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Science puts odds in breeder's favor
LEXINGTON, Ky. - In the statistics-oriented world of Gary Knapp, Ph.D., Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown is an outlier, a horse so unusual when compared with his peers that he appears out of place.
In the field of statistics, an outlier often suggests that someone somewhere has made a mistake in calculations. But in Knapp's other world, the Thoroughbred breeding business, this particular outlier is a sign that his breeding calculations went exactly right.
Knapp is a statistician, an economist, a former professor of marketing, and a businessman. He used a combination of biomechanical analysis and pedigree study to breed Big Brown. The colt was the first Grade 1 winner bred by Monticule Farm, the 650-acre farm Knapp owns with his wife, Emily. Big Brown's 4 3/4-length Derby win has fans dreaming of the first Triple Crown in 30 years.
"This is good enough," Knapp, 64, said. "If he doesn't do well in either of the other two races, he's already done more than we ever could expect to come from a horse. If you look at a normal distribution of data, he's not an average horse. He's out here on the end someplace. You don't expect that of a horse."
Knapp's connection to Big Brown goes back to 1998, when he bought a 6-year-old Lear Fan mare named Miasma for $350,000 at Keeneland's November mixed sale. Miasma was carrying a Nureyev filly, now named Mien, that would foal Knapp's Derby winner seven years later.
Mien had only two starts and one win before Knapp retired her to his broodmare band, which now numbers 21. Despite her brief resume, Knapp had reason to believe the Nureyev filly would make a good producer. It wasn't just a gut feeling; it was biomechanics. Biomechanical analysis uses measurements of a horse's physical components - such as body length, heart-girth size, hip size, and stride - as well as projected growth patterns to predict the horse's probable performance aptitude and ability, based on its physical similarities to a database of horses. Knapp had so much faith in the technique, he acquired equity ownership in one of the leading equine biomechanics companies, Equix, in 2003.
"From the time Mien was a yearling, based on the Equix measurements, we were highly confident that she was going to be a terrific broodmare because she physically was compatible with so many stallions in central Kentucky," Knapp said. "It was really unusual.
"In my view," he added, "the race record of the mare has nothing to do with the mare. If you look at the mares I've bought, I think their total earnings are under $200,000. Many of them are unraced or unplaced, but every one of them, when Equix measures them, they say, 'This is a good broodmare.' "
Pedigree also plays an important role. Knapp likes mares and their dams to be by sires with established success as broodmare sires. And he likes to mate his mares with stallions that not only match up well physically, but also provide good bloodline links. When he ran a hypothetical mating of Mien and the Claiborne Farm sire Boundary, a son of Danzig who is now pensioned, he saw a lot to like.
"When I looked at Mien's pedigree, I saw a cross to Northern Dancer, I saw a cross to Damascus, and I saw a cross to Round Table," Knapp said. "When I looked at Boundary's principal runners, I saw several that are crosses to Northern Dancer. I saw one, maybe two, that had crosses to Damascus. And you see the same thing with Round Table. . . . All the probabilities were high."
Big Brown's arrival on April 10, 2005, did not go exactly according to plan. After Mien's water broke that afternoon, farm manager Dominique Tijou discovered that her foal was upside down. It was not an emergency, but it was an unwelcome hitch. In an attempt to right the foal inside his dam, farm staff walked Mien up and down the barn aisle, returned her to her stall and let her roll, then repeated the process. Eventually, Tijou said, Big Brown emerged right side up.
From that day forward, he proved relatively unmemorable in his days on the farm, Tijou and Knapp agree. That was partly because there were two other outstanding colts on the farm at the same time, both from Danzig's last crop and with flashier pedigrees. One, now named Plavius, sold to Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum for $9.2 million as a yearling but finished ninth in his only start so far. The other, Prussian, was a buy-back for $300,000 as a yearling and $625,000 as a juvenile; he now races for Monticule and is a Grade 3 winner.
Big Brown, a plain bay who just quietly did everything right, didn't take the spotlight at first.
"My most prominent thought when I first saw him was, 'My goodness, look at that little white spot,' " Knapp said. "He was born with a white spot about the size of a quarter, right behind his left elbow. I understand now it's about the size of a baseball.
"At the yearling sale when people would comment on that, I'd say, 'That's the kiss of the racing gods,' " he said with a laugh.
By the time he went to auction at Fasig-Tipton's October yearling sale in 2006, Big Brown already had shown biomechanical signs, at least, of fulfilling the racing gods' blessing.
"He had a very high biomechanical score," recalled Suzanne Smallwood, vice president of Equix. "We had expected him to have very good stride balance and power, and he had power components that led us to expect he'd have good tactical speed. We definitely had him as able to run a distance easily. Power is a reflection of the hind-end components: the ilium, femur, tibia, the hindquarters, gaskin muscling, and the hock-to-cannon ratio. A lot of that also has to do with getting distance, and so does leg length and height-to-length ratios. Reaching a high performance level is a balance of a number of biomechanical properties. It's not just one key element."
The yearling report caught Knapp's attention, but he was committed to selling all his bloodstock. Big Brown brought $60,000 at the auction, a fair return on a $10,000 stud fee. His buyer was Eddie Woods, a successful reseller who specializes in breaking and training yearlings for the 2-year-old market. Clearly, he had spotted a potential profit-maker in Knapp's Boundary colt. He might have gotten a brief view of the colt's speed when Big Brown got loose from his handler leaving the auction ring and bolted about 100 yards before coming safely to a halt. But Woods, signing the receipt, missed that.
"I thought he was a big, scopey horse with a beautiful walk," Woods said, "and he was quite a correct horse."
Meanwhile, Knapp was having second thoughts about the colt.
"Over the winter," Knapp said, "as Eddie was preparing the horse, I kept thinking, 'Gee, those numbers were really nice.' "
So when Woods brought Big Brown back to auction at the 2007 Keeneland April 2-year-old sale, Knapp did something he had never done before. He sent an agent to buy back a Monticule-bred horse. Knapp's limit was $150,000.
"Of course, Mr. Pompa paid $190,000, and I didn't get him," Knapp said, referring to Paul Pompa Jr., who later sold a majority interest in Big Brown to International Equine Acquisitions Holdings. "I figured good report or not, $150,000 was a fair price for him. Now, Mr. Pompa was dealing with a slightly different piece of information. He had claimed the half-brother to Big Brown, and, from what I understand, they were really intrigued with that horse. He sent his trainer to see Big Brown at the sale and said, 'If he's big, get him.' "
Knapp is content to enjoy Big Brown's success as the colt's breeder, rather than as breeder and owner.
"You can't look back, you've got to look forward," he said. "We've got the mare, and she's producing beautiful foals, and we have many mares who are producing beautiful foals. I think this year we have a group of about 16 yearlings, and I think we have got a really dynamite group of fillies. That includes a Theatrical half-sister to Mien and a half-sister to Big Brown by Touch Gold."
Mien, now 9, has a Belong to Me filly this year and will be bred back to Stormy Atlantic. He has had big offers, Knapp said, but he has no plans to sell Mien, Miasma, or most of his other mares, who are now fulfilling the goals he has had as a breeder for nearly two decades.
"As horses we've sold have won stakes races, you get calls like that," Knapp said. "That's the foundation. That would be like selling your best production equipment to your competitor. Why would you do that? This is what you shoot for."