In the early morning hours of Feb. 5, John Moynihan hung up the phone. He was at a hotel in Ocala, Fla., and over the previous 11 hours, he had worked on a deal to purchase a majority interest in Curlin, who 36 hours earlier had broken his maiden. Just three-and-a-half months later, the colt would win the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
The bloodstock agent has purchased many successful horses at public auction, but this marked “the first time I ever bought a horse like this privately.”
After the deal was consummated, Moynihan started worrying. He had agreed to drive to South Florida the next day to inspect the horse; he needed to have a veterinary exam done, and, most importantly, all he really had was a verbal agreement with someone he had never met in person.
The process began Feb. 3, when Curlin, trained then by Helen Pitts, broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park by an eye-catching 12 3⁄4 lengths. Ironically, Moynihan normally would have been in attendance at the races since the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. auction is usually held at Calder Race Course in Miami, but was moved to Ocala because the Super Bowl was being played nearby at Dolphin Stadium Feb. 4.
Moynihan saw the race on tape that night and spoke with trainer Steve Asmussen, who was at Gulfstream that day. Both were awed by the performance.
“What impressed me was not just that he broke bad and made all the running, but that he started drawing off not coming out of the turn but going into the turn,” the 41-year-old bloodstock agent said. “You can count on one hand the number of horses you see that break their maiden that impressively. Rarely do you see a horse break his maiden going short that immediately you know will have no trouble going two turns.”
By the next afternoon, Moynihan had obtained a phone number for Bill Gallion, who owned the son of Smart Strike in partnership with Shirley Cunningham. Moynihan made the first call.
“The one thing I have found is that you have to go right to the source,” Moynihan said. “I’m not relying on anyone else. I want to speak to the owner.”
Never having been in such a position, Gallion had trouble putting a value on Curlin. Moynihan agreed to give him time.
“He was very honest; admitted he had not been in this position before,” Moynihan said. “The one thing he did say was they really wanted to stay in (as partners).”
Hours later, Gallion gave Moynihan a price. An agreement was reached. “He gave me a price and it was done,” Moynihan emphasized. “There was no negotiating. I didn’t want to lose the horse.”
Moynihan got on the phone to Jess Jackson, whom he has represented for two years.
“We had a good horse (Tiz Wonderful) that got hurt, a horse we thought was a top Derby prospect; we were looking for another horse. I had spoken to Jess about Curlin. I told him I wanted to pursue buying him, but he would be expensive. So to lessen our exposure, we might want to take in some partners.”
Jackson agreed to a majority interest. Moynihan called George Bolton, whom he has represented for five years. He bought in. Then, with Moynihan remembering a conversation he’d had with Satish Sanan earlier in the year, the Padua Stables owner was added to the group.
Still, “I was worried,” Moynihan said. “We had nothing in writing, and he was offered more money before we did have something in writing. But Bill told me, ‘I am a man of my word,’ and he was. I drove down and looked at the horse, had him vetted, and we wired the money. On (Feb. 7), he was on a van to Fair Grounds.”
Moynihan had previously purchased such horses as Exploit, Charismatic, High Yield, and Touch Gold. In Curlin, he had yet another classic-type horse.
“When people hire me, my goal is to get them to the (Kentucky) Derby (gr. I), and it is difficult to get there,” he said. “You buy more bad ones than good ones."
“In this deal, everything went perfectly.”
The key might have been the game between the Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.
“I think because of the Super Bowl, some people waited to start inquiring on Monday.”
By that time, the game was over.