By T. D. Thornton
Three weeks after Rich Strike (Keen Ice) shocked the racing world with an 80-1 upset of the GI Kentucky Derby last spring, winning trainer Eric Reed encountered an even bigger surprise at his Belterra Park barn: A 3-year-old filly he'd been breezing for her first lifetime start unexpectedly gave birth to a foal on May 28, 2022, without anybody being aware she was pregnant.
Now 15 months later, that unraced Gio Ponti filly, Beautyatitsbest, has not only weaned her colt to health, but has overcome medical issues of her own. She returned to training earlier this year, and her owner and co-breeder, Jack Willoughby, Jr., likes the filly's chances in her long-awaited debut in Saturday's opener at Belterra, a $7,500 maiden-claimer.
The racing prospects for her yearling colt, however, are still up in the air.
“He's doing good. He's turned out with the other yearlings from his crop at my farm,” Willoughby told TDN. “He looks like he's going to be big enough to run. But I don't think he'll be able to race. I don't know who his daddy was, that's the thing.”
Without a foal certificate from The Jockey Club, the baby out of Beautyatitsbest lacks both racing credentials and an official name.
Willoughby and his wife, Rachel, who run Stonetown Stables, a boarding, breaking, lay-up, and broodmare service farm on 70 acres in Stamping Ground, Kentucky, have taken to calling the colt “Mystery” while trying to figure out what his future holds.
Unexpected backstretch stall births are not at all common. But maybe once a decade or two anecdotal news of one will pop up at some American track. When the story about Beautyatitsbest and her foal was first reported last year, Reed told The Paulick Report the filly had shown no signs of pregnancy other than she wouldn't shed weight.
Although Beautyatitsbest had been at both Reed's Mercury Equine Center in Lexington at age two and under his Belterra shed row at three, at one point she had returned to Willoughby's farm to recover from bucked shins. Reed told the Paulick Report last year that he believed she got in foal at Stonetown when turned out in a paddock with some male juveniles who had been recently gelded but could have been still carrying sperm before their castrations took full effect.
Willoughby, though, told TDN on Wednesday he's not quite sure that's how it happened.
“I don't think she got in-foal at my farm,” Willoughby said. “I think it happened at Mercury. They had her for about 11 to 12 months. And she was never with any stallion here. So what I'm thinking is, the first 30 days he had her turned out at the farm there, and I'm thinking they put them together thinking the others were geldings, and they weren't.”
TDN asked Shannon Luce, the communications director for The Jockey Club, what rules or guidance the registry might have for an “unknown sire” situation. Luce responded with the following emailed explanation and an offer to help:
“If the colt born at Belterra Park meets all requirements of registration of the Principal Rules and Requirements of The American Stud Book, he is eligible for registration with The Jockey Club.
“In order for the colt to be issued a Certificate of Foal Registration, the correct sire of the foal would have to be determined and the DNA sample pulled from the colt would have to qualify with the sire. To the extent possible, the registry office would help the owner determine the sire,” Luce wrote.
Willoughby said he isn't sure right now if he'll pursue the DNA testing option for Mystery.
As for Beautyatitsbest, Willoughby said she “was kind of shell-shocked” in the aftermath of her unexpected delivery–which matched the mood of her caretakers.
“I wasn't sure she was going to make it back. She had a lot of problems. She had a lot of circulation problems and things like that, but she's come through all of it now and she's doing great. She weaned and got to be turned out for about four or five months, just to 'be a horse', before she went back into training,” Willoughby said.
That training, though, hasn't been with Reed. Willoughby changed conditioners for his small racing stable earlier this year, moving from a Derby-winning trainer with 40 years of industry experience to Robert Lee Clark, who has a 6-for-86 lifetime record dating to 2014. Willoughby cited cost as a factor in making the switch.
“I had to go where I could get more bang for my buck,” Willoughby said. “So I've got five or six in training now versus two.”
Clark has had a respectable Belterra meet so far this summer with limited stock, posting a 2-2-1 record from seven starts.
The Willoughbys are an endangered species on a Thoroughbred landscape that once was flush with smaller-scale, family-run farms. They have a broodmare band of five, maybe sell one foal a year at auction, and race the rest of each year's crop wherever the horses fit in. Over the past 30 years, the economics of the bloodstock and racing industries have been brutal on those types of operations. With foal crops declining, farm costs rising, and racetracks closing, it's harder than ever for these sorts of outfits to earn profits on their investments.
“It's tough,” Willoughby acknowledged. “You know, I'm a working man. I have to go out and go get it on every day. I'm self-employed. Run my own businesses. We run a farm, a machine shop, and we do our own horses and everything, too. So we're kind of a special story on all of it, really.”
Beautyatitsbest is dual-entered at Belterra in two versions of the same maiden-claiming condition on Aug. 26 (at a mile) and Aug. 29 (six furlongs). She drew the rail for both races, but the route lured only three other entrants, so that's where Willoughby intends to start her.
“I'll be honest with you: We expect her to win Saturday,” Willoughby said. “She's sitting on a big one. She's doesn't show any excitement. She acts real professional. She's a tiny horse and she's not real big, but she's got a lot of heart.”