Last spring, before any foals from the first-crop of Offlee Wild had made their way to the track, Lansdon Robbins was convinced the Grade 1 stakes-winning son of Wild Again he raced with partners in the name of Azalea Stable was standing his final year at Darley America in Lexington.
“I guarantee you they were thinking about how they were going to get rid of Offlee Wild,” Robbins told the Paulick Report, “but I'll bet that's all changed now because of his performance.”
Robbins had good reason to be concerned. Scan the list of 2009 stud fees for the 16 stallions then standing at the Lexington farm owned by Sheikh Mohammed, and Offlee Wild was at the very bottom, at $7,500 live foal. His first crop of foals, born in 2007, totaled just 62, and only reached that number because of a deal former Darley chief operating officer Dan Pride cut with Texans Bill and Corinne Heiligbrodt to breed 13 of their mares to the stallion. His second crop had fewer still and his third crop, born in 2009, numbered just 32.
But Offlee Wild beat the odds, rising to the top of the freshman sire list in 2009 with progeny earnings of $1,951,283, edging Hill 'n' Dale Farm's Roman Ruler–who had twice as many 2-year-olds and nearly twice as many runners–by a slim margin. He also finished first on Bloodhorse.com's juvenile sire list, though ThoroughbredTimes.com, which includes earnings from Southern Hemisphere runners, listed Coolmore's Giant's Causeway first among juvenile sires of 2009.
Offlee Wild beat Roman Ruler by just $11,332, passing him on Dec. 31 when Heavenville earned $12,040 for a third-place finish in a division of the Louisiana Futurity at Fair Grounds. The Louisiana-bred Heavenville, one of those 13 foals bred by the Heiligbrodts, was a book-end performer for Offlee Wild, having been his first starter and first winner at Keeneland on April 9.
But the freshman and juvenile sire titles weren't Offlee Wild's first longshot victories. A one-time Kentucky Derby contender following a 27-1 upset in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in 2002, Offlee Wild suffered what some thought was a career-ending injury in 2004, but came back for his most significant win ever the following year in the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park. That was the triumph that sealed the deal to send him to Darley.
It's not like Robbins found Offlee Wild in the bottom of some barrel. He paid $325,000 for the colt on the opening day of the 2001 Keeneland September yearling sale. Robbins, who had been a shareholder in several racing partnerships, formed Azalea Stable with a group of friends and came to Keeneland with a budget of $1 million to buy some yearlings.
“I'll never forget the date he sold,” remember Robbins. “He was Hip 66 on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before 9/11.”
Produced from the Seattle Slew mare Alvear (a half sister to the successful stallion Dynaformer and out of the hard-hitting Grade 1 winner Andover Way), Offlee Wild was the most expensive son of Wild Again sold that year. He was bred by Dorothy Matz and raised at her sister Helen Alexander's Middlebrook Farm and sold by the Middlebrook consignment.
Trainer Thomas (T.V.) Smith accompanied Robbins to the sale and loved Offlee Wild. Robbins put a $250,000 budget on the colt. “Wild Again was not a sexy stallion,” Robbins said, “so we didn't think we'd have to pay that much. I kept looking at T.V., and he kept raising his hand. We found out later that trainer Michael Matz (Dorothy's husband) was the underbidder. He really wanted the horse, and when I saw him I said I'm just glad you didn't keep bidding.”
Offlee Wild got his start at the Webb Carroll training center in South Carolina, then joined T.V. Smith's stable in Kentucky. He broke his maiden at second asking at Churchill Downs in October of his 2-year-old, won an allowance race there in November, then was pointed for the Holy Bull at Gulfstream. He won by a head at 27-1, and among the also-rans that day was a New York-bred gelding named Funny Cide, who would go on to win the Kentucky Derby. “After that win, the sharks started circling,” Robbins said. “Some bloodstock agents said the horse should be with a different trainer, someone like Bob Baffert or Nick Zito. One guy got in my face about it before I even made it to the winner's circle.”
FROM SMITH TO DUTROW
That Jan. 18 victory—Robbins' first-ever starter in a graded stakes–would be the last win of the year for Offlee Wild, who jumped into Grade 1 competition in his next three starts, finishing fourth in the Fountain of Youth, third in the Toyota Blue Grass and 12th in the Kentucky Derby. After six more losses, extending his losing streak to eight races and 14 months, Robbins sadly parted company with Smith, giving Offlee Wild to Rick Dutrow in New York on the advice of Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel.
“T.V. was a 100% hay, oats and water guy, and I really loved him,” Robbins said, “but he wouldn't do a lot of things other trainers would do, like using steroids, which were then legal. A lot of these trainers would use every legal avenue available, and he wouldn't even use something like GastroGard to treats ulcers. I wanted to be on a level playing field, as long as everything was legal. Offlee Wild was getting thinner and thinner and looking like a greyhound. Taking him away from T.V. was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make.”
Robbins was aware that Dutrow didn't have a pristine reputation, but he thinks it's largely undeserved.
“Rick gets a bad rap,” Robbins said. “He's not arrogant, maybe a little simple or insecure. There's no filter to what he says. When he opened his mouth about giving Big Brown steroids, all the other trainers said, 'Damn, Rick, why are you letting the cat out of the bag?' But I think he did the industry a service, and now we are better off because no one can use them.”
Two months after Dutrow got Offlee Wild, he entered the now 4-year-old in a Belmont Park allowance race and won easily. “Rick called to say that's exactly what we were looking for,” Robbins said. Dutrow wanted to run Offlee Wild next in the Grade 2 Massachusetts Handicap against Funny Cide in June. He was a longshot in the morning line, but got hammered in the early wagering and eventually went off 3-1 second choice behind the previous year's Derby winner. Offlee Wild won a head-bobbing photo over Funny Cide, giving Robbins and Dutrow their biggest career wins to date.
“That was one of my favorite races ever,” he recalled. “It even made the number three SportsCenter highlight that weekend on ESPN.”
CAREER ENDING INJURY? NOT QUITE
But the joy over the MassCap win didn't last very long. Shortly after the race, he bowed a tendon and Robbins was faced with some options: retire the horse and shop him around to some stud farms or attempt to have the tendon repaired through a relatively new surgery that splits the tendon and allows it to heal.
“We opted for the surgery, even though there was no guarantee he'd ever race again,” Robbins said. “So we sent him to Dr. (Larry) Bramlage at Rood & Riddle.” To hedge his bets, Robbins put together a video highlighting Offlee Wild's career to that point. (Click here to view.)
Following the surgery, Bramlage, in a Sept. 30, 2004, “Lameness Exam Report Discharge Form,” gave a “favorable to race but unfavorable to hold his class” prognosis for Offlee Wild. “If all we had to do was get him back to race, he looks like he will do that,” Bramlage wrote. “If we need to get him back to stakes company, I don't think he can do that with the change in shape of his cannon bones. That cheapens a horse and eventually ends their career.
“He has done so well and overcome so much, and he looks so great right now that he is hard to give up on, but if he has to win in stakes company, I don't think he'll be able to do that. That probably makes it smarter to stand him right now, rather than risk a sub-par season and cheapen him as a stud.”
The only problem is that Robbins never saw the discharge form written by Bramlage. Dutrow didn't want to give up on the horse, and he kept Robbins from seeing the prognosis, fearing the horse would be retired.
Five months later, Offlee Wild was back in action, finishing a close second in a stakes at Laurel, then winning the Grade 3 Excelsior at Aqueduct, finishing sixth in the Grade 1 Pimlico Special and then beat Funny Cide again in the Grade 1 Suburban Handicap at Belmont.
Waiting outside the winner's circle after Offlee Wild's first Grade 1 victory were several stallion farm representatives including Dan Pride, who went to the same elementary school in Nashville, Tenn., as Robbins. Within days, they agreed to a deal to stand him the following year at the relatively new Kentucky operation based at the former Jonabell Farm. A subsequent ankle injury forced Robbins to retire him before the Breeders' Cup.
It was also after the Belmont race that Robbins first saw the prognosis that Bramlage had written.
“A guy from the Kesmarc center in Kentucky where Offlee Wild recuperated after surgery was laughing after we won the Suburban and said, 'Hey, I want to show you something that Dutrow told me never to let you see.'” Robbins was amazed at Offlee Wild's overachievement following the surgery.
Neither Robbins nor Pride were that surprised to see Offlee Wild get off to a successful start at stud.
“He has a stallion-making pedigree,” said Pride, now an executive at Fasig-Tipton.
“The things that were most appealing to me were the female family, the fact he was a major outcross to Mr. Prospector and Northern Dancer line mares, and he was a solid, respectable racehorse. He wasn't competing for Eclipse Awards, but he was solid, and there was some early buzz about him on the Derby trail, so he had some name recognition.”
Pride put the deal together with the Heiligbrodts because he knew early success with 2-year-olds was important, and the Heiligbrodt Racing Stable emphasizes 2-year-old racing. “It was a matter of connecting the dots,” he said. “You seek outfits that can help make that happen, and Bill and Corinne and their team from start to finish are as good a team as anyone. We wanted to get the horse started right, and they played a big part.”
So did She Be Wild, the probable 2-year-old filly champion who won four of five starts, including the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, earning $1,311,040.
Despite his first-year success, Darley left Offlee Wild's stud fee at $7,500 for 2010, a move that is certain to get him a full book of mares, and higher quality ones than he's ever had before. You can bet he's got a secure spot in the Darley stallion barn—at least for the near future.
“We had no plans to get rid of him,” said Olly Tait, Darley's current chief operating officer, in reference to Robbins' comments. “You obviously never know which stallions are going to make it, and Offlee Wild has had to do it the hard way. His opportunities are going to get greater and greater, and his offspring should get better with age. He didn't win his Grade 1 until he was a 5-year-old.”
It was a Grade 1 that almost wasn't meant to be.
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