Updated on 03/02/2017 2:21PM

From royalty to reject, Saudi Poetry finds a new home


Anyone who’s ever attended a Thoroughbred racehorse auction will tell you that it’s an experience unlike any other. There’s an electricity in the air as anxious bidders gather to compete with one another, not merely for their claim to a particular animal, but for their purchase on the elusive dream of finding the next great horse.

Precocious young prospects prance through the sales ring, about to notch their very first career milestone. Mares in-foal, whose prancing has evolved over time into something better described as a glide, regally occupy the stage, casting a knowing gaze upon the crowd. Meanwhile, the bidders teeter on a nervous edge, awaiting a strike of lightning. They anticipate the whisper, the look, the instinct, the clue from a given horse – the non-verbal message that urgently demands, “Pick me; I’m the one.”  

But in addition to these kinds of prospects, for whom it is springtime and everything seems possible, there are other horses to be auctioned – horses whose best days have long gone by, who’ve done everything that’s been asked of them, often over the course of a great many years, but whose future utility – save as expensive pets – is either doubtful or plainly non-existent. Attend any “mixed” sale in Lexington or Ocala and you’ll see them.

There’ll be no mistaking their sad eyes. And those sad eyes will be mirrored by the crowd, collectively hoping for a happy ending, hoping that the aged, skinny, un-pregnant mare before them may find a loving forever home and all will be right in the world – that she will attain the retirement she’s earned and not meet the fate of far too many: the stark terminus of the slaughterhouse.  

But as horses are costly to purchase, and even costlier to keep – especially horses who do not come with the promise of producing future revenue – the crowd’s hope rarely translates into individual action, and as the auctioneer’s gavel falls, the sad, forgotten mare silently passes into the great unknown, her only possibility of remembrance a trifling, “Hey, I wonder whatever happened to so-and-so?”

I’ve been among these crowds many times, and have witnessed such dramas play themselves out. I have long wished for an occasion, and an ability, to act rather than simply hope.  

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Not long ago, I noticed an eye-catching mare cataloged in the 2017 winter mixed sale at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. in Ocala, Fla. She had a superlative racing record and a fantastically interesting back story, but whose age, poor production record as a broodmare, as well as “barren” status  seemed to place her squarely in fate’s sometimes unkind but always capricious bull's-eye. An opportunity materialized, and thanks to the help, counsel, and partnership of a beloved friend, Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling book “Seabiscuit,” we have a tale to tell of a mare whose fate will not be the slaughterhouse, but rather one characterized by peaceful days lolling in a grassy paddock, surrounded by animal friends and by humans wanting nothing more from her than the realization of her own happiness.  

Her name is Saudi Poetry, and she is the embodiment of the beauty and speed 300 years of selective breeding has evolved in the Thoroughbred racehorse. Sired by the great Storm Cat and hailing from a female family bursting with excellence, Saudi Poetry was born to do great things.

At the 1998 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling auction, the filly commanded a towering final bid of $1.7 million. Purchased by Prince Ahmed bin Salman, member of the Royal House of Saud, she was about to become part of a racing stable that produced numerous champions, and had victories in such historic events as the Epsom Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont.  

Trained by Bob Baffert and carrying the prince’s emerald green and white colors, Saudi Poetry began her racing career on April 8, 2000, at Santa Anita, winning a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight. She never looked back. Over the span of the next 20 months, she raced competitively with the finest females in North America, winning the Grade 2 Louisville Breeders’ Cup and the Grade 3 Fleur de Lis, both at Churchill Downs. All told, she won or placed in 10 of 15 starts, retiring with purse earnings just shy of $600,000.  

Having compiled a superlative racing record and carrying the rich blood of her famous lineage, Saudi Poetry was an attractive young broodmare prospect, bringing a final bid of $2.2 million in the 2003 Keeneland November breeding stock sale while carrying her first foal. Then, in 2005 at the same sale, she once more rang the multi-million-dollar bell with a final bid of $2 million. During this same period, her siblings commanded auction prices as high as $3.1 million, owing much to the strength of Saudi Poetry’s accomplishments as a racehorse and her regal pedigree.  

Despite being bred to the best stallions money could buy, Saudi Poetry was not able to replicate her racing success in the breeding shed. Half of her 10 babies never saw a race. The other half were scarcely fast enough – as the slightly vulgar racing expression goes – to outrun a fat man up a hill. As a result, her value dropped precipitously as breeders understandably began to view her as a dubious bet.

In 2011, Saudi Poetry popped up once again in the Keeneland sale, this time falling to a new buyer for $50,000. Following several more years of disappointing production, she was once more put up for public offering in the 2016 OBS winter mixed sale, failing to meet her reserve price and ending with a final bid of $4,500. In another sad chapter in her life as a broodmare-for-sale, Saudi Poetry aborted twin foals in the spring of that year, leaving her drained and barren.

Which brings us to last month’s OBS winter mixed sale, where Saudi Poetry was to be once again offered up for public bid. Now 20 years old, not pregnant, and lacking an encouraging past breeding history, this was to be her pivotal moment.

Running her through the auction ring yet again posed two great risks. First that she’d be susceptible to purchase by still another breeder determined to breed her once more in the faint hope of finally producing a foal of value. To breed a mare of her age would be tantamount to a woman becoming pregnant approaching the age of 60. The likelihood of complications, including death of both mare and foal, increases with age in horses just as it does in humans. The health risks notwithstanding, common wisdom holds that an aged mare is far less likely to produce a good foal than a young mare. For all of these reasons, this was a mare who should not be bred again.  

The second potential risk of her presence in the auction was that she’d fail to bring any bid at all, leaving her possibly exasperated owner susceptible to passing her along to a “killer” buyer. These purchasing agents of the slaughterhouse are sometimes explicit in their aims, but in other instances they’ll brazenly assume the form of benevolent horse adopters, fooling otherwise kind owners into unwitting deals with the devil.  

Given those risks, we decided that an attempt at purchasing her pre-auction was the optimal course of action. Despite our best efforts, which included a full description of our plans for her as well as a purchase price greater than her likely value through the auction ring, the offer was declined by her owner. As such, all that remained to us was to bid for her at the sale, and hold out faith that no breeder hoping to get one more foal out of her aging body would outbid us.

On Jan. 26, auction day, I felt more than a little anxiety about the proposition of bidding via telephone and from out of state. I’d arranged for the auction house to call me prior to her entry into the ring, but thoughts of all that could possibly go wrong assumed center stage in my mind. What if they forget to call? What if the call happens to come in at a time when I cannot answer? What if I lose my phone?  What if the battery dies? What if several other interested parties materialize, and the bidding drives her price into a realm I cannot manage? What if, what if. We’d come so far in our planning and in our hoping. On the day before her 20th birthday, would fate be kind to Saudi Poetry? Or would it turn its back on her?  

Happily, all of those fears proved unfounded. The call came, I answered, and after only a minute or so of tension and three bids, we bought Saudi Poetry for $1,500, less than we’d offered her owner pre-auction. To be sure, $1,500 is a relatively small sum – and light years from the millions she once commanded – but it represented a fortune’s worth of gratitude and love. I know that I speak for Laura when I say that we couldn’t have been more pleased, or more humbled, to be given this chance to make a difference.  

With the on-site assistance of my longtime friend George Debenedicty, a man I had the great pleasure of training horses for some 20 years ago, Saudi Poetry left the auction grounds later that day, never to return .    

And so, from regal breeding, to ownership by a Saudi Arabian prince, to graded stakes winner, to multi-million-dollar broodmare, she’s now come full circle. Before she was any of those things, she was born to the world to simply be a horse. And that’s all she’s expected to be for the rest of her days. As it should be.  

Following some rest and recuperation at Debenedicty’s farm, she’ll come home to my place in Apex, N.C., decidedly beyond the boundaries of Thoroughbred racing’s known universe. It’s an improbable destination for the Saudi Poetrys of the world, that’s true. But as the saying goes, a good horse can come from anywhere. And a good horse can also find happiness most anywhere, requiring only that loving hearts are there to greet her. For Saudi Poetry, that’s what awaits.

Jeff Morris is a former graded-stakes-winning trainer from Southern California who currently breeds horses and lives on a small farm in Apex, N.C., while serving as vice president of a company specializing in human resources.