Disregarded. Sold for $3,000. A Grade 1 winner of $1,136,235. Ignored. Sold for $1,000. Earned $214,525 in less than a year. Overlooked. Sold for $2,500. Has raced through age 12 while earning $536,193.
A Thoroughbred sale is a well-choreographed, rapid-fire thrill ride, and quick to move on to the next horse. But sometimes a horse steps into the ring and nothing happens. No bid . . . one bid? They leave the ring for the price of a new smart phone or a cheap used car. Why take a chance? Is there really any value in the bargain basement?
More than you might think.
Two years ago, at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s fall yearling sale, 46 horses sold for $2,000 or less. Not even a year into their careers, 15 are winners, with average earnings of $58,141; three are stakes performers, including one of Maryland’s top 3-year-olds.
Why did these horses leave the ring with so few numbers on the scoreboard? And why did their buyers take the chance?
“When he gets to the sale, his competitive juices get flowing,” said Jeff Matty, racing manager for Joe Besecker, on what spurs the owner to bid on horses at the lowest level. “He looks at the catalog page, and when he sees that the price on the big board is not that much . . . If they are under $10,000 and Joe Besecker is at the sale, he starts looking at that pedigree more and more.”
Besecker says he’s guilty as charged. But as part of his team, Matty and Northview Stallion Station’s director of bloodstock Paul O’Loughlin, are equally competitive.
Besecker went all out at that 2018 sale, spending $609,200 for 31 yearlings – seven on bids of $2,000 or less.
“My goal at the sale was selling some and buying zero,” said Besecker. “The only reason I went down there was to look at one horse. As I was sitting and watching the sale, I started to realize this wasn’t a really good sale for the mid- to low-end, so I changed my mind and decided I’d buy a ‘venture fund’ of horses. I had a team there, some really good at looking at conformation, others looking at all the vet reports we could get. We decided if they were going to give stuff away, we’d take advantage of it.”
Besecker was the only bidder on two, taking home a Raison d’Etat colt and a Super Ninety Nine filly for $1,000 apiece. The colt, out of the mare Lenders Way, was named Lebda for friend Doug Lebda, founder of Lending Tree. “He is maybe one of my favorite purchases of all time,” said Besecker. “I just fell in love with the horse. Sometimes you get a connection – this horse walked into the ring and just owned the ring.”
When no one was bidding, Besecker looked at the page and knew nothing about the sire. The team tried to persuade him not to bid. “Sometimes I had to fight my trusted advisors,” he said. “I was going to name him No No No No No.”
Lebda’s trainer Claudio Gonzalez is still amazed.
“I don’t know what he was looking for in the horse, because no one wanted to buy him,” he said. “I didn’t believe it, because he was set to breeze with some horse we paid 50 for and he looked good. That’s why we went to New York for the first time.”
Lebda finished second in his debut at Aqueduct in April, a half-length behind Maven, who won the Prix du Bois-G3 at Chantilly in France next out to become his sire American Pharoah’s first stakes winner. Lebda won a Laurel Park maiden special weight in his second start, and by early December was graded stakes-placed and had earned $84,525. Part of the Besecker dispersal last December, Lebda sold for $100,000. Still with Gonzalez, the colt has earned $130,000 in three starts for Euro Stable, winning the Miracle Wood and Private Terms stakes this year. In eight starts he’s earned $214,525.
The Super Ninety Nine filly, Super Donna G, won for a $25,000 tag at Laurel last November, made seven starts for Besecker and trainer Hugh McMahon while earning $35,590, and sold at the December sale for $25,000. Now at Penn National, the Pennsylvania-bred won first time out at 3 and was second in allowance company in March at Penn.
Besecker paid $11,000 for his seven “cheapest” yearlings in 2018 – six resold for a combined $174,500 in December.
Following the sales market for years, Besecker had always wanted to try it and looked to emulate one he considers the best in the business, John Salzman Sr.
Trainers John Salzman Jr. and his father have made their careers finding gems where others failed to look, and rarely spend more than $10,000.
“I buy all my horses off looks. I don’t use any paper, any breeding,” said the younger Salzman. “I don’t care who they’re by. Me and my father stand at the back of the sale where we have a perfect look at every horse that comes in the ring and we buy them off their physical looks. We buy fast horses, horses that can win early, and we’ve been very lucky doing it.”
One recent purchase, Forfiftyfiverocket, cost $1,500 as a yearling. The now 3-year-old son of Super Ninety Nine won for a $25,000 tag at Laurel last May, won twice more in December and has earned $97,638 in 11 starts.
“It didn’t matter if he brought $1,500 or he brought $10,000,” noted Salzman. “We have limits on what we spend, but that’s how I buy horses. If they come into the ring and I like them and if they go for the right price I buy them.” Picking up Forfiftyfiverocket for pocket change did make Salzman wonder what he bought. He saw a colt with a “nice rear end, a nice shoulder. And a good eye.” But he went back to the barn of consignor Bill Reightler with a question.
“OK, what’s broke on this one?” Salzman asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” Reightler replied. “How do you keep doing this? Buying horses off me for nothing.”
“I got lucky again,” Salzman said. “I guess.”
Salzman purchased stakes winners Limited View ($5,200) and Brenda’s Way ($7,500) from Reightler consignments.
“I don’t even need a sale book,” said Salzman. “If I go to the sale I don’t even care. None of that means anything to me. Especially if I’m spending my own money. I guess I have a good eye for a horse because I buy a lot of good horses that other people miss. It’s worked out for us for years.”
Not knowing much about the horse in the back ring has worked out for Rebecca Beecher too, who went to the 2018 sale with one horse in mind and left with another. She paid $2,000 for a son of Super Ninety Nine she and her husband Mark named Tommy Shelby.
“I actually liked another horse better that was a couple of hips after him, but he was big and probably not going to be a 2-year-old runner,” said Rebecca. “I never even pulled this horse out. I just saw him in the back ring, and thought he looked like a pretty racy type and that he’d make a 2-year-old runner. And his breeding as well, having the Malibu Moon on the dam side, was pretty good for me.”
Named for the main character in the television series Peaky Blinders and trained by Rebecca’s father Henry Walters, Tommy Shelby has won three times, was second in the First State Dash at Delaware Park and third in last year’s Maryland Juvenile Futurity, and has earned $111,596 in seven starts while racing for the Beechers.
“Tommy Shelby is very small, he’s probably only 15.1,” Rebecca said. “But he’s very broad – and very good looking. He proves it doesn’t matter what size you are.”
The success of Tommy Shelby took the Beechers back to last year’s sale and they doubled their budget, purchasing a Temple City colt for $4,000.
“We try and buy horses that are good looking enough for sport,” Rebecca said. “That if they don’t work out as racehorses we can sell them as something else – they’ll have another job. This one we’re not sure he’ll be a 2-year-old runner but it doesn’t really matter to us, we’re happy to take our time with him.”
Trainer Charles “Snake” Frock takes the approach of one of his mentors from 60 years ago, the late Dickie Dutrow.
Frock remembers Dutrow telling him, “When you go to a sale, and you walk by the stalls and if something catches your eye, you stand there and look at it. Even if it’s by nobody out of nobody, you might decide you like the way he’s built and he might be worth well buying.”
That method worked well with the purchase of Taco Supream and Paisley Singing.
“I’m not sure if we ever looked at him,” said Frock of the former. “When he came into the sale, his bid was $1,000 and Cameron [Frock’s grandson] said ‘Look at this monster.’”
The colt had a big chest, nice head, big rear end. The Frocks looked at the catalog page “real quick” and went to $1,600. After signing the ticket, Cameron found out the colt had OCD, so no longer wanted him. Frock and his son Randy bought him out. They almost sold him for $2,000 (as a riding horse), but Randy insisted they at least try a few races. Taco Supream broke his maiden in his third start for a $25,000 tag in 2017, got claimed for that figure two starts later and has now earned $318,277 including a win in the 2019 Maryland Million Sprint.
Paisley Singing, from the first crop of Golden Lad, cost Frock $1,000 at the 2018 sale. She’s since earned $84,251.
“We liked the way the filly looked – she’s now 16-something hands,” Frock said. “Nice body and nicely built. We hit a home run for her. We’ve been lucky with horses for a thousand or two. Paisley was doing so good we bought another Golden Lad [at last year’s sale] for $10,000.”
Hitting home runs for $1,000 means someone took a hit. For breeder Kristin Fernandez, her only venture into public sales was anything but positive. Fernandez prepped her Golden Lad filly for the 2018 fall sale, and set an $8,500 reserve. Unbeknownst to the owner until she reached the sale, a veterinarian misread X-rays and diagnosed a fracture that wasn’t there. Fernandez’s husband removed the reserve – the filly sold for $1,000.
“Would she have gone for more? Yes,” said Fernandez of the X-ray’s impact. “Would she would have gotten to the $8,500? Who knows.”
Purchased by Emerald Racing Stable and named She’smysunshine, the filly launched her career in Pennsylvania, breaking her maiden and finishing third three times, including the Parx Juvenile Fillies Stakes, for trainer Herold Whylie last year. She has since won an allowance race, finished third in the Wide Country Stakes and fourth in the Beyond The Wire Stakes, all at Laurel Park. She’s earned $81,832 in eight starts, and earned more than $8,600 for Fernandez in Maryland Fund breeder bonuses.
“I’m really glad with where she ended up,” said Fernandez. “I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason. You never know what would have happened [if she sold to someone else]. The filly has helped us out by running well and she’s in a good spot.”
Chip Landry has sold a lot of horses in 50 years in business, so he was a bit astonished when no one would listen when he suggested they take a look at a Virginia-bred colt at the 2012 Midlantic sale.
“Long On Value was from an unraced mare and by a stallion that was not particularly popular at the time. But he was an absolutely grand-looking yearling,” Landry said. “And anybody who would have taken the time and really looked at the individual instead of looking at the catalog page would have been able to see that.”
Bidding on the bay Value Plus colt stopped at $3,000, with Richard Hessee signing the ticket. Racing for Hessee’s wife Frances, Long On Value won his first three starts at 2, including stakes at Colonial Downs and Delaware Park. He was sold privately to Wachtel Stable and George Kerr, turned over to trainer Bill Mott and ran in stakes all but once the remainder of his 32-start career.
The eight-time stakes winner won the Twilight Derby-G2 and Canadian Turf-G3 and just missed when second in the Al Quoz Sprint-G1 in Dubai. Long On Value sold for $100,000 at Keeneland November in 2017, then wrapped up his career by winning the Grade 1 Highlander to pass $1 million in earnings. He stands at stud in Florida.
“I tried my best to get people to take a second look at Long On Value, because I was very aware that his family could produce runners,” said Landry. “But they would say ‘No, I can’t use a Value Plus.’ They would not even bother to have a look.”
A year earlier Landry sold a Grand Reward yearling for the same breeder – Snow Lantern Thoroughbreds – for $1,100 at the fall Midlantic sale. Back in the ring at the Ocala June sale Avanzare brought $52,000. He went on to win graded stakes at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Arlington Park, won 10 of 23 starts and earned $573,815. He was out of an unraced mare whose only other foal had yet to win.
“Those two sales results were so discouraging with those two colts – they were nice, well-made, well grown-out colts,” said Landry. “They didn’t have the pampered look that many of them have at the sale – they were raised to be horses.”
Trainer Glenn Thompson knows the horses bred by Virginian Jim Hackman from training for him over the years. Hackman makes it a policy to sell his colts and geldings and keeps his fillies. But when Thompson saw Two Notch Road in 2008, he tried to get the breeder to change his mind.
“Jim, are you sure you don’t want to keep this horse?” Thompson said. “He’s a really good-looking horse.”
“No, I’m sticking with the plan,” Hackman replied.
Thompson thought Two Notch Road would go for about $10,000, and had no intention of bidding on him. But the bidding started slowing down at $2,000. He got him for $2,500.
The son of Partner’s Hero kicked off his career with three uninspiring juvenile races over Monmouth Park’s main track. Thompson entered his gelding in the track’s Continental Mile on the turf, and got a breakthrough – Two Notch Road paid $216.40 to win.
“After Two Notch Road broke his maiden in the stake, Jim had a filly that I liked that I was also training for him and I said why don’t you take a percentage of him and I’ll take a percentage of the filly,” Thompson said.
“So that got Jim back in. I kind of wanted him back in anyway – I felt good having him back in because I knew Two Notch Road was going to be a pretty good horse.”
After winning his first two starts at 3, followed by a third in the Colonial Turf Cup-G2 and fourth in the Virginia Derby-G2 at Colonial Downs, and fourth again in the Jersey Derby, Thompson turned down a $400,000 offer.
“People were telling me I was absolutely out of my mind,” said Thompson. “And right after I turned it down, he bowed his tendon. But I gave him two years off and brought him back. He’s a special horse. He tries really, really hard every time he goes up there.”
With 42 of 46 starts on turf, an average of five starts a year, and lengthy rests each season, Two Notch Road is back in training at age 13.
“I think I’ve retired him three times already,” said Thompson. “Nothing due to soundness – I just thought it was time to retire him. But he is an explosive horse and I think he’d kill somebody in the show ring. He’s still the best-looking horse I have. Not many trainers are lucky enough to break a horse when he’s 2 and have him still running when he’s 12 and hopefully this year when he’s 13.
“I wouldn’t trade the experiences with him for anything. We’ve had a blast with him.”