05/19/2010 11:00PM

Lookin At Lucky was worth a second look

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At first, Lance Robinson was disappointed. It was 1976, and the 21-year-old Utah rodeo champion had received word that his mission, the term of service young Mormons carry out sharing their gospel away from home, would not be in Texas rodeo country.

Instead, the church sent him to central Kentucky. While he was there, Robinson bought his first Thoroughbred mare and set off on a long road that has taken him all the way to the Preakness winner's circle as co-breeder of 2010 winner Lookin At Lucky.

"I was still on my mission," Robinson said. "I paid $6,000 for this mare. It seemed really expensive to my dad because we were in the dairy business, and heifers were worth about $300 then. He just said, 'Why don't you wait until the end of your mission?' But I said, 'No, she's about to have a foal in a few weeks, I need to buy her now.' I made money on that first foal, and I was hooked right then."

Robinson, now 54, is the owner of Gulf Coast Farms along with his business partner, Ocala veterinarian and consignor Jerry Bailey. While Robinson was heeding his church's call to the Bluegrass, Bailey, an amateur rodeo rider, was leaving a seven-year job as a racetrack veterinarian in Miami.

"I left Miami in 1976," said Bailey, 66. "I acquired quite a few Thoroughbred mares in Oklahoma and later on became part of E. K. Gaylord's Lazy E Ranch in Guthrie. We built a nice training center, and it was my idea to use those facilities to buy and resell - in other words, pinhook - some horses."

Bailey and Robinson, already on nodding terms at the rodeo, started running into each other more often at horse sales in the 1980s, when Robinson was selling and Bailey was buying. Over sale catalogs and horseflesh, the two became friends. That long relationship made it easier for Robinson to join Bailey and then-partner Ken Ellenberg in Gulf Coast Farms in the late-1990s. Success came fast for Gulf Coast: Its pinhook Thunder Gulch won the Derby and Belmont in 1995, and Gulf Coast-bred Added Edge, a $4,000 sale yearling, became Canada's 2-year-old champion in 2002.

By the time Lookin At Lucky was foaled at Kentucky's Taylor Made Farm in 2007, Ellenberg had left the partnership, but Gulf Coast was riding some momentum. With yearling-to-juvenile reseller Murray Smith, they had sold E Z Warrior for $1.2 million at the Barretts March juvenile auction. They had pinhooked Grade 1 winner Henny Hughes. They had bred Cowtown Cat, then sold him to WinStar for $1.5 million before buying back in as partners. They also bred graded winners Salute the Sarge and Chelokee, all from a mare band numbering about 65.

Gulf Coast's system is simple: Everything is bred to sell. Robinson takes the lead planning matings from Utah, where he owns a ranch with his wife, Marla, and Bailey oversees breaking and training from his farm in Ocala. The other Gulf Coast partners - Garry Millet, Jeff Dunford, and Jeff Collette - handle finances and accounting.

In 2006, Robinson and Bailey agreed Smart Strike was a good match for their mare Private Feeling.

"A lot of these young mares we get, we want to get them started right," Robinson said. "There aren't a lot of horses better than Smart Strike if you want to get a racehorse. We also try to breed something that will be suitable for conformation. He's a Mr. Prospector-line horse, and there's more refinement with that than some of the other sire lines. She's a big, strong, correct mare with a great shoulder and lot to her. They seemed to fit, conformationally."

The Gulf Coast partners already liked what they had seen of Lookin At Lucky's older half-brother, future Grade 2 winner Kensei. Lookin At Lucky was a late May foal, but the partners felt he could be a six-figure yearling even though he had undergone surgery to correct the developmental bone disease osteochondrosis dissecans in his stifles.

Bailey didn't think the issue would bother the colt, but the market at Keeneland's September sale in 2008 thought otherwise. Gulf Coast bought Lookin At Lucky back for $35,000. They sent him to Ocala, where Bailey and his wife, Leslie, break and train Gulf Coast's 2-year-old sale prospects.

"I can say this because I'm a veterinarian, also, but I have a saying: 'Veterinarians cost more people buying a good horse than they save them buying a bad horse,' " Bailey said. "There's only a handful of veterinarians that will stand up and say, 'You know what, he's got this and this and this, but that shouldn't bother him.' Most veterinarians pick a horse apart and probably don't put everything in the proper perspective for the buyer."

Robinson, a one-time pre-veterinary student himself, said of Bailey: "He's a great, common-sense veterinarian because he's had a lot of experience training horses, riding horses, roping on horses, rodeoing on horses. That's where I think he gets a lot of his common-sense horsemanship from."

Robinson credits Leslie Bailey, no slouch in the saddle herself, with instilling Lookin At Lucky's confidence and capitalizing on the colt's naturally sound mind.

"That's a big part of what we do, the early breaking and training," Robinson said. "One of the things I was really concerned about was, Lookin At Lucky was banged around three races in a row. At some point, a horse is going to say, 'I don't need this.' He even got tapped on both sides by horses at the start of the Preakness, but he just stayed relaxed. In the first 30 days of their training, Leslie's trying to get those horses thinking and reacting to her and their environment. We don't want them pushed and prodded into what they have to do. They have to think and learn."

"I also think we acquire an edge by not squeezing the lemon too hard," Bailey said. "The good horses still rise to the top."

Sent to the Keeneland April sale at 2, Lookin At Lucky still had the same X-rays. But this time he also had a 10-second eighth-mile work on his resume. Bidders were impressed, and Bob Baffert went to $475,000 to buy him for Mike Pegram, Paul Weitman, and Karl Watson.

"The horse is more important than the issues," Baffert said. "He looked like a really good horse, and I know what I can and can't live with. He looked fine, and Dr. Bill Baker vetted the horse for us, and he was fine with him. The way he moved over the ground, the X-rays weren't an issue."

Lookin At Lucky went on to become North America's champion juvenile last year and has given Gulf Coast its first classic win as breeders.

"It's interesting to me how one horse can change so many lives when you get to that level," Robinson said. "For the stallion, for the mare owner, the owner, trainer, and breeder - it's a pretty big circle, and that one horse has a lot of meaning for them in their business."

Lookin At Lucky is a timely advertisement for Gulf Coast, which, like other commercial breeders, has suffered in the Thoroughbred market crash.

Bailey estimated the operation's sale revenues are down about 50 percent from two years ago.

"We sold horses for two or three years that were produced at levels higher than the production costs are today, so it's come back around where production costs have dropped, and now we have more of a chance to make a profit," he said. "But it's been a struggle. We've been fortunate. We sell weanlings, we sell yearlings, and if the price isn't right we'll break one ourselves or race one and sell it privately. So we're maybe in a better position than a lot of breeders to survive this."

Their only regret about Lookin At Lucky, Robinson said, is that they didn't remain in as partners to own the colt. But they're happy to enjoy knowing the role they played in Lookin At Lucky's life.

"It's pretty meaningful when you get to choose your mares, raise them the way you think they should be raised, and mate them the way you think they should be bred," Bailey said. "We knew he had a big chance to be a nice horse."