Even in the middle of winter, Stellar Wind wasn't dressed for the California sunshine.
Arriving at Santa Anita Park after shipping from Laurel Park following a private purchase, she might as well have been coming from Siberia. Her thick, long coat actually caught trainer John Sadler off-guard.
"She looked like a woolly bear," Sadler said. "Her hair must have been a couple inches long. It had nothing to do with her care on the other side. The region she came from was just freezing."
Her new conditioner gave her a couple of days to relax in her new home, and then gave her a haircut.
"We clipped her hair off and boy, was she good looking," Sadler recalled.
Soon enough, Sadler and her new connections would discover the 3-year-old Curlin filly would look even better on the track.
David Ingordo was one of the first to spot the chestnut filly, albeit on a slight delay. A bloodstock agent for Lane's End, where Curlin began his stud career, Ingordo constantly kept an eye out for the sire's progeny.
"Any time one of the Curlins ran well, we watched the video," Ingordo said. "Her race was impressive."
Stellar Wind's second start of her career was Dec. 18 at Laurel in a one-turn mile maiden special weight. It was easy to track the then 2-year-old filly with her bright pink blinkers. She stalked the pace momentarily, moved up on the leaders with ease under jockey Taylor Hole, and stormed away from the field to win by 8 3/4 lengths. The margin was even accentuated by another 8 3/4 lengths between second-place finisher Wasatch and third-place Max's Warrior.
"I called (Sadler) right there," Ingordo said. "I hung up the phone with Sadler and called trainer (Donald Barr at Laurel)."
Another agent had already inquired about the filly, Ingordo said, but turned her down on her conformation. Ingordo was on a plane to Laurel, Md. the next morning.
"It was 10 degrees and this filly is jumping around," Ingordo said. "If they turned her down on conformation—that's about as correct a horse as you're going to see. I watched her train and she was like a machine. There wasn't a lot of thinking after that."
Sadler, without seeing Stellar Wind in person, was encouraged by her run at a mile and felt she could improve if she continued stretching out.
"Curlins are going to be better around two turns and she ran a pretty good third going short (in her debut), but when she ran a mile, she won easy," Sadler said. "I projected her as a 3-year-old filly that could run a distance. That has a lot of value."
All the boxes were checked and a deal was struck. Sadler, of course, would not disclose the details of the sale, but said it was "not cheap, but not huge." Soon his new prospect was headed to the Golden State, winter coat and all.
Stellar Wind's new owner would be Kosta Hronis, a grape and citrus farmer hailing from California's Central Valley whose horses run under the name Hronis Racing. In only five years of owning horses, Hronis has already become a formidable partner with Sadler in Southern California.
When the call came in on Stellar Wind, it just all seemed to fit.
"We're always looking at Hronis Racing and looking at John's whole barn to see if there's a slot or a need that we don't have," Hronis said. "With a 3-year-old dirt filly, we didn't have anybody like that."
Hronis' ascension as an owner is a story within itself. A self-described "big fan" of Santa Anita—he and his brother had owned a box at the Arcadia, Calif. track for 20 years—Hronis finally got up the courage to purchase a horse in 2010, but an usher in the grandstand suggested he should wait. He took the advice and the usher introduced him to Sadler a couple days later.
He purchased his first horse via claim through Sadler, another chestnut named Sleep Tight, in February of 2010. They ran her back a month later, then an injury put her on the shelf for a year, and she was claimed away in just her second start for Hronis and Sadler.
"I learned the hard way right off the bat," Hronis said. "This isn't easy."
But Hronis has made it look easier than most. In five years, he's expanded his ownership to around 40 horses and has won 17 graded stakes with eight different runners.
The first big winner was another private purchase, again through Ingordo, by the name of Lady of Shamrock. The daughter of Scat Daddy won two grade I events in 2012—the American Oaks and Del Mar Oaks—and four graded races overall.
"We've been spoiled from the start," Hronis said. "Lady of Shamrock built a lot of the stable herself."
With success like that early on, Hronis hasn't been shy to pull the trigger, not only on Stellar Wind but on others, like 2015 grade I winner Hard Aces, who he purchased off a January stakes victory at Fairgrounds Race Course & Slots. Four starts later the 5-year-old son of Hard Spun was in the winner's circle after a victory the June 27 Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I).
Still with plenty of races to run, including a likely try in the upcoming Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), Stellar Wind has already vaulted herself to the top of Hronis' ownership résumé.
Only American Pharoah has more North American graded victories this year, and Stellar Wind is tied on that list with Beholder and La Verdad, who also have four graded scores in 2015.
Sadler was initially going to start her slow, in an allowance race first time out, but saw enough working her in the mornings to try her in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (gr. III) for her first start in California.
"My normal program would be to run her in a non-winners of one (allowance race), and I worked her a couple of times and she was good," Sadler said. "About her third or fourth time, I worked her with a horse called Daddy D T. He was third in the (2014) Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and she handled him really nicely in the morning. There were some key workouts that kinda said, 'Ah ha.' It was an 'Ah ha' work. She only beat him a neck, but it was the way she did it that gave an indication of her quality."
The Santa Ysabel raised plenty of eyebrows. Sixth early in the field of seven after a slow start, she rallied four wide in the final turn under Victor Espinoza to win by 2 3/4 lengths at odds of 7-1.
BALAN: Stellar Wind Sails to Santa Ysabel Victory
Her next performance didn't catch anyone by surprise. Again she was off slowly in the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I) and she raced in the back of the seven-filly field through the first half-mile, before surging wide again in the final turn to win by an emphatic 5 1/4 lengths.
HAMMONDS: Stellar Wind Rolls in Santa Anita Oaks
Just like that, two starts after her chilly maiden-breaking victory at Laurel, Stellar Wind was the favorite in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). But the little mistakes she had been able to overcome with ease on the West Coast didn't fly in a crowded 14-filly field at Churchill Downs.
Again she was off slowly in Kentucky and was steadied by Espinoza early. She was 12th at first call and 10th after a half-mile, then swung nine wide in the final turn of the 1 1/8-mile race. She was still good enough to close for fourth, 4 3/4 lengths behind winner Lovely Maria, as the slight 3-1 favorite.
"We were a little bummed immediately after the race, but the more I analyzed it over time, she got away poorly, she was kinda back and nowhere, and you don't see 'nine wide' in a chart very often," Sadler said. "She still was gaining and it wasn't a bad race. Churchill's form was also very hard to close that day. I mean, Honor Code couldn't close that day and the (Kentucky) Derby went around 1-2-3 on the front. I hate to make excuses on the surface, but all things considered, it wasn't a bad race."
Since then, Sadler has admittedly taken it easy on the filly, with an eye on the bigger picture.
She's only raced twice since the Kentucky Oaks—a nose victory in the Summertime Oaks (gr. II) at Santa Anita, where she was again wide into both turns, and a 4 1/4-length score in the Torrey Pines (gr. III) at Del Mar, where she stayed out of trouble throughout, tracking in second before surging in the final turn and cruising to the wire—and Sadler has passed on Breeders' Cup preps against older horses in the Zenyatta (gr. I) at Santa Anita and the Spinster (gr. I) at Keeneland.
"Her campaign this year was designed not to be overly aggressive, for the mere fact that I think she can be better at 4 and I like that we have the Breeders' Cup back (at Santa Anita in 2016)," Sadler said. "She's just one of those fillies that I feel will improve. I think she'll get better as she matures."
Ingordo agrees, but can't put his finger on why he has that opinion. By all accounts, the filly out of the Malibu Moon mare Evening Star is spry and inquisitive. Sadler says she's always stopping during walks to inspect whatever catches her attention.
"As good as Stellar Wind is, she might get better as a 4-year-old," Ingordo said. "It's hard to quantify for a horseman. We're not mystics, but sometimes it's just about who you like. If you're around animals enough, the good ones have a look to them. You can notice—this one breathes a little different air. You want to get as many of those as you can."
Those instincts have often been right, but they've also been wrong. So, the eternal search continues, even though all involved are equally grateful for finding such a talent and eager to find another.
"You just don't know," Sadler said. "When you buy one, you buy with the hope they can develop."
"John was teasing me the other day," Ingordo added with a laugh. "He said, 'Save some money so you can buy a couple more Stellar Winds this year.'"