Cot Campbell: To the ones that didn’t tick all the boxes
This is the popular battle cry heard during recent sales seasons. How many times have we heard a smug bloodstock agent—or excited new owner—announce proudly over an expensive new purchase that the horse “ticked all the boxes”? Or worse: that he/she was “the best horse in the sale.” Maybe I’m being too literal when I point out:
The identity of “the best horse in the sale” cannot possibly be determined for a few years!
I am a champion of the horses that are non-box-tickers, and I think I would be even if I were financially armed to buy the close-to-perfect yearlings.
But I also freely admit that if I were an agent dispatched to a horse sale with instructions to select a flawless horse, and was given a million dollars with which to do it, I would, of course, tick boxes until hell froze over. Across the board: conformation, energy, personality, heart measurements, gait analysis, ancestry, miscellaneous detective work, etc, etc. How could you not? A prime reason would be your own protection, in the very, very real possibility that the horse was not able to run fast enough when the chips were down.
I am one who believes that the million-dollar horse has perhaps a 25 percent better chance for success than the $200,000 horse—but he costs 500 percent more! Give me five of the latter for my million.
How many times have we heard it remarked that if you go into a paddock before a Grade One stakes race, and examine all the runners, as in an auction pre-sale exam, probably only nine of the 12 would “tick all the boxes”?
All of us in the horse business say constantly that you must have luck in this game. Then we seem to quickly abandon that premise, when we proclaim that, “This is the best horse in the sale.”…or worse: “You have to pay through the nose for the good ones.” Who knows who the “good ones” will be?
Would John Henry have been designated a “good one”? Or I’ll Have Another, Mine That Bird, Curlin, Skip Away? Of course not. And I could go on and on for pages.
And isn’t it delicious that one of the great charms of thoroughbred horse racing is when the little owner with his non-box-ticker colt or filly beats the hell out of the “rich kid” with all the advantages.
Occasionally some writer will do research on the most expensive sales horses in history, and what they have yielded. They definitely do not dominate the game. For every A.P. Indy, there are plenty of The Green Monkey’s. The few pricey ones that do go on to stardom are given a disproportionate amount of ink, while the failures just drift on into “Never Neverland.” Those horses that make up the backbone of the industry—the middle of the road ($100,000 – $200,000)—do not have backgrounds that make for particularly good ink.
So let us pause and give a nod at least to those horses that did not tick boxes, but went on to run a hole in the wind.
We are thankful for the gaudy, glamorous prices paid by high profile people. They create enormous excitement. Think of the hordes of spectators that cluster
respectfully about Sheikh Mohammed when he and his entourage bid boxcar figures at Saratoga. But the rags to riches types (a la Seattle Slew, Alsab, Stymie, Daisy Devine) are the ones that keep the people coming back for more.
Years ago I inspected a big, bay yearling at Keeneland. I remember well he was handsome, but showed a crooked ankle as he winged his way toward me. He ambled into the auction ring that night, and sold for a measly $1,200.
I saw him next a year and a half later, when he wheeled out into the middle of the racetrack at Churchill Downs, took off like a scalded dog, and closed relentlessly to win the Kentucky Derby. Then went to Baltimore and romped in the Preakness. His name was Canonero, and he had ticked no boxes.
That made an impression on me.
Cot Campbell is founder and president of Dogwood Stable.