01/21/2005 12:00AM

Horse Chestnut receives a serious PR boost

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Benoit & Associates
Spanish Chestnut, a $500,000 2-year-old purchase, takes the San Rafael at Santa Anita.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - In winning the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 15, Spanish Chestnut took another step forward on the trail to the Kentucky Derby. A winner of 3 of his 5 starts, Spanish Chestnut ran the mile of the San Rafael in 1:36.69.

As the leading racer from the second crop by Horse Chestnut, a South African Horse of the Year, Spanish Chestnut also is providing his sire with the sort of beneficial public exposure offered principally to classic colts.

A good-sized and powerfully made son of the Sadler's Wells stallion Fort Wood, Horse Chestnut was a wonder in South Africa, winning all but one of his nine starts there. As a 3-year-old, Horse Chestnut crushed older horses in the Group 1 Met Handicap, one of his four Group 1 victories that season, when he was champion of his age and Horse of the Year.

Such was Horse Chestnut's ability and promise that his owners, Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer, took the great trouble of putting their champion racehorse through the extensive quarantine and shipping required to bring a horse from South Africa to the United States.

Their perseverance was partially rewarded, as Horse Chestnut trained impressively, then won the Broward Handicap at Gulfstream in January 2000 by more than five lengths as much the best. Although the stakes division for older horses appeared to have gained another star, the brawny Horse Chestnut was injured shortly after the Broward, his sole U.S. start, and was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.

Since he had been expected to race throughout the year, he had not been vaccinated as all breeding stock must be, and no mares were booked to him, Horse Chestnut got a late start in his first breeding season, not covering mares until April. That resulted in a relatively small first crop, which includes Grade 1 winner Lucifer's Stone.

But such were his looks and racing prowess that perceptive breeders swooped in on the big horse in his subsequent seasons at stud. His early books, although modest by comparison to the number of mares being covered elsewhere in the industry, had mares of good quality, and his offspring sold well at the weanling and yearling sales. In fact, his offspring's sales average and median prices made Horse Chestnut a leading stallion by those indicators of buyer interest.

In 2004, Horse Chestnut was bred to 98 mares, and with his first crop of runners including stakes horses in Europe, as well as America, Horse Chestnut appeared to be a young stallion with a future.

But what he really needed a year ago was a breakout sales horse to encourage breeders to continue sending him good mares.

The star of the sales show for Horse Chestnut in 2004 was his handsome son Spanish Chestnut, who came to the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's Calder auction of 2-year-olds in training last February and blazed a furlong down the stretch in 10.20 seconds, according to information from the stride-analysis group DataTrack. His stride length for the breeze was 23.4 feet, which helped him earn an above-par speed figure for an eighth of a mile at the sale.

In addition to that spirited work, Spanish Chestnut showed his presence on the sales grounds and was a gorgeous juvenile in training, flashy and muscular. With Demi O'Byrne signing the ticket for international sportsmen Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, Spanish Chestnut brought $500,000 for breeders Don Graham and Robert Baker of Ocala Oaks in Florida. The price was equal to the second-highest at the OBS Calder auction last year, and Horse Chestnut had shown he could sire the fast and precocious sales type that buyers and breeders covet.

The colt's dam is stakes winner Baby Rabbit, by the Raise a Native stallion No Sale George. Bred in Florida by Arthur Appleton, Baby Rabbit was a fast and talented filly. In four seasons of racing, she made 52 starts and won 13 races, earning $273,405.

Graham and Baker purchased Baby Rabbit for $32,000 when she was carrying Spanish Chestnut at the 2002 Keeneland January sale. Baby Rabbit was consigned by Hermitage Farm, and she foaled Spanish Chestnut on March 16, 2002.

The breeders came back to a Claiborne stallion, getting a half-sister to Spanish Chestnut by Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos in 2004. The mare is booked back to Horse Chestnut this year. Horse Chestnut stands at the Hancock family's Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky., for a stud fee of $10,000.