At times squinting into a bright sun rising over Churchill Downs, Spendthrift Farm owner B. Wayne Hughes had plenty of horses to keep an eye on April 30 during the training time set aside for those preparing for the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
In the Oaks, Spendthrift's champion juvenile filly Beholder enters off back-to-back grade I victories this season at Santa Anita Park. In the Derby, possible favorite Orb is by Spendthrift stallion Malibu Moon , who earned a spot in Kentucky after starting his career in Maryland. Malibu Moon has twice finished among the leading sires in the previous three years.
Hughes also kept an eye on Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Goldencents and grade II winner Vyjack, a pair of Derby 3-year-olds from the first crop of Spendthrift sire Into Mischief . The scene brought a wide smile to the 79-year-old billionaire who purchased historic Spendthrift in 2004.
"They could run one, two, three," Hughes said with a laugh. His laughter wasn't so much because the scenario is a pipe dream—handicappers wouldn't be shocked by such a finish—but more from just hearing the words come from his mouth, "one, two, three," and the scenario not being completely implausible.
Looking no further than the racing careers of the two Spendthrift stallions involved serves as reminder of how difficult it is to make it to Derby Day.
Because of injury, the racing career of Spendthrift homebred Malibu Moon, by A.P. Indy, ended after just two juvenile starts in 1999. Spendthrift's Into Mischief won the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) at age 2, but an ill-timed minor foot injury after a runner-up finish in the 2008 San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) ended his Derby dreams. The son of Harlan's Holiday did return later in the year to register a stakes win followed by a runner-up finish in the Malibu Stakes (gr. I).
Hughes has enjoyed seeing Malibu Moon and Into Mischief surpass expectations as stallions. Into Mischief stood for just $10,000 in his first season at Spendthrift, a fee that has increased to $20,000 after he finished third on the 2012 freshman sire list.
"There's a lot of satisfaction in it," Hughes said. "We were at Santa Anita and we had two horses running, Jimmy Creed who won a grade II (the Potrero Grande Stakes) and Beholder, who won a grade I (Santa Anita Oaks) that day. We were actually more excited for Goldencents, who won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). There's a lot of satisfaction and it's a good thing for Spendthrift to be coming back from sort of dark days. There's some satisfaction there. We feel like we're caretakers there."
Hughes said it's exciting when a stallion's career is hitting its stride.
"We don't really know what we have. We might have Mr. Prospector; it's not knowing," Hughes said, adding he wouldn't have guessed Into Mischief would enjoy such immediate success. "We had no idea. It's a good horse, we knew that. He won a grade I at 2 and we really liked him. (Trainer Richard) Mandella thought it was going to be his Derby horse."
In his first crop of just 42 horses, Into Mischief had three stakes winners.
"It was a small book, sort of weak mares on pedigree and racing record. He's like a phenomenon doing what he's doing and what he did," Hughes said. "It would take our breath away if one of these colts were to win."
Of course this is not the first time a Spendthrift stallion has surprised. Malibu Moon started his career at the Pons family's Country Life Farm in Maryland, earning a spot in Kentucky after four successful years there. In two of the past three full years he has finished among the leading sires.
"It's like Malibu Moon, we stood him for $3,000 at first and Josh Pons did a great job of getting some good mares to him and Into Mischief is doing the same thing," Hughes said.
Hughes said part of the reason he'd be thrilled to see Orb win the Derby is the reputation Malibu Moon has as a sire who throws better fillies than colts.
"People think he can only get fillies even though they all forget that he had a 2-year-old (gelding) that won the Eclipse Award (Declan's Moon)," Hughes said. "Orb is a nice horse. He's going to be hard to beat. We're excited and it would be justice for (Malibu Moon)."
In recent years, Spendthrift has developed special deals to entice breeders. Spendthrift's Mark Toothaker noted that one of those deals, now called Breed Secure, was used in the breeding of Goldencents.
Under Breed Secure, if the foals fail to reach threshold prices determined for weanling or yearling sales, the breeder does not owe the stud fee. When the price surpasses the stud fee, that money goes toward the fee but only until it reaches full stud fee price. The full stud fee is the maximum the breeder owes.
Goldencents' breeders Rosecrest Farm and Karyn Pirrello, did not pay a stud fee because the Into Mischief colt only brought $5,500 at the 2011 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearling sale. Toothaker said other farms have criticized Spendthrift for offering such deals but he said such promotions can help establish young stallions by getting mares to them.
"Without a deal like this, we wouldn't have Goldencents," Toothaker said, explaining that Pirrello wanted to send the mare Golden Works to Into Mischief that year but was considering not breeding or going to a stallion with a lower stud fee.
Toothaker noted that while the farm didn't make any money on the breeding of Goldencents, sire Into Mischief now has a Santa Anita Derby winner who will start in the Kentucky Derby.
"Some of the farms don't like what we're doing on the deals but we're doing it to make our business better," Hughes said.
On April 29, Doug O'Neill, trainer of Goldencents, his staff, and jockey Kevin Krigger visited Spendthrift. Rudy Rodriguez, trainer of Vyjack, said he hopes to accept an invitation to visit the farm this week.
"We were glad to have them as our guests for a few hours," Hughes said. "It's great when it all comes together."