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No ordinary stallion: Unusual Heat defies industry’s declines
COALINGA, Calif. – Monolithic Harris Farms, engulfing central California at the western end of the San Joaquin Valley, is 200 miles south of San Francisco and 200 miles north of Los Angeles. Trust my odometer. A number of years ago, I visited Harris Farms because Cee’s Tizzy, the sire of Tiznow, the two-time Breeders’ Cup winner, was standing there. We got in John Harris’s SUV for the 99-cent tour, and before we got to the 400 of the 18,000 acres that are exclusive to the breeding and raising of horses, Harris took a hairpin right turn, around a long row of tall hedges, to reveal a breathtaking view. I thought, like one of the characters in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” that I had entered a John Ford Western. It was wall-to-wall cattle. They seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon.
John Harris’s farm has Interstate 5 surrounded. There is livestock on both sides of the highway. A road actually connects the east and west sides of the farm by going over the interstate. The cattle, which have the horses badly outnumbered, total about 100,000 on any given day. “A lot of hamburger,” said Dave McGlothlin, who has worked there for 31 years, most of his adult life. On a chilly Sunday afternoon in late February, McGlothlin met me at the horse ranch, ready to take us to Unusual Heat, another high-profile stallion who has settled in there.
In the scheme of things, Unusual Heat is not a great stallion. In 2010, his progeny earned $4.3 million as he led California’s stallion standings for the third straight year, but nationally he ranked 47th, behind 39 sires from Kentucky and a sprinkling from other states. Unusual Heat’s lifetime earnings for offspring are in the neighborhood of $30 million, and in that regard he still has a way to go before he overtakes California stallions like Salt Lake ($55 million), In Excess ($40 million), Bertrando ($38 million), and a few others. But in a depressed California breeding business, not unlike the significant downturn in the state’s racing game, Unusual Heat is a beacon. According to The Jockey Club’s average earnings index, which compares the progeny earnings of sires, Unusual Heat is No. 1 lifetime among California sires. In Excess and Cee’s Tizzy are the horses that rank just behind him.
Unusual Heat is 21, but looks younger and, according to handlers at Old English Rancho, where he stood for 12 years before moving to Harris Farms this year, he still acts like a four-legged Casanova in the breeding shed. He’s sired more than 535 foals (the total through his 2009 crop), and he’s yet to have checked his libido at the barn door. The day I was at the farm, McGlothlin, the manager of John Harris’s horse division, brought carrots. Unusual Heat devoured them posthaste. I thought that he would be deserting us after that, to romp in his spacious paddock, but he continued the visit at the fence, bouncing up and down as though he was double-parked. Was he playfully hinting that he wanted more carrots? McGlothlin said: “We’re standing between him and the breeding shed. See how he keeps looking over our shoulder? He’s hoping that we might be taking him over there today.”
After Unusual Heat finishes with a mare, his fee for her live foal is $20,000, which pales when compared with prominent stallions in Kentucky and a few other states but is in the high-rent district in California. Breeders can recall Gummo, Flying Paster, Desert Wine, Event of the Year, Bertrando, and Bold Tropic standing for higher fees when California breeding was at an apex, but not many state stallions have reached $20,000 in any economy. This year, after Unusual Heat, the next-highest advertised fee for a California stallion is In Excess’s $12,500.
“Unusual Heat’s fee is non-negotiable,” McGlothlin said.
Added John Harris: “None of those higher-priced California stallions were a real bargain at the price, like Unusual Heat is at 20.”
That was a paid political announcement, since Harris is in the business of finding investors, but the figures bear him out. If a son or daughter of Unusual Heat makes it to the races, there is a fair chance that profit will follow. Seven out of 10 Unusual Heats get to the races, just over half of them win, and the average starter earns more than $80,000. What is more, Unusual Heat is carving out a reputation as a very good grass sire. Last year, led by The Usual Q. T., winner of the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar, Unusual Heat ranked sixth nationally when his turf progeny earned $2.6 million, more than half of his overall total.
Unusual Heat is as black as anthracite, stands about 16 hands, and weighs an estimated 1,200 pounds. The blaze down his face starts well above the eye line, threatens to stop just below the eyes, and then continues in full bloom all the way to his nose. If there were a Rorschach test for blazes, the top half of his might pass for a mushroom cloud. If there is a concession to his age this breeding season, his book may be closed after 50 or so mares, far fewer than his mating responsibilities in recent years.
“Quality instead of quantity is what we’re after,” McGlothlin said, “and we’d like for him to stay around for a long time.”
At the height of his powers, Cee’s Tizzy, who was bred to more than 100 mares some years, would service three in a day; Unusual Heat won’t visit the shed more than twice a day, McGlothlin said.
While Unusual Heat’s passion for breeding is insatiable, and his shoulders are broad, one stallion is not enough to bootstrap a sagging industry. Farms have closed in California, some horse folk have left the state, and many who have weathered the slump are offering fewer stallions to fewer broodmares. From 2002 to 2004, more than 5,800 mares were bred in the state each year; last year, 2,653 were bred. The last year when more mares were bred than in the previous year was 2003. The size of the California crop still ranks third nationally, well behind Kentucky and slightly behind Florida, but yearling sales in California have also taken a tumble. A yearling at auction sold for an average of $19,607 in 1999. That average dipped to $9,604 in 2009, followed by an increase to $10,817 last year. The 2009 average was the lowest in California since 1997.
Nationally, the trend is similar. According to The Jockey Club, the total number of foals in the U.S. has declined every year since 2006, and the dropoff since 1999 has been more than 15 percent. The Jockey Club’s foal estimate for 2011 is 24,900, compared with 40,333 in 1990. Kentucky and Florida, the two most prominent breeding states, have shown respective declines of 5.1 and 37.1 percent compared with their totals in 1999 and 2009, the last year an exact count was available.
One of the biggest jolts to California breeding came when Marty and Pam Wygod held a large dispersal sale − 60 broodmares, 28 weanlings − late last year, after they had announced they were moving their breeding operation to the Will Farish family’s Lane’s End farm in Kentucky. The Wygods launched River Edge Farm in Buellton, Calif., in 1975, a 170-acre layout that may eventually be sold. Twice the Wygods were leading breeders in California, and along the way they have campaigned homebreds Sweet Catomine, an Eclipse Award winner and Breeders’ Cup winner as a 2-year-old in 1994, and Life Is Sweet, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic in 2009. Their uber sire Pirate’s Bounty, who was 31 when he died in 2006, accounted for 57 stakes winners, most of them in California.
Some years, the Wygods, who still live in California, have bred 200 mares.
“I am still rooting for California racing and breeding,” Marty Wygod said. “But the entire industry in California needs to get its act together. They’ve got a big challenge ahead.”
The four River Edge stallions − who include Benchmark, one of California’s top sires, and the syndicated Bertrando − have been moved to Ballena Vista Farm in Ramona, Calif.
John Harris and other California breeders and owners bemoan how bloodstock has been devalued in the state, and some of them, like Don Valpredo, remember the mistakes that were made when California stallions commanded prices higher than Unusual Heat’s.
“Regarding Desert Wine and Flying Paster,” said William H. DeBurgh, who raced the top grass mare Tuscan Evening before she collapsed and died after a workout at Del Mar last year, “I think they were syndicated so that the combined share price of the 40-share syndicate was $12 million. That’s more than all the stallions and broodmares in California today are probably worth.
“But bear in mind that stud fees of top stallions today cannot be compared to the same stud fees 25 years ago,” he said. “Stallion books today often exceed 100 mares. That makes these stallions much more accessible than years ago, when the normal book for a top stallion rarely exceeded 50 mares. If Unusual Heat was priced in 1985 terms, he would have been at least a $50,000 fee.”
Valpredo said he believes California breeding dug itself into a hole many years ago and has never fully recovered. Valpredo, owner of a fruit, vegetable, and cotton farm in Bakersfield, Calif., has been breeding and racing horses for 40 years. He and Harris raced Soviet Problem, who ran second in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1994.
“Over the years, some very bad stallions brought this industry to its knees,” Valpredo said. “Does anyone remember Obraztsovy, Gunter, King of Kings, Traditionalist, and Exploding?”
Harris agrees: “I wish we had the money now that we all blew on stallions that were overrated. Some of these failures, and even the overpriced successes, sucked a lot of money out of our California scene.”
Harris said boosters of some of these stallions had their hearts “in the right place . . . but we just all got too enthused about a rosy future, one that never came to exist.”
For this story, I caught up with Doug Burge, executive vice president and general manager of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, in the final stages of preparing his annual report to the membership. We were on the phone, but I would guess that Burge had a glass on his desk, half full.
Burge said that while total purses in California were down about 15 percent last year, purses for races for California-breds rose from $12.8 million to $13.3 million. Burge also likes to highlight the state’s incentive program, which pays out a bonus of $20,000 in Southern California and $10,000 in the North, should a California-bred win a maiden special weight race.
“No question these are tough times,” Burge said. “The economy has much to do with a lot of it. The drop in the foal crop is a concern, but we like to think of the downturn as leading us to quality over quantity.”
Foal crops in the state have dropped from a high of 3,864 in 2003 to 2,377 last year.
“When we had that high number of foals, how many of them actually got to the races?” he said. “There were a lot of mares being bred that shouldn’t have been bred. There are more starts per foal now than there used to be. In 2007, the average foal earned about $10,500. Last year, the average was $11,500, with about 700 fewer foals. I like to think that the earnings potential in California is better than it used to be.”
It’s an exaggeration to say that California breeding would be on life support if there was no Unusual Heat, but without him the light at the end of the tunnel would be reduced to a flicker. Trainer Mike Mitchell, on a recent visit to Harris Farms, stopped by Unusual Heat’s paddock. But for the shake of a numbered pill bottle on a June afternoon at Hollywood Park in 1996, Mitchell would have owned Unusual Heat. Another trainer, Barry Abrams, also put in an $80,000 claim and won the shake.
Mitchell, who has won some and lost more than a few in the claiming game over the years, has not one whit of loser’s remorse.
“You know what would have happened if I had won the shake?” he said to McGlothlin, the farm’s horse manager. “I would have gelded him right away, and that would have been that.”
Before he put in the claim, Abrams told his owners, including Madeline Auerbach, the principal partner in Unusual Heat’s breeding group, that what attracted him to the 6-year-old was that his fees had been paid to run in the Shoemaker Mile, a $700,000 grass race. When Unusual Heat ran the first 10 races of his career in Ireland, his best distance had been a mile.
“That $80,000 was a lot of money for us to spend,” Auerbach said. “And it was no secret that the horse had a tendon issue. But Barry was confident that he could hold the horse together for the Shoemaker, which was going to be run only six days later.”
Abrams’s interest in Unusual Heat went deeper than the potential to win just one big race. Bred by John T.L. Jones Jr. in Kentucky, he had been bought back for $185,000 when his reserve wasn’t reached at the Keeneland select yearling sale; Abrams was there the day at Barretts in Pomona, Calif., when Unusual Heat was auctioned as an unraced 2-year-old for $250,000. Unusual Heat’s parents are Nureyev, the sire of Miesque, Zilzal, and Theatrical; and Rossard, a Denmark-bred mare who won the Swedish and Danish Derbys. Abrams, who recently turned 57, was training harness horses at the Meadowlands when Rossard was running in New York in 1984.
“She had been beating colts,” Abrams said. “I used to like to bet the New York Thoroughbreds, so I was paying attention. I made a pretty good bet on her in the Flower Bowl Invitational. There were several Oaks winners in there, a great field, and she was a longshot [11-1] and I liked her chances. She and [Laffit] Pincay won, wire to wire. It’s hard to forget a horse like that.”
In Ireland, Unusual Heat had a record of 5-1-1 in 10 starts, but he had a bad tendon even then, and once went 1 1/2 years without running. In 1996, Thomas Liang, a Chinese physician, placed Unusual Heat and a couple of other horses with Richard Mandella at Santa Anita. Mandella said he hardly remembers Unusual Heat being in his barn, but of course he has been aware of him since his breeding career orbited.
“Tell me I lost him for a fairly high claiming price,” Mandella said when I called him. “Don’t tell me I lost him for only 40 or 50 [thousand].”
Unusual Heat ran three times for Mandella − a second, a third, and a fifth − before he ran him for an $80,000 tag June 10, 1996, at Hollywood Park. He was 3-5 – having run fifth in a minor stakes two weeks before – and won by almost three lengths. The $26,950 purse was the most Unusual Heat had ever earned in a race. One of Abrams’s stablehands led the horse back to his new barn after the race. The trainer, Madeline and Jim Auerbach (who died, after 34 years of marriage, in 2000), Andy Hilias, and Russell Wolkoff were the new owners.
Abrams got his wish. Unusual Heat ran in the Shoemaker Mile but finished sixth. Abrams thought his rider, Chris Antley, felt the horse was overmatched and didn’t ride him with confidence. Abrams ran Unusual Heat back two weeks later, in a $125,000 claiming race, and while Unusual Heat won, he was vanned off after the race.
“The tendon went,” Abrams said. “We gave him eight months off, hoping to bring him back, but the tendon was still bad.”
Abrams and his partners received a $50,000 offer from Argentine interests, who wanted Unusual Heat as a stallion. But export regulations at the time prohibited horses from being sent to the Southern Hemisphere unless they were Grade 1 or 2 winners, so Unusual Heat didn’t qualify. The deal fell through.
When I told Mandella about this turn in the horse’s career, he said: “Did Barry tell you that story?”
“Yes, he did,” I said.
“Geez,” Mandella said, “why would he do that? Until he told you that, he was looking like a real genius.”
Despite Unusual Heat’s superb breeding, there was no market for him as a stallion.
“I still wanted to sell him,” Madeline Auerbach said. “I didn’t want to get in the breeding business.”
But Abrams said to her: “I’ve got some mares. Let’s stand him.”
Walter Greenman told Abrams he would board Unusual Heat, at no charge, at Greenman’s farm in Hemet, Calif. When Abrams went to his four partners to ask them about this, one of them resignedly said: “What else can we do?”
Unusual Heat’s first four crops consisted of only 92 foals, but the first crop − 15 foals − accounted for 11 horses that won. A few of them became stakes winners, and by 1999 he was moved to Old English Rancho in Sanger, Calif., where his first advertised fee was $2,000.
While at Old English Rancho, Unusual Heat became (1) only the second California sire, after Cee’s Tizzy, to twice send out progeny that won $5 million in a year; and (2) the first sire in California history to go over the $4 million mark in offspring purses three times. Eighty of his get have earned at least $100,000; 23 Unusual Heats have won stakes, including Grade 1 winners Golden Doc A, The Usual Q. T., Acclamation, and Unusual Suspect. The biggest earner, The Usual Q. T., has gone past the $1.4 million mark, and Unusual Suspect is also a millionaire. Unusual Heat’s Lennyfromalibu ran 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill at Santa Anita in 1:11.13 in 2004, setting a course record.
There’s rarely a time when an Unusual Heat isn’t running somewhere. In 2009 at Santa Anita, in a one-mile maiden grass race, the first four horses across the line were all sired by Unusual Heat. The winner, Phi Beta Heat, paid $43.60. A $3,000 claimer sired by Unusual Heat showed up at Assiniboia Downs in Canada, of all places, and paid $82.50 to win.
“It’s amazing,” Abrams said. “His horses win stakes, they win cheap races, they win on all surfaces, and they win for a variety of trainers. At Old English Rancho, they used to tell me how good his young unraced horses looked, and I’d say, ‘What do I know?’ Most of his dams never raced or were inexpensive, so what that says is he moves the dams up, time and again. But I can’t really explain his success. I’m a horse trainer. I don’t know anything about breeding.”
Andy Hilias and Russell Wolkoff, who were part of the Abrams claim of Unusual Heat in 1996, left the breeding partnership several years ago. Madeline Auerbach prefers not to be specific about the breakdown of the remaining investors except to say that she owns the most shares and the Abrams family controls the rest. David Abrams, Barry’s brother, bred Golden Doc A and Unusual Suspect. Auerbach said that the decision to move Unusual Heat from Old English Rancho to Harris Farms came because the Sanger farm was downsizing and she thought that the Harris operation would be better suited to handle such a busy stallion.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that a stallion like Unusual Heat was going to help save California breeding, I would have laughed hysterically,” Auerbach said. “And how lucky have we been, not selling the horse when that’s all we wanted to do? Ignorance is so important in this game. Ignorance really is bliss, sometimes.”
Richard Mandella, Unusual Heat’s first U.S. trainer, told me how he stood with Auerbach and Abrams one morning during training hours at Santa Anita.
“Hey,” said Mandella, who’s a great kidder. “I was the trainer. Shouldn’t I have a breeding? Isn’t that the way it usually works?”
Mandella said that Auerbach and Abrams were silent. Auerbach smiled. Abrams rolled his eyes.
I passed the story on to Auerbach. She remembered.
“I thought Dick was kidding,” she said. “It would be my pleasure to give him a breeding if he would like one. You can either tell him, or I will mention it when I see him, some morning.”
“Think I might get a finder’s fee out of this?” I asked.
“Go for it,” Madeline Auerbach said.