An Authentic Milestone in the Hughes Adventure

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B. Wayne Hughes | Horsephotos 

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Revolutions start in the street. But it’s only once they have taken over the citadels, and adapt to the trappings and opportunities of power, that you can judge their ultimate success.

In transforming the stallion business from the bottom up, B. Wayne Hughes was aptly faithful to his own origins. The son of an Oklahoma sharecropper, he remembers a Grapes Of Wrath migration from the Dust Bowl to California with a mattress strapped to the family jalopy. He also remembers local hostility to the incomers: not least because the “Okies,” being there to work, would give full value for a day’s wage. And it was pretty much the same when he shook up the Kentucky breeding industry with radical incentive schemes for Spendthrift clients. Rival farms complained that matching his concessions would be unsustainable; would take them beyond the brink.

But Hughes felt he only needed to strike gold once, on a proliferating roster of blue-collar sires, to redeem the cost of giving them all a chance. And he promptly hit a truly historic seam. Last week, Into Mischief answered the last remaining question about his prowess: would better mares stretch his trademark speed sufficiently for him to become a bona fide Classic influence?

The signs had been promising. His cheaper books had produced Owendale and Audible (out of a Gilded Time mare) to finish strongly for Classic podiums. And remember that even Authentic, who has now set a spectacular seal on his rise, graduates from one conceived at $45,000. In the meantime, of course, Into Mischief has received giddy annual hikes to $75,000, $100,000, $150,000 and $175,000, in step with his elevation through ranks 35, 13, four and one in the general sires’ championship.

But if Authentic’s Derby is another momentous chapter in the epic Hughes tale, not least in his evangelical embrace of a mass ownership syndicate, then the course of the narrative was already clear. Before last year’s Derby, remember, Hughes had done much the same as he did this time round, with Authentic: he had booked a place at Spendthrift for the fastest colt on the Classic trail. In the event, Omaha Beach (War Front) was a late scratch as Derby favorite and instead won two Grade I sprints. But he was able to start at $45,000, the highest for any new stallion since Hughes bought the farm in 2004.

Spendthrift’s other recruits for 2020 included Breeders’ Cup winners Vino Rosso (Curlin) and Mitole (Eskendereya), at $30,000 and $25,000 respectively. Only two other farms managed to launch a stallion at Mitole’s fee (Audible at WinStar; Catholic Boy (More Than Ready) at Claiborne). In other words, you could have paid the three highest fees in the intake without leaving Spendthrift.

We’ll see what their remaining track endeavors can do to protect Authentic and also Vekoma (Candy Ride {Arg}), from the icy economic winds that must surely curl up stallion fees in 2021. But Vekoma is the third winner of the stallion-making GI Met Mile to arrive at the farm in four years. The next phase of the Hughes revolution, then, seems plain for all to see: he appears convinced that a model developed with cheaper stallions is going to prove no less effective at the top of the market.

Back in 2010, nine lucky breeders signed a Share The Upside contract for Into Mischief when–needing traction in his second season, just as the last recession was biting–an investment of $13,000 across two seasons secured a lifetime breeding right. Two years later, when Spendthrift started seven new stallions on a roster of 15, Malibu Moon still stood apart at $70,000; the average fee for the rest worked out at $9,250. By 2016, Malibu Moon was up to $95,000 and Into Mischief to $45,000; and the 23 other sires now on the roster averaged $6,900.

Young stallions were being launched with discounts and incentives on such a scale that by 2018 one prominent farm owner confided that he felt it no longer viable to stand a stallion for $10,000 or less in Kentucky. How, then, will this gentleman feel about Spendthrift rounding up so many top-class prospects?

Doubtless he has hitherto been among those who had pictured Nashua and Raise A Native turning in their graves as their “pile-’em-high” successors went to market. In the meantime, however, other commercial farms in Kentucky have meanwhile been eager to imitate the iconoclast, in the process creating precisely the kind of trading environment Hughes sought for people he views as the backbone of the industry; people he felt were previously being taken for a ride. Now he is extending opportunity–the key concept for his stallions and clients alike-right across the market.

Hughes loves to plow his own furrow; and certainly doesn’t mind ruffling Establishment feathers. His original appeal was to the kind of small-time player he had once been himself: both in his business life, where he and a partner put up $25,000 apiece to found a storage firm eventually valued at $40 billion; and in his initial explorations of the Turf. Hughes cheerfully declares that he knows nothing about breeding. He can leave that to the estimable Ned Toffey and his team. But he does know business; and he also understands human nature, by no means an unrelated attribute. In the long term, settling for a smaller profit made business sense: give his clients a piece of the action, and they would keep coming back.

Hughes challenged the sport whether it was really going to persist in trying to resuscitate some Golden Age, when the top horses were shared by a handful of plutocrats. Hence his engagement, now, with MyRacehorse. And hence, also, the upgrading of his breeding shed.

In the end, he vows, even those farms defending the very pinnacle of the traditional market will be forced to emulate his example. “You pay a bunch of money for a stallion, it’s got the best chance,” he told me once. “But his chances aren’t 100 percent. And another guy’s chance isn’t zero… Some of the horses we put in are going to end up there. It’s happening.”

That was two or three years ago, and now perhaps we can say that “it” has happened. Last year, nine other farms tried for Omaha Beach. And now, at last, a tenth Kentucky Derby winner will soon be standing at Spendthrift.

Omaha Beach will certainly have covered over 200 mares in his first season. A soaring fee, after all, did not prevent Into Mischief covering 486 mares through 2018 and 2019. Obviously that landscape is beginning to shift, with the impending 140-mare limit. From Spendthrift’s point of view, it doubtless feels as though the old guard is circling its wagons. Personally, I’d be as concerned as The Jockey Club by the potential legacy, for the breed, of so many unproven, ostensibly “commercial” stallions commanding such huge books. For every Into Mischief, clearly, there will duds by the dozen.

Whatever your views, however, we could all tip our hats to Mr. Hughes last Saturday. He is an authentic pioneer. With a nod to the source of his fortune, you might well say that he thinks “outside the box.” And now, having changed our whole industry, he is changing the complexion of his own business. He is cornering stallions that would be a perfectly good fit for a venerable rival such as Claiborne. At the same time, he is parlaying those trademark principles of accessibility and inclusion to racehorse ownership.

Can we ever have too much of a good thing? Even if you’re as smart as Hughes, it’s in the nature of the Thoroughbred that we are unlikely ever to find out. But it’s interesting, and on many levels admirable, to see someone trying to find out.

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