Fox Hill Farm owner Rick Porter is no stranger to the pinhooking game.
Although he is best known as a racehorse owner—with such stars as 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, 2008 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) second Eight Belles, and 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) winner Round Pond—Porter also has been an adept pinhooker of mares for the last several years.
Last month, Porter expanded his pinhooking business into the yearling-to-juvenile reselling game. Teaming up with Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito under the name Pegasus Bridge, Porter bought 14 yearlings for $1,975,000 at Fasig-Tipton's October yearling sale in Lexington. All will head to Eddie Woods in Florida for breaking and training before returning to the auction ring this spring as 2-year-olds.
"I knew how successful Nick had been with [Robert] LaPenta in their ventures," Porter said, "and I just thought that Nick was one of the trainers that has a good eye for a horse, particularly in a price range where you can make a profit in pinhooking yearlings to two-year-olds. When I had all those car dealerships I enjoyed running businesses, and this is more of a business than racing, I think. I wanted the challenge of doing it."
The original plan, Porter added, was to start the Pegasus Bridge pinhooking venture at the 2015 yearling sales.
"The October sale was going to be a little test, maybe buying three or four horses, so the system's already broken!" he joked. "We actually were talking about starting next year, but since Nick was at Keeneland for the meet, I said, 'Why don't you look around at the October sale?'
"There were a lot of horses there, and the more he looked, I was happy with what he thought, and we were very close on what we thought they'd bring. We were able to buy a lot of horses in the $200,000 and under range, which is what we wanted to do. They had enough pedigree that, if they looked right at the 2-year-old sales, we'd do fine."
The Pegasus Bridge pinhooking venture caused a bit of a stir when its name appeared so often on the Fasig-Tipton October buyers' list, but the name should have been a big hint as to the principal's identity. "Pegasus Bridge" refers to one of the first engagements at the Normandy invasion, and the name reflects Porter's deep interest in World War II and Normandy, in particular.
"The invasion of Normandy just inspires me every time I read anything about it or go there and spend time thinking about what happened," said Porter. He is also involved in the World War II Foundation, which promotes education about World War II and its veterans' and survivors' stories.
"These young boys went over to England and trained and trained and trained, then went in at Normandy and saved the world," Porter said.
Looking forward to the 2015 2-year-old auction season, Porter finds reason for optimism that the market conditions will stay favorable for pinhookers.
"It's really amazing. The entire time I've been in the horse business, it's followed the car business," said Porter. "When the car business slows down, the horse business starts to decline in terms of prices. And every time the car business starts to pick up, so does the horse business. The car business is still on an upswing, so I think we have at least another couple of years of the market being on the upswing."
Porter said that, whatever happens, the Pegasus Bridge horses will not join his racing string.
"I can't get mixed up in racing them. We're running this business strictly that we have to sell all the horses, one way or another," he said.
The Pegasus Bridge team, which also includes Porter's executive assistant and horsewoman Victoria Keith, is keeping an open mind about its pinhooking criteria, but good pedigree is a must, Porter said.
"I don't think there's anything we're particularly looking for, but there are some things I want to stay away from," he said. "I want to stay away from what I consider poor pedigree. Even when I'm buying for racing, I will take a stab periodically with some first-time sires. But I think the overall pedigree, if we think that it's good enough to make a good profit on and the horse is athletic, that's what we'd like.
"The main thing is that Nick's eye has got to find the horse. Nick's always gravitated to dirt colts. That's his specialty. And I think if a colt's got a little pedigree, is athletic, and breezes the eighth the right way, you've got a better chance of turning a bigger profit than you do with a filly. But I do like fillies. We've had some good ones."
A number of Porter's "good" fillies have turned spectacular profits in the auction ring after their racing careers in his stable. Havre de Grace famously brought a world-record broodmare prospect price in 2012 when Whisper Hill Farm owner Mandy Pope paid $10 million for her at Fasig-Tipton's November sale. Round Pond, a $105,000 Keeneland September yearling back in 2003, brought $5.75 million from Darley four years later at Fasig-Tipton's November auction.
Already flush with success from his own racemares (and colts such as Hard Spun, the subject of a major private sale to Darley), Porter started his broodmare pinhooking operation three years ago when he sensed the market had bottomed out and was going to start rising again. Fox Hill Farm pinhooks about 10 or 11 mares each year.
"We buy maiden mares privately, breed them, and sell them in foal in November, and we've done very well," said Porter, who pinhooks mares through Taylor Made Sales. "It's tough to buy a grade I winner privately. We work hard at it. We've got an eye on them and try to get to the trainer when we either hear about one or see that one isn't breezing anymore. People don't call us, we have to beat the bushes.
"You never know," Porter said of his foray into the 2-year-old sales. "The key is that we have to sell all the horses. I think the market's going to be very good in the spring, and, if we've got the right horses, we should do well. We'll see what happens."