When a dark-hued son of Verrazano hammered down on a final bid of $100,000 at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale, it represented a financial windfall for two employees of Tony Holmes' Marula Park Stud.
Consigned as Hip 969 by Warrendale Sales and purchased by Tally Ho Stud, the colt was produced from the winning War Chant mare Hope Chant. A half sister to group 2 winner Spirit of Valor and stakes winner Street Life, Hope Chant was purchased by Holmes for $18,000 at the 2016 Keeneland November sale.
Holmes bought the mare on behalf of his two full-time employees who have been at Marula Park for 16 years, the farm owner financing the mare's cost on behalf of his personnel, with a caveat. If it proved successful, the employees would repay Holmes the mare's cost; if not, it would be considered a gift.
"When I bought the mare it wasn't an $18,000 gift," Holmes said. "If it didn't work out it was going to be a gift, but if it worked out they would pay me for the mare and they would not have any other expenses, except to cover things like Breeders' Cup nominations."
Holmes' purchase of Hope Chant was most fortuitous, since Verrazano's offspring have proven popular at auction. Foals from the Coolmore Stud stallion's first crop are yearlings this year.
"They were just lucky he was a beautiful colt and when we saw the colt they bred her back to Verrazano," said Holmes, who breeds to sell at his small farm near Lexington.
When the colt went through the sale ring, Holmes was seated with his employees in the pavilion.
"They were both in the pavilion and one of them had tears in his eyes," Holmes said. "They deserve it, they really do. So, it was a great, great result for them. It's life changing for them."
This marked the second time that Holmes staked his employees on a mare, the last coming in 2010 after he bought the mare Crystal Shard for $23,000 out of the November sale. Holmes cut his personnel in for a quarter of the mare.
The following year, the mare's 2-year-old colt by Tiznow named Gemologist turned heads by winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) and was on the Triple Crown trail as a 3-year-old after a victory in the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial Stakes (G1).
Holmes sold Crystal Shard privately before Gemologist's run in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) in which he finished 16th.
"They came out huge on that," Holmes said, adding with a laugh, "they think it's easy now."
Holmes said sharing ownership of mares is a way for his employees to be more vested in what they do on a daily basis and they take pride in caring for the horses.
"It keeps them keen," he said. "When we were prepping the weanlings this is the one (that) had braids in its mane and got a bath every two days."
Part of Holmes' desire to bring his help in on ownership harkens back to the mid-1980s when the horseman came to the U.S. from New Zealand and was taken under his wing by Kentucky horseman Tim Thornton.
"It was a dream to come to Lexington," Holmes said. "I borrowed the money for the airfare, which I paid back by mucking out stalls. Tim was my only contact. I arrived on a Greyhound bus and Tim picked me up at the bus station and kind of adopted me."
Before starting his own, Holmes worked for Thornton's family's farm and also was a "go-fer" for Dr. Walter Zent of Hagyard Equine Medical Center.
"(Thornton and Zent) were just trying to pump me along a little bit," he said. "It's a pretty neat feeling that Dr. Zent and Tim Thornton, my first bosses, are two of my biggest friends and two of my biggest partners in the business."