By Lucas Marquardt
Ocala horseman Bert Pilcher figured a clever way to breed a Breeders’ Cup favorite. Take a free mare, a free stallion season, foal an undersized pocket rocket dismissed by many, and turn loose one of the fastest horses we’ve seen in some time. That’s the story of Imperial Hint (Imperialism), who has belied an unfashionable pedigree to become a dual Grade I winner…and the early choice to go one better than his second in last year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
“This little horse…he’s a dream,” Pilcher said of Imperial Hint, who is owned by Raymond Mamone and trained by Luis Carvajal, Jr. “We went to the Breeders’ Cup with him last year and he ran his heart out, that little son of a gun. He’s a real tough competitor.”
Yes he is. Beaten a length by eventual champion Roy H (More Than Ready) in the 2017 Sprint, Imperial Hint has bounced back with a sparkling 2018 campaign. He’s gone four for five on the year, and his last two wins—a first Grade I win in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt S. at Saratoga July 28 and a second in the Vosburgh S. at Belmont Sept. 29—were accomplished with dominant ease. Imperial Hint earned a 108 Beyer in the Vanderbilt, and he surely would have shaded 1:08 in the Vosburgh had he not been taken in hand in the final sixteenth.
Imperial Hint’s recent humbling of his rivals leaves Pilcher awestruck.
“Really, truly, I’m not going to lie—it freaks me out when I see it because I think, ‘How is he doing that to those kind of horses?'” Pilcher said.
And to think Pilcher bred Imperial Hint almost by accident.
Bert Pilcher is an Ocala hardboot if there every was one. His father was a groom at Ocala Stud and Bert grew up learning the ropes from some of Florida’s best horsemen.
The Pilcher family founded Shade Tree Thoroughbreds, a small farm located 20 miles northwest of Ocala, in 1980.
“We built the barns, the fences, everything, and we’ve raised horses here for that length of time,” said Pilcher. “It’s been a fun life doing something that you like, because I really enjoy horses. It’s a job, and it takes a lot of time, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in it when you get a good horse.”
Pilcher thought he had a horse of a lifetime when he came up with Three Rules (Gone Astray), who in 2016 won his first five races, including three straight Florida Sire Stakes. Three Rules ran sixth in that year’s GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 7-1, and last year was third in the GII Fountain of Youth S. That may not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but for a blue-collar horseman, Three Rules was a dream come true.
Then came Imperial Hint.
An early client of Shade Tree’s was Imperial Hint’s owner Raymond Mamone. Back in the mid-oughts, Mamone retired a third-generation homebred filly named Royal Hint (Lahint) to Shade Tree and bred from her a quartet of modest performers. Royal Hint was never an easy mare to get in foal, however, and when she didn’t produce a foal in 2011 or 2012, Mamone gave her to Shade Tree.
Around the same time, Pilcher won a free season to the Langfuhr stallion Imperialism, who was standing at nearby Get Away Farm. Imperialism was a long-winded, one-paced sort of runner who finished third in the GI Kentucky Derby in 2004. But if his accomplishments weren’t all that flashy, he had one thing Pilcher was looking for as a cross for his new acquisition: the genes of his grandsire Danzig.
“I had always tried to talk Mr. Mamone into breeding her to a Danzig-line horse,” said Pilcher. “Now, this sounds crazy, and don’t ask me why, but every time I would look at that mare, I would think, ‘She needs some Danzig.'”
He found it in Imperialism, and the result was a beautifully shaped colt later named Imperial Hint. Beautifully shaped…but small.
As Pilcher tells it, people would stop by the farm and comment on the handsome colt before shrugging their shoulders and adding, “But he’s a little guy.”
“That’s been his thing his whole life,” said Pilcher. “He was the little guy. When he was a baby, he’d get in the middle of the pack and fight with the rest of them just like it didn’t bother him, his size. He don’t know he’s small. He thinks he’s one of the guys.”
Imperial Hint showed some early promise as a 2-year-old, enough that Pilcher initially planned to put him into training himself, but not so much that he didn’t entertain offers. Some people came and looked. They liked the colt. Too small, ultimately, was the verdict.
Even Mamone, down one day in search of young runners with his trainer, Luis Carvajal, Jr., initially wasn’t convinced, according to Pilcher. Carvajal, on the other hand, liked what he saw when Imperial Hint breezed past.
“Mr. Carvajal really liked him,” said Pilcher. “He said, ‘He’s built and he’s got a good stride on him. We ought to get this horse.'”
The price, later estimated to be around $25,000 by Mamone, would be a terrific bargain. To date, Imperial Hint has won 12 of 18 starts and earned $1.4 million.
Selling a horse for 1/56th of his current earnings no doubt stings. But Pilcher is genuinely happy for Mamone, who recently celebrated his 85th birthday.
“For Mr. Mamone to have Imperial Hint is almost…as good as me having him,” said Pilcher, laughing. “But, it’s as good as anybody I can think of in the world because he’s been a super nice guy and a super client for us for years. For him to have this horse at his age is just super for me. It’s one of those things that you just feel really good about.”
And, as it turns out, Pilcher did get a warning before selling Imperial Hint. Gene Corbin, who breaks and trains for Shade Tree, told Pilcher, “Now, I want you to understand before this horse leaves your barn that this is a good horse. I mean, I think this horse can really run, and I don’t want you to be upset with me because I let you sell this horse.”
Pilcher replied, “I realize that Mr. Gene. And If I’m selling a good horse, Mr. Mamone is the guy I want to sell it to. He’s been with me for over 30 years. I want him to have some fun.”
Corbin had words for Carvajal, too. According to Pilcher, Corbin told the trainer, “Luis, this horse has got two problems. 1) The first time you run him you’re going to get a speeding ticket, and 2) if you don’t win with him, I’m going to take your trainer’s license!”
Carvajal’s license was safe: Imperial Hint won first out at Tampa Bay in a romp.
Now, Imperial Hint gets his rematch with an in-form Roy H, who is coming off a win in the GI Santa Anita Sprint Championship S.
Asked if he would attend the Breeders’ Cup, Pilcher said, “Oh, yeah. I’m going. There ain’t no way, you couldn’t keep me away. I hope that he’ll do it this time. He’s really in good form. Luis has done an unbelievable job with him. I think he will.”