Merv Griffin owns what one might call a "wonderboy." And we're not talking about the baseball bat that the Robert Redford character Roy Hobbs swung to perfection in the movie, The Natural.
The performance that Griffin's Stevie Wonderboy gave in the 2005 Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Belmont Park was as good as they come and proved just as exciting as the tape-measure home runs that Hobbs hit off "Wonderboy." Unlike those dingers, however, Stevie Wonderboy's performance was all too real.
Stevie Wonderboy's all-out, come-from-behind running style has fans and experts alike thinking that this might be the horse to break the Breeders' Cup/Kentucky Derby (gr. I) jinx that has reigned since the inaugural 1984 Juvenile. Throw in a pedigree loaded with grade I and classic winners, and they might be right.
Unlike the wooden "Wonderboy," which Hobbs crafted from a tree that had been struck by lightning, Stevie Wonderboy is a product of the successful young sire Stephen Got Even
and the Summer Squall mare Heat Lightning. Stephen Got Even, a grade I winner who ranked third on the 2005 second-crop sire list by progeny earnings, is by Horse of the Year A.P. Indy
, whose big wins came in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) and Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Summer Squall, a half-brother to A.P. Indy, is a Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner who sired 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismati, who was that year's Horse of the Year.
Heat Lightning, on the other hand, had failed to win in 13 starts, but has more than made up for it as a broodmare. All five of her previous foals are winners. Stevie Wonderboy just happens to be her best.
Griffin bought Stevie Wonderboy for $100,000 through Dennis O'Neill at the 2005 Fasig-Tipton Florida March sale of 2-year-olds in training from Robert Scanlon, agent. Scanlon had bought a half-interest in Stevie Wonderboy from the colt's breeders, John Gunther, Tony Holmes, and Dr. Walter Zent, after Stevie Wonderboy failed to reach his reserve at the 2004 Keeneland September yearling sale.
O'Neill, brother of trainer Doug O'Neill, had spotted Stevie Wonderboy and brought him to Griffin's attention. Dennis O'Neill had priced Steve Wonderboy in the $300,000 to $400,000 range and was shocked to get him for $100,000.
Stevie Wonderboy's win in the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile appeared all the more impressive because it came in the colt's first start at longer than seven furlongs. Stevie Wonderboy had placed to the talented What a Song in his first two starts, including a third-place effort in the July 16 Hollywood Juvenile Championship Stakes (gr. III), before breaking his maiden by four lengths at 6 ½ furlongs at Del Mar in August.
Stevie Wonderboy's performance in his next race, the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) in early September, underscored what the colt could accomplish when things didn't go according to plan. Five wide entering the stretch, he powered his way home to win by five lengths in the good time of 1:22.43 under regular rider Garrett Gomez. It was just a sampling of what he could achieve when put to a drive.
Sent off as the 9-2 second choice behind Champagne Stakes (gr. I) winner First Samurai in the Juvenile, Stevie Wonderboy experienced trouble early in the race and on the backstretch, but threw it in high gear when it counted most. He came flying around the far turn and went on to win by 1 ¼ lengths over fourth-choice Henny Hughes, who had two lengths on third-place finisher First Samurai.
For Griffin, Gomez, and O'Neill, it was their first Breeders' Cup win. Gomez, who had battled back from substance abuse problems, won the NetJets Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) on Artie Schiller later on the card.
O'Neill bypassed the Dec. 17 Hollywood Futurity (gr. I), won by Brother Derek, with Stevie Wonderboy. The two began their 3-year-old campaigns in the mile San Rafael Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 14 at Santa Anita, with Brother Derek prevailing by 1 ½ lengths over Stevie Wonderboy. The pair figure to meet again in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II) March 4 at Santa Anita.
Gunther, Holmes, and Zent no longer own Heat Lightning. She was sold through Gunther's Glennwood Farm, agent, at the 2005 Keeneland November breeding stock sale for $1.1 million. Hugo Merry Bloodstock and Bluegrass Thoroughbred Services bought her for Andrew Rosen.
Heat Lightning, who was sold in foal to Birdstone
, is boarded at the Hancock family's Claiborne Farm. She is booked to Unbridled's Song
.Voting for 2-Year-Old Male:
>Stevie Wonderboy, 230; First Samurai, 25; Bluegrass Cat, 1; Henny Hughes 1; Private Vow, 1; What a Song 1; Voter Abstentions, 3.