The first foal of a moderate winner. . . by a sire yet to break through. . . loads of female family behind her?. . . born on a farm with plenty of past, but not much future. . . visited by an animal communicator who saw potential but warned of trouble.
A Saratoga yearling nobody really wanted. . . Sesamoiditis the reports said . . . no reserve at a select sale. . . end of a foal share . . . cheapest horse in the sale and less than half the price of the second cheapest.
A December Laurel Park juvenile maiden winner. . . a bit of a headcase. . . a great galloper. . . a not-so-great walker. . . an unclipped furball waiting for the track to thaw. . . a horse with a future (of some kind or another).
That was then.
Now? Now she’s an Eclipse Award finalist, one of the most valuable female Thor-oughbreds in the world and the region’s 2015 Horse of the Year as determined by the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred/The Racing Biz poll. Virginia-bred Stellar Wind won four of six starts in 2015–two Grade 3 stakes, a Grade 2 and a Grade 1. In May, she rallied nine wide to finish fourth as the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks-G1. In October, she lost the Breeders’ Cup Distaff-G1 by a neck after getting carried wide and bumped. She earned $886,000 on the season and heads to a 2016 campaign on the verge of $1 million in career earnings.
And she became the first Virginia-bred champion since Paradise Creek in 1994, taking the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly of 2015.
Bred by Keswick Stables and Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings, Stellar Wind is the product of Keswick’s mare Evening Star and Stonestreet’s stallion Curlin. A daughter of Malibu Moon, Evening Star won twice for Keswick and Maryland trainer Dr. John Fisher. More importantly, she carried with her the genes of her dam Sequins. Another Keswick homebred, Sequins won once in four starts. As a broodmare, she produced nine winners including stakes winners Im Out First and Zenith who in turn produced stakes winners Im a Dixie Girl and Great Hunter among others.
The family shouted depth and quality and tradition. And it’s even better today with the addition of Stellar Wind and Im a Dixie Girl’s son Mor Spirit (a Grade 1-winning juvenile colt in 2015). But none of that meant much when Stellar Wind was born at Keswick in 2012.
Old Keswick Farm, part of the horse country just east of Charlottesville and northwest of Richmond, includes a farm-house dating to the 1700s. The Thoroughbred connection really began in 1952, when the Augustus family purchased the place. Ellsworth Hunt “Gus” Augustus was an Ohio businessman who, among other titles, was national president of the Boy Scouts of America. The farm became a base for the equine pursuits of his wife, Elizabeth, and their children (especially daughter Peggy, who moved to Keswick at the beginning).
Elizabeth, in partnership with Daniel Van Clief, bred Northern Dancer’s dam Natalma and the success only grew as the mother/daughter team took Keswick to great heights. Gus Augustus died in 1963, and Elizabeth later married Knight-Ridder newspapers chief John Knight.
Keswick bred champion Johnny D and millionaires Sabin, Simply Majestic and Alwuhush, Grade 1 winner Husband among others over a span of five decades. Keswick’s yearlings were highly prized at Saratoga, and routinely found spots at the top of the sales results.
Though essentially the last horse bred by Keswick, Stellar Wind is a worthy successor. Her path to greatness meanders much like Peter’s Mountain Road near where she was foaled–from life on the farm with Augustus in 2012 to the sales ring at Saratoga in 2013, where she was essentially bought to “flip” like a bargain house, to Kentucky, to another sales ring at Timonium, to Elloree Training Center in South Carolina, to Donald Barr’s barn at Laurel Park, to the winner’s circle after a powerful maiden score in her second start for then owner Barbara Houck in December 2014, to the radar screen of high-end bloodstock agent David Ingordo, who secured the filly for Kosta and Pete Hronis, to John Sadler’s barn at Santa Anita in California and all the way to the Breeders’ Cup. And she’s not finished.
The people in her life explained how it all happened.
Peggy Augustus, co-breeder:
“She had a couple of issues and some vets said you wouldn’t want to run as a 2-year-old, but you could look at the catalog page and tell that. It all blew up with vets and things [at Saratoga].
“It’s absolutely a thrill. Any time you breed a stakes winner is a thrill. I had been out of the business for a while so it’s really fun to stir up the interest again.”
Marshall Silverman, sales consignor at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s fall yearling sale in 2013:
“There were some piddling issues with her at Saratoga, sesamoiditis I think, and people turned around and walked away. She was probably better at Timonium, it might have been the time but everything was piddling, nothing significant. She was a nice filly, you could tell. A good horse is a good horse and sometimes agents tend to take too much credit. She just came in a few days before the sale and we took care of her and showed her the best we could. You really give the credit to the people who did the prepping and to the horse, we’re just promoting them and taking care of them. It’s great that she went through Timonium because that sale needs some news like that to improve.”
Barbara Houck, the Marylander who spent $86,000 to buy Stellar Wind at Timonium:
“I set a price on everything and I’m very unemotional. I bid to $76,000 and I stopped. This guy thought he had her and then my husband [Errol] starts bidding and everybody around us started laughing. He was sitting right beside me. He bid to 86 and we got her. That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.
“I was just very impressed with her and got her out a couple times. I go around and do the ground work, then I have Goree look at them. Mostly I pick my own, but he passed her too.
“Peggy Augustus called me after we bought her and told me the story about her niece being an animal communicator. The filly told her she was going to cause a lot of heartache early, but that she was going to be great, and she’d like to be named something with wind in it. Her dam is by Malibu Moon, so that’s where Stellar Wind comes from. She was full of trials and tribulations. She was opinionated.”
Horseman Goree Smith, who advised Houck on the purchase and started the filly at Elloree Training Center:
“We had bought Keen Ice at Keeneland, and he’s by Curlin too. He was big, kind of stout and square and so was she. Big shoulder, wide chest and anyway she reminded me of him in the sale at Timonium. I told Mrs. Houck I thought she was the best filly in the sale.
“She was all about being a horse, not unruly, but energetic and you could tell she was physically good. You couldn’t hardly wear her out. She was a little proud of herself, but pretty good about everything. I sent her to Donald [Barr] and said, no kidding, that filly could be an Oaks filly. Damned if she didn’t turn out to be that kind of horse.”
Donald Barr, who trained Stellar Wind as a 2-year-old:
“I had some issues with her when she first started. She didn’t want to go to the track and things at first, but she got past them with the pony, training her at 8:30 in the morning. She was third the first time, she didn’t run bad. I liked her. The next time, she ran off the TV [an 8 3/4-length win].
“We had a lot of offers. Sometimes you have to make financial decisions. They paid enough money for her that they deserve to win some stakes with her. From our point of view, we guaranteed a few stakes wins by getting the money. It’s a very friendly deal and we’re all rooting for her.”
David Ingordo, bloodstock agent:
“I guess the horse had been looked at by someone else and I don’t know what exactly happened but the deal fell apart. I went to Laurel, it was about 4 degrees out and she was jumping and bucking and everything else. The trainer said somebody came to look at her and didn’t like her conformation. I said, ‘Oh my God, how can you not like what she looks like?’ I watched her train and ran into Phil Schoenthal at Laurel. I knew him from [the University of Kentucky], and he asked if I was there to look at Stellar Wind. He’d seen her train and vouched for Donald, so I had a lot of great information and it was easy.
“Time passes, she started training and John [Sadler] called me up and asked if there were any relatives in the family we could get. John had pretty high praise for her, knowing that she still had to do it in the afternoon, but he felt she was as good as anything he had. I thought that was awesome.
“Before she ran the first time in California [in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel in February] I was sitting down at Gulfstream Park for the 2-year-old sale. They’ve got that big sports bar and I was sitting next to Happy Alter, who I just met and we kind of hit it off. He asked me, ‘What are you going to do here?’ I told him I was going to bet on this horse. Afterwards he said ‘You kind of know what you’re doing, I thought you were crazy.’ She won, paid $16. She was pretty neat, it was a great deal and I was happy for Kosta because we’ve only bought a handful privately. We’re pretty particular about what we buy, at least what I source out for him.
“He’s one of the best guys you could work for. He gets it. He understands it. Whatever business you’re in you need the raw product to be able to produce something. He understands that you need to have yearlings, 2-year-olds, running horses to go out there and do it. Not all of them make it and sometimes you get one that’s a grand slam. She’s a grand slam because she’s what the market wants. She beautiful, by an up-and-coming stallion, she’s got a female family that is one of the purple ones out of the stud book. When she’s done, you’ll see she ran at 2, ran early, had a great 3-year-old campaign and hopefully she’ll have a big 4-year-old campaign. She’s the kind that people try to build a broodmare band around or if you turn them around to the marketplace the premium, premium dollars will be there.”
Houck, who didn’t hesitate (much) about selling:
“We knew what we had. We were in the middle of the worst winter in the world, she couldn’t train half the time because the track was closed. She was perfectly sound. I got the offer and it was good.
“I don’t look back. She’d have never done that well in Maryland. I felt it was better for the horse, and I had some other horses doing well. It made sense. I’m happy for her. I love it. I bet money on her and 20 bucks is a lot for me to bet. I always hope she does well.”
John Sadler, trainer:
“When she came in she had really long hair, coming from that region to California. You’ve got to remember last year it was a drought here, we didn’t have any rain and the weather was warm and sunny. I didn’t dislike her at all but it wasn’t what you’d expect. We clipped her Day 1 or Day 2, she looked good.
“What I do with all these new horses is I just start them off. I don’t have any real preconceived biases one way or the other. I just started her off, trained her and I could tell right away she had very good action. She was fun to train right off the bat.
“I was attracted to her when I OK’d the purchase. I was attracted by her breeding. I was taking a few horses for Jess Jackson when he was alive and served on the [Thoroughbred Owners of California]board with him for a while and I knew how passionate he was to have good horses and to breed good horses. When I saw Jess Jackson the breeder with Peggy Augustus, that’s good old East Coast stuff. I liked the breeding. We’re looking for horses that can run around two turns. She really improved from going short to going a mile in her second start. She was what we were looking for.
“[In the Kentucky Oaks] she kind of got knocked out of the gate and was way further back than we wanted. If you look at the Kentucky Derby and other races those days it was pretty much a speed-favoring track. For her to put in a late run, a sustained late run, 9-, 10-wide I thought it was a good race. We didn’t get a great result that day but I wasn’t disappointed in the horse at all.”
“We’re not going to bring her out too early this year because I’m training backwards from the Breeders’ Cup. Five or six races, no more than that. I’ve said it all along, I think her best is ahead of her. One, she’s a natural horse for a distance and two, she’s just continued to improve. She’s tack-walking, on a little bit of a light training schedule now. We’ll keep her at home. There’s a good series of races.”
Kosta Hronis, owner of Hronis Racing with his brother Pete:
“Good for the Mid-Atlantic breeding program. We’re really glad to be a part of it in this little way. When John and I first talked I said, ‘Virginia-bred.’ That was with a question mark, like, what? It worked out great for everybody.
“If you look at it now you’d say [she was a bargain]. She was medium-priced.
“We ran her in the Santa Ysabel at the end of February, put Victor [Espinoza] on her and it looked really easy for her. To go to the Santa Anita Oaks, which as a horse racing fan and somebody that’s been going to the track for my whole life, to actually be in the Oaks was a big deal. To win the Santa Anita Oaks, that was a real wow moment for me and my brother. The way she did it, she even made it look easier that day against tougher company. We knew we had a real special horse on our hands at that point.”
“After [the Kentucky Oaks] the target was the Breeders’ Cup. We wanted to keep her home. We thought about going back East, about going to Saratoga, Keeneland, but we thought we’d keep her home, let her rest up and give it our best shot in the Distaff. Sure enough that worked out. She was right there, she battled Stopchargingmaria all the way to the finish. We bumped each other a few times, but for her first time against older we were thrilled. She proved she could run away from California, did a good job and we were proud of her. It was nice to see her answer some of her critics. I think they thought we managed her carefully, which I’m OK with. She’s 3 years old, no rush. We’re going to let her keep racing as long as she wants to race so there was no tmetable when she had to get on the track. That’s not the way we operate. We’re going to let her run as long as she wants to run.”