Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Gunther’s Classic Trio Ready For ‘Chance To Prove Themselves’

by | 04.26.2018 | 1:32pm
Justify as a yearling

From the 22,936 Thoroughbreds born in North America in 2015, the racing world has whittled down to the top 20 candidates for the first Saturday in May. Remarkably, two of the top 3-year-old colts were bred on the same small farm in Central Kentucky; both Justify and Vino Rosso hail from a broodmare band with numbers not much higher than the Kentucky Derby field.

Additionally, those same connections also bred and still own a serious-looking challenger who could be aiming for the 2,000 Guineas on the same Saturday afternoon. Without Parole, a son of Frankel, easily dispatched his rivals in his 2018 debut at Yarmouth on Tuesday, inciting trainer John Gosden to consider the big race in just under two weeks' time.

The only problem now, John Gunther laughs, is which classic to attend.

“It's a good problem to have,” said the native Canadian. “If we go in the 2,000 Guineas, I'm going to be there. But Tanya will probably stay in Kentucky for the Derby.”

Tanya Gunther, his daughter, plays a major role in Glennwood's operations. Though she initially followed her father into the investment banking realm, she ached for a return to her true passion, the horses, and came home to manage the farm in Kentucky. The father-daughter partnership has taken Glennwood to levels of operation well beyond the elder Gunther's wildest dreams.

“I keep pinching myself to see if this is really happening,” he said. “I really have to thank Tanya for her hard work and dedication… you know, she was doing pedigrees by hand at 8 and 9 years old!”

Gunther's own father passed away when he was still a young boy, and he moved in with his aunt on a working farm. It was there that Gunther first saw horses, a pair of drafts pulling the harrow across the fields. As he got older and found work as a longshoreman, he was drawn to Hastings Park to watch the Thoroughbreds on the weekends. Gambling on the horses was not a profitable venture, Gunther found, but he didn't give up on it.

“I figured I had to get better at it eventually,” he said.

Gunther learned to pore over past performances and pedigrees, a skill that has obviously served him well in the breeding industry. The roundabout way he ended up with his first racehorse involved a woman and a show-jumping Thoroughbred mare; Gunther was later convinced to breed that mare. The resulting foal, Pallascheck, won a handful of races for him in the mid-1970's.

He was hooked.

In 1986, Gunther first bought into Glennwood Farm outside Lexington, and he was able to purchase the remainder of the farm from his partners over the next three years. A regular attendee of the Keeneland sales, Gunther found success early on. The $50,000 yearling Wall Street Dancer earned over $800,000 on the track, as did American Chance, purchased for $175,000 as a yearling.

Where Gunther really excels is in finding value in potential broodmares. His “foundation mare,” Marozia (Storm Bird), was a $50,000 steal at the 2003 Keeneland November sale. Her 2002 foal by Fusaichi Pegasus, Andromeda's Hero, made a splash as a 3-year-old, running in the Derby and finishing second in the Belmont Stakes.

“I just loved her pedigree, just an amazing female family with 11 generations of stakes winners,” Gunther said, pulling further specifics straight from his memory. “Her third dam (Equal Change) ran second to Ruffian in the CCA Oaks, and was actually the closest finisher to that filly in all of her races.

“There was a Coolmore agent who would have bid on her that day, but he was late arriving to the sale, so I got lucky!”

John Gunther

Bred to Bernardini, Marozia produced multiple Grade 1 winner Stay Thirsty. Sent back to Lemon Drop Kid, Marozia's resulting filly Without You Babe became the dam of Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Tamarkuz. Without You Babe is also the dam of Without Parole, the Frankel colt that the Gunthers have on the English Classics trail.

The families of both Justify and Vino Rosso were also developed by Gunther and his daughter.

“I don't have a problem buying an unraced mare, or a mare without black type in the first generation,” he said, explaining what sets him apart from the major market players at the sales. “There are a lot of really nice mares out there who just never had a chance to prove themselves.”

Vino Rosso's dam, Mythical Bride (Street Cry), was a $42,000 purchase at the 2011 November sale. Gunther raced her for one more year and retired her to the breeding shed. Tanya Gunther came up with the cross to Curlin, who stood for just $25,000 then. The cross featured inbreeding to both Mr. Prospector and Deputy Minister, and the chestnut colt brought $410,000 at the September sale. His win in the Wood Memorial has Vino Rosso fifth on the overall Derby leaderboard.

Justify's female family was a bit more difficult to buy into. Magical Illusion (Pulpit) ran third to Ashado in the CCA Oaks and was offered at the 2005 Keeneland January sale. Gunther had to go all the way to $425,000 to secure her.

“She broke her maiden by 14 lengths, then won an allowance by 12 lengths,” Gunther said (It was actually 17 ½ lengths and 10 lengths, respectively). “I just had to have her, because she showed heart and was super consistent.”

Bred by Ghostzapper, Magical Illusion produced the filly Stage Magic. The Gunthers retained her when she did not make her reserve as a yearling, and Stage Magic went on to be Grade 3-placed behind Groupie Doll, earning $133,981. When she went to the breeding shed, Stage Magic was lined up to the up-and-comer Scat Daddy, standing for $30,000 at the time.

The cross featured a unique inbreeding of full sisters, each by Mr. Prospector and out of Narrate. Preach, on the female-line side, was a Grade 1-winning juvenile and future dam of Pulpit. Yarn, on the male side, was the dam of Tale of the Cat. Justify's pedigree also includes some inbreeding to Nijinsky, and his Santa Anita Derby triumph earned the colt probable favoritism on the first Saturday in May.

Eagerly awaiting the birth of that year's foal crop, March 28, 2015 was an enormous day for Glennwood. Not only did Tamarkuz score in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile at Meydan, but the Gunther-bred Materiality won the Florida Derby. Justify chose that day to grace the earth with his presence as well, and Vino Rosso was born just one day later.

“Being a breeder, you have to sell some or you run out of money,” Gunther said wistfully. “Of course, there are those you try to keep, and Without Parole was one of those. We sent him to Tattersalls, and my original reserve was set at 599,000 guineas.”

Gunther revised that reserve to 675,000 guineas, thankfully, because the live bidding stopped just short of that number. Gunther was relieved, obviously, and the son of Frankel entered training with John Gosden. His name, Without Parole, comes from the Merle Haggard song “Mama Tried.”

The original decision to send some mares overseas came about because Gunther felt that the sire power had shifted to Europe, in that there were so many more top-quality stallions at reasonable prices. Of course, seeing Frankel run live at Royal Ascot had a lot to do with the decision to send his good mare Without You Babe to the son of Galileo, as well.

“I don't think you get the same satisfaction buying something as you do watching the life-long progression,” Gunther concluded. “I'd rather watch the foals playing in the field than the horses walking around the shed row any day.”

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