married at the time to jockey agent Jerry Ingordo, who died several years ago, she was working as a bookkeeper for trainer Bobby Frankel, Moss recalled. Moss was impressed with her racing knowledge and eventually hired her. The former schoolteacher-turned-pedigree scholar is now part of a family business with the Mosses. She is married to John Shirreffs, who trains Giacomo, and her son, David Ingordo, assists in buying horses for the Mosses.
"Annie and I, working with Dottie and John and David, have been made lucky," said Moss.
Giacomo is the kind of blessing that Moss has always appreciated most: a homegrown one.
Not that all of the Mosses' best racehorses have been homebreds. Their other classic winner, Sardula, was a $110,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase who went on to win the Kentucky Oaks in 1994 - the same weekend, incidentally, that Giacomo's sire, Holy Bull, finished a dismal 12th to Go for Gin in the Derby. Another of the Mosses' good runners, Grade 1 winner Garthorn, was a $90,000 private purchase from Europe. Even though she wasn't a Grade 1 winner, Set Them Free, who cost $45,000, went on to win four stakes and earn more than $173,000.
Spending relatively little and getting a good runner is satisfying, Moss said. But the pleasure of breeding your own runners, he said, is akin to developing unknown musicians into stars - familiar territory for Moss, who founded A&M Records with Herb Alpert.
"It's more than just the icing on the cake, it makes us a real part of the industry," he said. "I was considered a little cheap in the record business. I didn't buy big stars. I like developing and introducing artists. Sometimes when you buy a big star you're also buying a lot of ego and a lot of stuff that goes along with the artist, and I'd rather develop something and have it our way."
By breeding most of their horses for their own racing program, the Mosses have been able to have things their way in the Thoroughbred business, too. Although they sell a few foals or yearlings out of their 20-mare band each year, they've been able to experiment with pedigrees and use more stamina influences than they might if they bred primarily for the marketplace, where buyers often prefer flashy, early-maturing speed horses over a horse like Giacomo.
"We're always looking for horses that can get a little bit of distance of ground - that's what we breed for," Moss said. He understands the market demand for early 2-year-olds, he said, "but, my God, to have a good handicap horse, they're so valuable, those 4-year-olds that can run past a mile and an eighth."
Holy Bull had that kind of durability and excellence, and that's what made Ingordo-Shirreffs and pedigree adviser Ken McLean suggest him as a mate for Set Them Free in 1998.
"Endurance," Ingordo-Shirreffs said when asked what made her like Holy Bull as a sire. "He was a nicely conformed horse, and he liked the dirt. We were looking for horses that could run on the dirt, particularly to get them to these types of races."
The result of that 1998 mating was a filly named Styler, whose good looks have made her a favorite with her trainer.
"John feels that Styler is just the classic-looking horse," Ingordo-Shirreffs said. "He takes her out and just stands there looking at her, literally. She walks around on little gold shoes. Anything that Styler wants, Styler gets. I've told John that, if she didn't have four legs, I'd be jealous!
"I always ask the trainers about different qualities when they have one of the homebreds, and John just loved Styler so much that we thought maybe we should do that mating again."
Normally, when Ingordo-Shirreffs and McLean suggest matings for the Moss mares, they provide a list of two or three sire candidates and then discuss those possibilities with the Mosses. But in 2001, there was only one name on Set Them Free's list, and that was Holy Bull.
"Often, it seems that the second foal is better than the first," said Ingordo-Shirreffs. "I've always said to Jerry, 'If the genes are good, let's go back and try it a second time.' If the first one looks like it can run, I'm very interested to try it again."
Giacomo was born on Feb. 16, 2002, at Mill Ridge Farm in Lexington, where the Mosses keep most of their mares. (Others are at Crestwood Farm and Brookdale Farm in Kentucky, and "a couple" are in California, Moss said.) Early on, Ingordo-Shirreffs said, the colt showed heart.
"Giacomo has always been an independent thinker," she said. "I think he was a little bit on the little-boy side for a while and needed to kind of develop, feel confident in himself, and get stronger and stronger. He's always has a good self-concept, though.
"He was always a horse that could take adversity and still keep moving forward. I think that shows a lot of heart, and I think that's what it takes to make it to the classics. At Hollywood Park, sometimes when the dirt hits them in the face, it can be a little bit trying for a young horse. But he never pulled back - he just dropped his head and kept going."
Set Them Free also had success with Sea Hero, sire of her only other stakes performer, the Grade 3-placed filly Sea Jewel. And the Mosses aren't averse to trying other stallions. This year, Set Them Free has a Pleasant Tap yearling colt and another Pleasant Tap colt by her side, and she's booked to Giant's Causeway. Her 2-year-old this season, a colt named Falcon Scott, is by Swain.
But don't be surprised if they send her back to Holy Bull again.
"I'll tell you this, every Holy Bull we have is a runner, and every one of them has won," said Moss.
That could bode well for the Moss home breeding program's immediate future.
"We've got a Holy Bull colt coming up out of a mare we named after one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, La Frontera," Moss said. "We've named the colt Taco Bull. He's a 2-year-old, so he's on his way to John. He's in Florida now, and we can't wait until he gets here."
Moss is understandably optimistic about those Holy Bull colts just now. And why not? From his vantage point, things look pretty rosy these days.
"It's a nice place, cloud nine," said Moss. "The view from here is just incredible."