By Christie DeBernardis
With a small band of just six broodmares nestled in California’s Santa Ynez valley, John Antonelli has kept a relatively low profile on the breeding scene. Or rather, he did, until last year when a Medaglia d’Oro filly he bred out of Grade II winner Ivanavinalot (West Acre) stormed onto the scene in California with a perfect four-for-four juvenile season culminating in a Breeders’ Cup victory and an Eclipse award.
The filly, as everyone knows, is the still undefeated “TDN Rising Star” Songbird, who most recently dazzled the racing world with a 5 1/4-length defeat of Grade I-winning “TDN Rising Star” Carina Mia (Malibu Moon) in Saratoga’s GI CCA Oaks July24. Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm purchased Songbird for $400,000 at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling Sale and Antonelli will offer her half-sister by Ghostzapper (Hip 61) as part of the Hill ‘n’ Dale consignment, during Monday’s opening session of that two-day auction.
“I’ll tell you what, this filly that we are selling now, is the same build, same body, same look [as Songbird],” Antonelli enthused. “We thought, ‘Nah, this can’t be. It’s a different daddy. It’s a different everything.’ But if you look at them both, both of those fillies came out looking like their mother. They both have the same type of quality to them. That is what is shocking to me–that when we walked her out, even though her legs are different and her face is a little different, the body and the way they walk is both the same. You just go, ‘Wow, that’s impressive.’”
Antonelli was equally impressed with Ivanavinalot when he purchased her privately nine years ago in foal to Grand Slam. Prior to that sale, which was arranged by Three Chimneys Farm, she had RNA’d for $625,000 at the 2004 Keeneland November sale carrying her first foal by Mineshaft.
“We were looking for a mare that would work with Medaglia d’Oro [as we had just purchased the season to him],” Antonelli commented. “I was looking for a specific type of mare. Although Rachel Alexandra came along afterwards, her lineage is through Forty Niner. I was looking for a mare by Forty Niner and, low and behold, I found a granddaughter, Ivanavinalot. She was by West Acre (Forty Niner), who never ran, but we liked the mare because she won [$647,300] and we bought her.”
Antonelli did not breed Ivanavinalot to Medaglia d’Oro right away, however. They bred her to Strong Hope, Bernardini and Big Brown before she made her first visit to Medaglia d’Oro.
“We were in no hurry until the mare could kind of prove herself,” the California resident said. “She was having issue after issue, not her, but the babies were and we weren’t seeing what we wanted in order to go and breed her to him. Then out pops Rachel Alexandra, who did what she did, so we thought, ‘Okay now we have something to sell.’”
Antonelli bred Ivanavinalot to Medaglia d’Oro for the first time in 2010 and the following year she produced a colt. As a yearling, the colt suffered a concussion after rearing up and flipping over while getting a bath and unfortunately had to be put down.
“He was beautiful and one could only guess maybe what would happen,” Antonelli recalled. “We skipped a year and bred to More Than Ready–we sold that one for a great price [$350,000 at Keeneland November]–then turned around and bred back to Medaglia d’Oro again and the outcome was Songbird. We had a plan all along that we would breed Ivanavinalot to Medaglia d’Oro and it just worked. It was one of those lucky lightning bolts!”
Antonelli knew lightning had struck with Songbird from the time she was born, calling her a standout from the start.
“As soon as she was born, you could see she was special,” Antonelli remarked. “First of all, she was straight. Second of all, she was long-legged. I’d have the mares and foals out in the pasture and everyone else was with their moms, but she was just out there running around.”
The President of ARS Legal, a document imaging company, continued, “Once we weaned them and we had all the fillies off to themselves, she was leader of the pack. When they would run she was always out in front. Immediately, from a stand still, she was three lengths out in front of them and it was already impressive. I’ve got a photograph of the day before we sent her off to Hill ‘n’ Dale and you just look at that photograph and go, ‘Wow. That is majestic.’”
Songbird continues to impress each and every time she steps onto the racetrack, and Antonelli has been present for all, but two of her races.
“That is a one in a million horse,” he commented. “I was talking to Jerry Hollendorfer the other day and I said to him, ‘Does your heart go up in your throat as much as mine does [when she races]?’ My heart just goes at about 130 beats a minute once she starts racing and he goes, ‘Oh I get nervous, don’t worry.’”
Despite Songbird’s sensational career that currently stands at nine wins from nine starts with $2,402,000 in earnings, Antonelli does not regret selling the champion and never considered keeping her or her half-sister.
“I’m a breeder and my job, if I want people to believe in me, is to sell horses and have them race,” he said. “I would love to keep them, but there are only so many a small breeder can keep and run. That’s basically it. If you are going to breed and you are going to keep the good ones, then nobody is going to believe you when you go to sell anything.”
The one regret Antonelli does have when it comes to that family is selling Ivanavinalot. The now 16-year-old mare was led out of the ring unsold on a final bid of $885,000 at last year’s Fasig-Tipton November sale, just one day after Songbird won the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. However, just minutes later, Coolmore brokered a deal to purchase the mare privately in foal to Tapizar. She gave birth to that filly Apr. 16 and was bred back to Horse of the Year American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), who stands at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud.
“You sell when things are hot,” Antonelli offered. “That’s the bottom line. I specifically bred Ivanavinalot to Tapizar because I just love that animal. He is drop dead gorgeous. He had a great racetrack record and we bred to Tapit when Tapit was not the most favorite horse. I am going to be interested in how that baby does.”
Ivanavinalot’s Ghostzapper filly is not the only yearling Antonelli is selling through the Hill ‘n’ Dale consignment at Saratoga as he also bred hip 120, a Flatter filly out of Piedras Negras (Unbridled), who was one of the first mares Antonelli purchased after getting into the business in 2001 at the prompting of his friend Tommy Stull of Tommy Town Thoroughbreds. She produced the most talented horse the Antonellis bred prior to Songbird, Grade III winner La Traviata (Johannesburg), who sold to the Coolmore contingent for $1.1-million as a 2-year-old at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton February sale.
Antonelli, who has now turned the focus of his breeding program to California-breds, sold most of Ivanavinalot and Piedras Negras’s previous offspring at Keeneland September or November. In recent years, however, he has focused more on the Saratoga sale because of the smaller book and large buyer base.
“The Fasig-Tipton Select Sale at Saratoga is more of a boutique sale and I think everybody is always going to look at that book,” Antonelli said. “It’s a smaller book and an easier book to look at. The decision to sell at Saratoga was a fairly easy decision to make, even though it was more expensive to do it. Your horse gets noticed a little more at Saratoga and all the big buyers, if they aren’t there in person, they have an agent looking at them. You are going to get those people there who know horses.”
The first of two sessions of the Saratoga Sale gets underway Monday evening at 6:30p.m.