Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Love of Horses

I have a deep love for horses, especially thoroughbreds. I've had several myself and have loved them dearly. Right now, I'm looking forward to the Belmont, hoping beyond hope that we have a Triple Crown winner--Big Brown!!!

Among Broodmares, She's the Mother of Them All

By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 3, 2008; Page E03

When asked about Better Than Honour, a broodmare whose 3-year-old son, Casino Drive, will attempt to defeat Big Brown on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, Kentucky bloodstock adviser Michael S. Brown speaks with a voice full of wonder.

In the long history of horse racing, a sport that focuses on pedigree the way baseball obsesses over statistics, there has been nothing like her. A horse of regal and enormously successful bloodlines, Better Than Honour somehow has manifested her ancestors' best genetic traits -- stamina, speed, competitive nature -- in offspring that twice in a row have won one of the most coveted prizes in the sport.

If Casino Drive, brought to America by Japanese interests solely to win the Belmont, can knock off Big Brown, he would become the third consecutive progeny of Better Than Honour to win the 1 1/2 -mile classic, following siblings Jazil and the filly Rags to Riches.

"It's every bit as impressive as [Hall of Fame trainer] Woody Stephens winning five straight Belmonts; maybe more so," said Brown, who has bought and sold racehorses and breeding prospects for more than 25 years. "You have a 30,000-foal crop every year and to have three straight Belmont winners -- I'm not a statistician, so I wouldn't venture the odds. It's remarkable."

At this point, even before Casino Drive runs, Better Than Honour is worth about $12 million, Brown speculates. Yet in recent years she has been sold for less than that, leaving a trail of regret and a breeder who managed to get her back.

At the end of her brief racing career in 1999, in which she placed in three stakes races, Better than Honour was purchased by John Sikura, president of Hill 'n' Dale Farm in Lexington, Ky., one of the top thoroughbred operations.

Sikura had concentrated on assembling an unmatched band of broodmares and Better Than Honour fit the profile as a daughter of champion Blush With Pride, a descendant of the temperamental British stallion Nasrullah, whose import to the United States in 1949 had a profound impact on the industry. Nasrullah's son, Bold Ruler, fathered Secretariat.

Bred to leading sire Storm Cat in 2000, Better Than Honour's first foal the following year, Teeming, won three of four starts before getting injured. After Teeming hit the track, Sikura received a call from Ira Gumberg, whose father, Stanley Gumberg, made a fortune in real estate and started a breeding operation called Sklara Glen Stables. The Gumbergs were friends with Sikura's father, who had died in 1994 in a car crash.

Ira Gumberg wanted to buy Better Than Honour, but Sikura turned him down. Gumberg made a second offer and Sikura took it.

"I can't tell you for how much, but it was an elite number," Sikura said. "There were lots of zeros."

With Sklara, Better Than Honour gave birth to a son of the top sire A.P. Indy that never raced. The Gumbergs bred her twice, first to Seeking the Gold and then back to A.P. Indy. The offspring were Jazil and Rags to Riches.

In 2004, while pregnant with Casino Drive, Better Than Honour was placed in an auction at Keeneland and purchased for $2 million by BBA Ireland, a company representing Coolmore Stud, the most powerful racing operation in England. "I thought she would have brought north of $3 million," said Stanley Gumberg. "We shouldn't have sold."

Sikura, who watched the sale from the sidelines, said he usually doesn't dwell on a lost horse.

"In this business, it's not helpful to have regret," he said. "Horses are fluid; they have foals every year. If you sell a mare one year, four years later she could have produced a Grade I winner or an important horse. It's not helpful to say I should have kept that mare."

But after Jazil won the Belmont in 2006, Sikura knew he had to have Better Than Honour back. Michael Moreno, an owner of an oil drilling platform and refinery construction company, was looking to get into the broodmare game and Sikura brought him on as a partner to help pry Better Than Honour away from Coolmore.

Sikura declined to reveal the cost. "At the time, Rags to Riches had run once and chipped an ankle," he said. No one knew she would win the Belmont, too.

Sikura will watch the Belmont on Saturday hoping for the unimaginable, the broodmare's own version of the Triple Crown.

"It's really an impossibility what's happened so far," he said. "This whole business is about exaggeration and childlike belief and most things let you down. You think about greatness and immortality and undefeated and in real-world parlance those things almost never occur. But they occur just so often that you still can believe."

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