Fernung Hopes He Has Successor to Tragic Heir


Khozan | Louise Reinagel

By Chris McGrath

Strange, the way the door of fortune revolves. In the first week of January 2015, Brent Fernung suddenly found himself grieving the loss of a stallion in his prime. Just turned 15, and with half a dozen crops on the track to that point, Wildcat Heir (Forest Wildcat) had put Journeyman Stud on the map as champion sire of Florida four times already. To this day Fernung finds it difficult to keep his emotions in check when he recalls the terrible bout of colic to which this cherished animal succumbed.

Just a couple of weeks later, Fernung–along, no doubt, with many of his clients who had been obliged to rebook their mares after the tragedy–noticed the debut of a Distorted Humor colt named Khozan in a Gulfstream maiden.

There was a lot of buzz about the horse, as a $1 million graduate of Fasig-Tipton’s 2-year-old sale at the same track the previous March, a lucrative pinhook for Messrs. Hartley and DeRenzo who had picked him out as a Saratoga yearling for $350,000. Nobody had been at all surprised that he realised the second-highest price of the auction, from Al Shaqab, having fired a :9 4/5 bullet as a half-brother to the triple champion female Royal Delta (Empire Maker).

And he showed much the same dash starting out for Todd Pletcher, decorated with a 102 Beyer and TDN ‘Rising Stardom’ at seven furlongs. The following month, Khozan stepped up to a mile for an optional allowance and won by 12 3/4 lengths. The world seemed to be at his feet. But Khozan would never race again.

“He fractured a hind sesamoid in his last breeze before the Florida Derby,” recounts Fernung. “They took him to WinStar to rehab him, but when they put him back into training, it re-inflamed. So they made the decision then to retire him. [Fernung’s wife] Crystal and I had driven up to the Breeders’ Cup [at Keeneland] and while we were there, we went over and found this lovely horse.”

Fernung contacted Al Shaqab’s U.S. rep Bradley Weisbord and a deal was sealed within 48 hours. Al Shaqab would retain a half-share, and Fernung introduced Gil and Marilyn Campbell at Stonehedge Farm South as partners on their side.

“And everybody who’s participated has bred their mares in what I like to call the old Florida method,” Fernung explains. “Because it’s been my experience over the years that Florida stallions are made by the farms that stand them, whereas Kentucky sires are made by everybody, because they have that broader base of broodmares.”

Fernung believes in Khozan with so evangelical a zeal that last December he offered to pay back the first 25 fees received in 2019 (down to $4,000 from an opening $6,500) should he fail to become Florida’s leading freshman sire.

And, as things stand, that bet could well pay off. Khozan has not just blazed ahead of his fellow rookies in the national standings, with seven winners already, but reached midsummer as the outright leading sire of 2-year-old winners.

“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in this horse,” Fernung says. “Usually I’m a little more circumspect, when it comes to these stallions. But I said then that Khozan is poised to be one of the great Florida stories, with his talent level and his pedigree. I was just crazily enthusiastic about him. Like any other stallion, the third and now fourth years are usually the toughest. But once his 2-year-olds started running, Khozan bred more in June than he did in April.”

Significantly, the boost to his reputation once his first crop was actually seen at the gallop was shared between the sales and the track. While none of his first yearlings reached six figures, Khozan began to get on a roll when his stock was tacked up and breezed–headlined by a $260,000 colt at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Sale.

“He has that Distorted Humor shoulder and hip on him, looks quite a bit like his sire from a musculature standpoint,” says Fernung. “And he seems to be passing that along. I sold a couple pretty well. I got $100,000 from Calumet Farm for a colt out of a Stormy Atlantic mare [at OBS April]. He was a bigger, rangier version of his sire, whereas the horse I sold for $150,000 the other day [at OBS June] was more like the female family, more like [broodmare sire] Montbrook than Distorted Humor.

“So not only does Khozan get good-looking babies, they step up quite a bit when you see them move. Even back in March, when there were just three or four in the sale, I heard a lot of good comments from people that weren’t really familiar with him, saying how good they looked on the racetrack. And I think he’s just carried that on, all the way through.”

The real excitement is that Khozan’s page absolutely entitles him to get horses that progress with maturity. Over the years, Florida powder kegs have often made an explosive start before being overhauled by the two-turn sires with classic genes. But besides Royal Delta, whose serial Grade I wins included two at ten furlongs, Khozan’s dam Delta Princess (A.P. Indy) produced two other elite scorers, both over turf at Keeneland, in Crown Queen (Smart Strike), over nine; and Delta Prince (Street Cry {Ire}), winner of the Maker’s 46 Mile S. as a 6-year-old this spring.

The dam of Delta Princess was a Group 2 winner over ten furlongs in England, and she produced a full-sister to Delta Princess in Indy Five Hundred (A.P. Indy), a Grade I winner over nine–again on grass–in the U.S. Their half-brother Biondetti (Bernardini) won an Italian Group 1 over a mile in the mud as a juvenile. Khozan’s third dam, moreover, extends a family sequence of Grade I success.

It’s interesting to see not just class, racing longevity and a degree of stamina in the family, but also a fair bit of turf distinction. That’s another reason why Khozan, despite lacking the number and certainly the quality of mares that flocked to the intake’s top draft, American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), could have plenty more to offer besides trademark Florida precocity. And his own build also augurs well for the continued development of his stock: he arrived at Journeyman as a 3-year-old a touch under 16 hands; a year later, he measured 16.2hh.

“That’s what dreams are made of,” says Fernung, of the longer play underpinning Khozan’s brisk start. “His dam produced three Grade I winners and the one thing nobody wants to underestimate is how talented he was himself: that second race, running a mile, he just drew off them like he was just getting started.”

Colleague Sid Fernando recently drew attention to the similarities between Khozan and Maclean’s Music, another son of Distorted Humor to show a tantalising glimpse of outrageous talent. The Hill ‘n’ Dale stallion has already mustered a Classic winner, of course, and Fernung notes still more illustrious templates.

“Danzig,” he says. “Red Ransom. Malibu Moon. I’ve always loved those kind of horses, that were incredibly talented but didn’t stick around too long. My theory has always been that they were probably too fast, too talented, to really remain sound. And what they do is reproduce quite a bit of that talent but maybe tempered with a little more soundness.

“I’ve been here since 1976 and one thing I’ve never been concerned about is raising sound horses in Florida. These horses are tough, the mare population tends to be sound, and I’ve never seen a horse here I thought was good but fragile. Here it seems like if they’re good, they’re really good.”

It’s precisely that “too-fast-to-last” shadow that rendered a horse like Malibu Moon accessible to regional farms and breeders, in his case in Maryland. And, with Khozan, it has given the Fernungs the chance to reiterate their ability to develop top-class talent at an affordable level of the market.

Brent Fernung managed the early career of Congrats (A.P. Indy), champion freshman in 2010 before his move to Kentucky, during a stint as general manager of Cloverleaf Farm in Florida. During his Cloverleaf days he also spent $130,000 for a 9-year-old mare by Smile, a 12-time winner named I’ll Get Along, at Keeneland November 2001. Her weanling that year turned out to be Smarty Jones (Elusive Quality), and Cloverleaf were able to cash her in after his Kentucky Derby success for $5 million.

Remarkably, this was the second time lightning had struck through Fernung on the first Saturday in May: earlier in his career he found a Florida-bred mare named Eileen’s Moment (For The Moment), similarly before her son Lil E. Tee (At the Threshold) became a Derby winner.

“Yeah, I’ve been fortunate,” says Fernung. “It’s one of those things that kinda defies logic: how we happened on the first mare, like three weeks before Lil E. Tee won what was then the [G2] Jim Beam S. And then it happened again. I’ve been looking for another, but I feel they’re getting more difficult to recognise as I get older!”

Khozan is in danger of making that seem an unnecessarily modest protest. Besides any personal satisfaction, however, Fernung also takes a more corporate pride in the horse’s potential, on behalf of the local industry–to which his commitment is formalised by his presidency of Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ & Owners’ Association (FTBOA).

“It’s been a privilege,” he says. “I’ll be termed out after this [third] year, so will probably have a little more time on my hands than currently. But it’s something I’m proud of. Florida is where I’ve spent my entire career. Everything I’ve ever made has been made down here, and I want to see the industry do good down here long after I’m gone.

“That’s why we’re excited to start horses like this one. Hopefully we can keep him down here and continue to do good with him. I don’t know if at a certain point he might get priced out of the Florida market, but it’s certainly not our intention right now. I should be so lucky, I suppose! But Khozan has checked a lot of boxes so far, he’s off to a brilliant start, and I do think his produce will get better as they get older.

“Losing Wildcat Heir was a very sad time for everyone at Journeyman. He was such a lovely horse to be around, and we all loved him so much. I tend not to talk about him, because I get emotional. But to be honest with you, as good as he was, and also Congrats when he started down here, this horse has things about him I like a lot better than I did either of those two.”

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