The weanling-to-yearling pinhook market draws in some of the bloodstock game's sharpest eyes to select and shape young horses into profitable offerings down the road. It's rare to see a trainer dip a toe into that segment of the market as a pinhooker, but Gary Contessa has turned it into a useful resource to raise funds and find future runners.
Contessa has become a regular presence at the Kentucky mixed sales shopping for weanlings to re-sell, mainly with owner Lee Pokoik. The duo hit at this year's Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Selected Yearling Sale with a Super Saver filly who brought $250,000 after being purchased as a youngster for $100,000.
At this month's Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, Contessa restocked for next year with a $200,000 Speightstown filly and a $175,000 American Pharoah filly.
“I do that every year,” Contessa said. “I buy five or six weanlings that'll sell as yearlings, I buy five or six yearlings that'll sell as 2-year-olds in training, and I get to train whatever we don't sell. It's a good market because you don't have to put a lot of money into a weanling to get it ready to be a yearling. It's not like you have to break it, gallop it, get a breeze in it. You just take good care of it and hope everything goes well.”
Contessa said he likes to keep his circle tight when it comes to the pinhook process, sticking to one owner per horse, instead of partnerships that require a litany of correspondences to get decisions made, both on purchases and when to sell. The weanlings he buys are sent to Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Ky.
Weanling buying is in many respects a speculative game, banking on a horse's potential to grow in the right places and grow out of any early issues. When it comes to buying at that age level, the trainer's checklist largely leans on characteristics that would be there no matter how old the horse is.
“Any horse, the engine is in the rear, so I need a nice, strong, well-made rear end,” he said. “I want to see the makings of a really strong shoulder. I want to see a nice head. I want the neck to tie in properly. I don't want to a short neck, I don't want a too-long pencil neck. I want the neck to flow with the rest of the body, and I want a nice walk.
“I won't buy a weanling or a yearling that doesn't have an overreach of six to 14 inches,” he continued. “That's going to be appealing to the guy that buys yearlings. If you buy horses that have a good walk, they're always going to have a good walk, and there's a few other parts that have to fall in.”
Contessa said he aims to find open-company horses with pages and physicals worthy of a spot in a select sale. Though his racing operation is based in New York, he tends to avoid New York-breds as pinhook prospects because the concentration of upper-level buyers is higher for Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga Select Yearling Sale compared with the New York-Bred Sale the following week.
A common refrain among weanling buyers is knowing what idiosyncrasies to forgive at such an early stage of a horse's development. Contessa went in the other direction, saying there was actually one trait he looks for that buyers seeking perfect conformation would strike down.
“There are things that you see in weanlings that you know are going to correct themselves,” he said. “A weanling had better toe out. You've got to have a weanling toe out because as their shoulders develop, their front feet come in. If you buy a weanling where both feet are perfect, by the time it's a yearling that horse is going to toe in. They always turn in as their shoulders develop, so you want them to toe out just so much – not horrendously.”
Because even the best-kept weanlings must hit the right developmental beats to be marketable at future sales, the reality of pinhooking is they sometimes won't hit the mark commercially when the time comes to sell. Contessa's long-term structure of putting auction purchases into training himself allows for a contingency plan that many of his contemporaries in that space lack.
Sometimes, the ones that stick around produce a better end-result for Contessa and his clients than the ones they sell.
In 2017, Contessa bought a $260,000 yearling Orb filly as agent for Pokoik during the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select sale. She was placed in this year's Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. March 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale but finished under her reserve with a final bid of $110,000. Given the name Sippican Harbor, the filly entered Contessa's stable and won the Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes in her third start before running in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Contessa was hopeful another one of his recent non-sellers could produce a similar return. At last year's Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Selected Mixed Sale, he bought an American Pharoah filly out of the Flatter mare Flattermewithroses for $350,000 with eyes on taking advantage of the buzz surrounding the Triple Crown winner's first crop of foals. The filly never made it to the sale ring, but the trainer saw so much potential that it didn't bother him at all to hang on to her.
“She was gorgeous, and if you look at the walk on her, she's got a 14-inch overstep,” Contessa said. “She's magnificent. She has got a powerful, powerful engine.
“She had a minor veterinary issue on a hock – out in the field after we bought her, she must have been running and put on the brakes too hard or collided with another horse,” the trainer continued. “One of the ligaments that goes down the inside of the hock pulled away, and with it pulled a little sliver of bone. When we vetted her in this sale, we had that issue and said 'We're gonna try her anyway.' When you're selling a horse, people read the x-rays, and if they like the horse, they'll scope it. We had 20 people read her x-rays and nobody scoped her. We're just as happy running her, and this will never affect her as a racehorse, so we pulled her out of the sale and kept her. I get her next year. I'm thrilled, and the owner is thrilled.”
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