08/02/2017 12:16PM

For mostly retired breeders, Girvin offers improbable thrill

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Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Girvin's late surge to win the Haskell Invitational (outside, #7) was only the most recent thrill for his breeders, Bob and Alice Austin.

Bob and Alice Austin have mostly retired from the Thoroughbred breeding business, but some of their biggest résumé boosts are coming just now with the success of Girvin.

The 3-year-old colt continued that trend with a heart-stopping triumph by a nose over McCraken in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park last Sunday.

The Austins watched the race with a group of friends in the simulcast area at match-racing venue Oxford Downs, about 15 minutes from their home in The Villages, Fla. The gathering soon turned into a celebration for the colt, who scored at the field’s second-longest odds.

“Girvin was just beyond anyone’s expectations,” Bob Austin said, still amazed by the effort. “Good lord.”

The Tale of Ekati colt’s Grade 1 win was also an overachievement for his dam, the unraced Malibu Moon mare Catch the Moon. Austin bought the mare for $30,000 at the 2013 Keeneland January horses-of-all-ages sale while she was pregnant for the first time to Colonel John.

Austin built his broodmare band through modest means, purchasing quietly at auction, claiming broodmare prospects, or buying them privately off the track. Catch the Moon, he said, was among his most expensive buys.

“First off, she’s by Malibu Moon – that really grabbed my attention,” Austin said. “She’s out of a stakes-winning Yes It’s True mare, and I loved that. I couldn’t afford to go buy top-end mares, so I’ve got to give something up. Generally, you’ve got to give up the race record, but I love unraced mares whose mamas were stakes winners.”

Austin took Catch the Moon back to his Little River Farm in Versailles, Ky., and called his business partner, New Jersey-based John “Arnold” Witte. The two initially met through Austin’s brother, who hauled horses for Witte. They became long-term associates after their first broodmare venture was a success.

“I had just bought a Silver Deputy mare [Silver Bliss] sight unseen for $15,000,” Austin said. “They had priced her for $5,000, and I didn’t want her, but then her Stephen Got Even colt [Trevor’s Clever] wins the Alydar Stakes at Hollywood Park, so I called them back, and the price had gone up.

“I thought I’d call Arnold and see if he wanted in for $7,500, and he did. We bred her back to Stephen Got Even, got a full brother, and we got $165,000 for him at the sale. Arnold was pretty well hooked after that.”

Witte bought into Catch the Moon, and she produced her first foal, a colt who sold for $16,000 at the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale. He was later named Cocked and Loaded and became a Grade 3 winner.

“Cocked and Loaded was a pretty horse, but he wasn’t real big, and he wasn’t real correct in the front,” Austin said. “He wasn’t really terrible, but not real correct, so he brought about what he was worth. Of course, then he jumps up, and everything changes.”

Catch the Moon’s second mating produced Girvin and was facilitated by a promotional dart game at Darby Dan Farm in which breeders would receive a free season to the stallion they hit on the board. Austin said he was aiming for Preakness Stakes winner Shackleford in the bull’s-eye and hit Tale of Ekati. Most of all, he was relieved he didn’t miss the board entirely.

Girvin sold for $130,000 at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall yearling sale, putting Austin and Witte safely in the black on their broodmare purchase.

By that time, Austin was already easing into retirement. He sold Little River Farm in 2014 to Dan Davidson, who renamed the property Sycamore Bark Farm and continued to board Austin’s remaining horses.

With Catch the Moon’s stock high off Cocked and Loaded’s juvenile campaign, the mare was entered in the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall select mixed sale one month after Girvin sold. Catch the Moon sold in foal to Shanghai Bobby to Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings for $240,000.

Today, Austin keeps a pair of broodmares at Sycamore Bark Farm: Wise Ending, the 20-year-old dam of Grade 1-placed stakes winner King Congie, and one of her daughters, Queen Congie, who has produced the Grade 2-placed stakes winner King Kranz.

Girvin’s Haskell victory secured him a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar. The Austins were in attendance for the colt’s Louisiana Derby win and his Kentucky Derby start, and Bob Austin said they would make the trip to Southern California to see him face his biggest test yet.