Updated on 09/17/2011 11:17AM

Searching the globe for an Ipi Tombe


WASHINGTON - When Barry Irwin and Jeff Siegel began buying and syndicating Thoroughbreds in the 1980's, they had a simple concept: They would study races from coast to coast, identify runners with hidden virtues and the potential to improve, and attempt to purchase them for a reasonable price. Then they would sell shares to clients who wanted the excitement of owning a fractional interest in a good racehorse.

Their business isn't so simple any more. Too many people in this country are trying to purchase racehorses with proven ability and driving up prices; there are no bargains left. As a result, Irwin and Siegel's Team Valor Stable have looked farther and farther afield to locate potential buys. On March 29, they scored their greatest coup, winning a $2 million race in Dubai with a purchase who was bred in Zimbabwe and had raced in South Africa. The filly, Ipi Tombe, may well be the best female racehorse in the world.

Irwin and Siegel made their mark buying and syndicating horses such as Prized, winner of the 1989 Breeders' Cup Turf; Star of Cozzene, winner of the 1993 Arlington Million; and Captain Bodgit, runner-up in the 1997 Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness. When Irwin and Siegel started their venture, most owners at the top level of the game bred their own horses or bought them at auction as yearlings. In recent years, however, the market for ready-made horses has grown - and it's a seller's market. The supply is limited and the demand great, particularly at this time of year, when everybody dreams of buying a Kentucky Derby contender. As a result, prices have soared to levels that are frequently absurd. When trainer Bob Baffert last week bought the 3-year-old Senor Swinger, he had to pay $1 million for a colt who had lost his only start in a stakes race by 20 lengths.

"Either a horse isn't for sale or you have to pay too much," Siegel said. "Nobody in the United States sells a horse for what it's worth."

So Team Valor has been buying many of its horses in Europe and South America. Irwin, a former journalist, has been involved in international racing for most of his life and has contacts around the world. When he locates a potential buy, he and Siegel will study films of the horse's races and analyze his form to judge how he would fit in this country. But when Irwin learned that Ipi Tombe was available after winning 8 of 10 starts in South Africa, there were few lines of comparison to indicate how she would fare in the major leagues.

"My philosophy is that a good horse can come from anywhere, and if you can get the best horse in the country, you're probably going to be all right," Irwin said. "Ipi Tombe was the first 3-year-old filly to win their biggest race since 1957. She showed tremendous acceleration in her races."

Irwin was swayed, too, by Ipi Tombe's astute trainer, Michael de Kock, who insisted that the filly was world-class. De Kock had developed a South African champion Horse Chestnut, who came to the United States and ran brilliantly.

But with a price tag of $750,000 on Ipi Tombe, Irwin said, "The difficult part was finding someone to join in the venture. Nobody knows the South African form."

Finally he structured a deal. Irwin persuaded Kentucky's WinStar Farm to buy a 50 percent interest in the filly; Team Valor sold 25 percent to various clients who bought fractional shares; 25 percent remained with some of the original South African owners. They all agreed on a game plan. Ipi Tombe would go to the Middle East in the care of de Kock and train for the $2 million Dubai Duty Free - one of the events on the world's richest day of racing. Thereafter, she would come to the United States and be trained by Elliott Walden.

The plan worked to perfection. Ipi Tombe won two tuneup races in Dubai, and then captured her $2 million objective with a sensational performance, accelerating powerfully in the stretch to rout her male rivals. She scored by three lengths over second-place Paolini, a performance that finally yielded lines of comparison for the South African. Last summer Paolini ran in the Arlington Million and lost by half a length.

"We've had a lot of good horses in the past," Irwin said after his return from Dubai, "but we've never owned a horse who commanded such respect. Everybody who saw her has been bowled over."

Ipi Tombe will ship to Kentucky to be put in the care of her new trainer, and her first important U.S. objective will be the Arlington Million in August. In a year when American racing has few standouts, she could be poised to become one of the sport's biggest stars.

Emboldened by her success, Team Valor will doubtless be trying to find another Ipi Tombe, no matter how esoteric the horse's origins.

"I don't know if they have racing in Antarctica," Siegel said, "but if they do, we'll probably start looking there."

(c) 2003 The Washington Post