By Brian DiDonato
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky–What started as a chance encounter one year at the GI Kentucky Derby has blossomed into a very successful partnership between Brad Stephens of Six Column Stables, Randy Bloch and a rotating group of other enthusiastic owners. They’ll return to Churchill Downs on Saturday with Champagne Problems (Ghostzapper), who goes in the GI Breeders’ Cup Distaff before being offered Sunday at Fasig-Tipton November through Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency as hip 172.
“One of my first trips to the Kentucky Derby was the year Street Sense won,” recalled Stephens, a Dallas, TX-based financier who first caught the racing bug attending the harness races in Illinois while his father was in the livestock feed business. “I had walk around tickets, and Randy happens to have a pretty nice place to stand next to his box if you happen to be walking around. So, being a congenial guy, Randy was always very friendly, so I went back the next year and stood in the same place, and so on and so forth. Eventually, I told him I wanted to do it and get into horses. He didn’t have anything at the time, so he sent me in some other directions. That didn’t work out so well, but later I came in on some of their homebreds and we went to the sale and bought some together and it just kind of grew over time. It was just complete dumb luck, starting at the Kentucky Derby.”
Bloch added, “We would sneak up to the turf club and get drinks, and we’d let Brad watch the box and we’d sneak him a beer back down as a thank you. We just became friends over the years.”
Bloch, a Louisville native, grew up on a farm and is a partner in and executive vice president at Horsemen’s Track and Equipment. Prior to meeting Stephens, he co-campaigned MGSW My Boston Gal (Boston Harbor), who was trained by Street Sense’s conditioner Carl Nafzger and who competed in the 2003 GI Kentucky Oaks. Bloch, Nazfger and Champagne Problems partner Dr. John Seiler were co-owners in Street Sense’s dam Bedazzle (Dixieland Band) at one point before selling her to Sheikh Mohammed.
When Hall of Famer Nafzger handed the reins over to longtime assistant Ian Wilkes, so did Bloch, et al. Stephens and Bloch had a particularly good run of fortune in 2015-2016 when they campaigned MGSW Island Town (Hard Spun), Grade III winner Thatcher Street (Street Sense) and MGSP Sweetgrass (Street Sense)–all homebreds.
There are five partners (and their wives) in on Champagne Problems–Stephens, Bloch and Seiler, Dave Hall from Louisville, and Fred Merritt, who lives in in Indianapolis–plus another dozen or so who rotate in and out of partnerships with the group.
Champagne Problems was a $270,000 pick-up at the 2015 Keeneland September sale and has really blossomed this year at age four. She broke through at the graded level in August’s GIII Groupie Doll S. at Ellis before finishing close seconds to fellow Distaff entrant Blue Prize (Arg) (Pure Prize) in both the GIII Locust Grove S. Sept. 15 and GI Juddmonte Spinster S. Oct. 7.
“Ian [Wilkes] had said all along that she was just going to take a little time, and she was going to be better with age like a fine wine,” said Bloch of Champagne Problems’s progressive recent form.
While Stephens and Bloch both acknowledge that it’s a tough Distaff field, they say their charge is doing well and they remain hopeful. Either way, they’re going to enjoy the ride with their first Breeders’ Cup starter.
“Being a Louisville guy, it’s like Christmas morning,” Bloch said Wednesday morning. “I went out and watched her gallop this morning with Ian, picked up some of the Champagne Problems hats and garb for all the partners. It’s getting pretty exciting.”
“She’s definitely improving at the right time,” Stephens said. “She was not 100% to run in the Spinster until four or five days beforehand, so it’s not like she was pointing to that race and this was an afterthought–it was kind of the other way around. She’s improving and if the cards fall the right way, we’ll be happy, but we’ll be happy either way. She’s taken us on a great ride.”
After the Distaff, Champagne Problems will head to Lexington to be offered as a racing or broodmare prospect Sunday night during Fasig’s blockbuster auction.
“We might’ve learned a lesson with Sweetgrass,” Bloch said of the decision to sell Champagne Problems now. “We were debating with her whether to sell her as a 4-year-old or 5-year-old. I was probably pushing for five and Brad was pushing for four, and we kind of learned a lesson–when you’ve got a little momentum and things going right for you, you need to put them in the sale.”
Sweetgrass sold at last year last year’s FTKNOV sale as a 5-year-old for $250,000.
Champagne Problems is by Ghostzapper–the broodmare sire of this year’s Triple Crown winner Justify (Scat Daddy)–and she hails from the female family of Grade I winners and sires Southern Image (Halo’s Image), Turbo Compressor (Halo’s Image) and Jolie’s Halo (Halo).
“If money was no object, we would just hold on to her and maybe run her a little more and then have a homebred, but for an operation like ours, we have to take money off the table.”
Bloch quipped: “In other words, we bought too many at the [yearling] sales.”
With the help of Wilkes and Nazfger, Stephens, Bloch and company were very active during this year’s yearling sales–they picked up 10 as a group and Stephens bought another two outright.
They’ve never spent more on one than they did to secure Champagne Problems at $270,000.
“We prefer to call ourselves value shoppers, but when we bought Champagne Problems, Carl Nafzger kind of had us drinking the Kool-Aid, so we spent a little bit more than we usually do,” Bloch said.
Between members of the group in on Champagne Problems, they estimate that they own about a dozen in training together.
Given recent efforts by a pair of their juvenile fillies, they might have a reason to head back to Churchill come next May.
Champagne Anyone (Street Sense), a $70,000 pick-up, overcame a troubled trip to break her maiden second out at Ellis Aug. 31, and followed up with a very impressive last-to-first rally at Keeneland’s tricky one-mile distance Oct. 10.
Molto Bella (Violence), meanwhile, belied 26-1 odds to complete the exacta in Sunday’s Rags to Riches S. under the Twin Spires. She was acquired for $100,000 at KEESEP.
Both fillies are under consideration for the GII Golden Rod S. Nov. 24, but either or both could wait for a return down in Florida to gear up for a Kentucky Oaks push.
“You know how conservative Ian Wilkes can be–he’s not going to run them if they’re not ready,” Bloch said. “We’re looking to have good 3-year-old campaigns for both of those girls, so we don’t want to push them.”
Until then, they’ll be savoring the rest of the journey with Champagne Problems.
“There’s so much excitement this weekend, and you go through so many hard times throughout the year with horses getting hurt or not developing the way you want,” said Stephens. “Weekends like this kind of keep you going. The excitement is kind of indescribable.”
Bloch added, “We’re just thrilled to be here and want her to run well. You’ll see us having a great time whether we run fifth or sixth or hit the board. Hit the board and you might see us doing cartwheels.”