Updated on 09/16/2011 8:23AM

A knack for finding unpolished gems


BALTIMORE - The phrase "horse trading" is synonymous with sharp dealing, and the bloodstock agents who buy and sell Thoroughbreds spend their lives trying to find and take an edge. Of all the players in this competitive and jealous business, racing insiders have regarded Mark Reid this spring as the wisest of the wise guys.

Reid had nothing to do with the most publicized horse transaction of the year: the expensive purchase of War Emblem, an established stakes winner who went on to capture the Kentucky Derby. Reid tries to find budding talents at a bargain price, and one of the colts he spotted is the leading contender to beat War Emblem in the Preakness. In fact, the agent picked out four youngsters for trainer Bobby Frankel and owner Edmund Gann, and three of them (costing an aggregate of less than $1 million) became dramatic successes.

* The 2-year-old filly You had won only a maiden claiming race with a $50,000 price tag when Reid arranged her purchase. Under Frankel's care she has won four major stakes races, earned $800,000 and established herself as one of the best 3-year-olds of her sex.

* Labamta Babe had won only a $30,000 maiden claiming race when Reid acquired him for Frankel. He ran away with the Grade 2 Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita before being sidelined by an injury.

* Medaglia d'Oro had won a maiden race at Oaklawn Park when Reid negotiated the deal that brought him to Frankel. The colt won a major stakes in California and finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby after a trip so troubled that many experts consider him the one to beat at Pimlico on Saturday.

Reid's expertise is the product of a longtime love affair with Thoroughbred racing that began when he was an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. In 1975 he launched his career as a trainer with a borrowed $4,000, never imagining that he would one day face the problem of being too successful.

By the early 1990's he had 40 clients, 120 horses based in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, and a staggering workload. "Some days," Reid recalled, "I'd start at Philly at 6 a.m., then drive up the Jersey Turnpike to Belmont, saddle one or two horses in the afternoon, go back to the barns, hop in my car, have dinner in the city, and then drive to The Meadowlands and saddle a couple horses there. At night I'd be heading home at 4 a.m. but would just keep on going back to Philly Park and put my head on the desk for a couple of hours and then start all over. After a while I said, 'This is absolute madness. I have three growing sons - this has to stop.' "

Reid quit the game completely, opened a business, then got the itch to get back into the sport by buying and selling Thoroughbreds. It was an unusual career shift; Reid had been respected as one of the top race-winning trainers in the country, while many people look on bloodstock agents the way the general public views used-car salesmen.

"I knew there was a certain negative stigma attached to agents," he conceded, "but there had to be a place for a guy who knew horses and could get horses that clients were looking for."

Instead of trying to peddle bloodstock, Reid approaches trainers this way: "I'm not here to sell you anything. Is there anything you're looking for?" If the prospective client is looking for a mare to breed to a particular stallion, for a claiming horse who would fit his local track, or for a prospective Kentucky Derby winner, Reid will set out on a search.

A fellow trainer had arranged an introduction to Frankel, the Hall of Famer known for his management of older horses, particularly turf runners. Gann, one of his oldest clients, had recently told him: "Bobby, I want to go to the Derby," and Frankel knew that developing youngsters wasn't his forte. Besides, he believes it is smarter to buy a runner who had shown some ability than to gamble on an unknown quantity at a yearling auction. "You take less of a risk," he said, "and you get more action."

Given his mandate, Reid started looking for young horses systematically. He studies the Daily Racing Form, identifies the relevant races for young horses being run that day, and then analyzes the results at night on his computer. He looks for horses who have run respectably fast; who don't have fancy pedigrees that would inflate their price; who are owned by people who might sell. The ideal prospect for Reid is a horse who has already started for a claiming price.

"If a horse has run for $50,000," Reid said, "it's hard for them to say, 'We want $2

million.' " Having identified a horse who might qualify, Reid calls the trainer, visits his barn, asks to inspect the animal and then asks if he may approach the owner directly. If he puts the deal together, Reid collects a fee equaling 5 percent of the purchase price.

People outside the racing business might assume that an owner would never knowingly sell a young classic prospect, and that the job of an agent such as Reid is to exploit the unsuspecting. In fact, the horse owners with the best chance to make money are the ones willing to sell. Albert and Joyce Bell, of Great Falls, Mont., bred Medaglia d'Oro and had a relatively small investment in him. They were happy to take a healthy profit and let somebody else assume the substantial risks of campaigning the colt. They still own the colt's dam, whose value will skyrocket if her son wins the Preakness. When a deal works out as well as this one, both parties will be happy - and so will the wise guy in the middle.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post