Flay's Recipe for Turf Success

Bobby Flay | Horsephotos


“You know, some of the people I go up against in the auction ring, they own countries,” says Bobby Flay with a chuckle. “And I work at a stove.”

It's an instructive remark. For one thing, it indicates the humor and modesty that redeem the restauranteur and television chef from the kind of airs that might burden others, accustomed to turning heads in Main Street, on entering this arcane hinterland of ours. Flay so reliably checks the fame and glamor at the barn door, indeed, that you suspect he actually relishes the way Thoroughbreds operate as such undiscriminating vehicles of humility.

But the most important thing about this wry observation is that it's perfectly true. And what has truly assimilated Flay, in the esteem of lifelong horsemen, is a program that brilliantly reconciles its boutique scale with competition at a level where others, as he vividly implies, are wholly immune to the bottom line.

That has required Flay to discover strengths very different from those that made his name. But that process has also allowed horsemen to embrace him, not as some interloper from a mystifying, glitzy world, but as one of their own.

“The difference for me, in the horse business, is that in the rest of my life I'm impulsive, don't like waiting around very long,” he concedes. “But somehow the horses have taught me patience.”

Sure, there are aspects of his professional career that dovetail with the things that draw us all to the racetrack, to horses, jockeys and trainers: the competitive flair that turns rehearsal into performance, routine into theater. By instead concentrating his investment in breeding, however, Flay has deliberately opted for the long game.

While his program never comprises more than a dozen mares, each a highwire dash ahead of sheikhs and plutocrats, time and again he has been able to keep things sustainable at the yearling sales. Only last month, indeed, a $2-million daughter of Curlin sold as the top filly at Saratoga; and five others of his current crop have made Book I of the imminent September Sale.

So while the adrenaline will doubtless flow at Keeneland, overall his horses offer a completely different satisfaction. It's like the slow, low oven that achieves tenderness and succulence, as opposed to the instant flash-and-sizzle sought by those hunting a Kentucky Derby colt.

“Those guys are playing the lottery,” he says. “I'm trying to keep my intrinsic value from day one. Now, I do know that if I pay $1 million for a well-pedigreed filly, and she doesn't run, her value–depending on her pedigree and physique–might be somewhere between a third to a half. But it's not zero, which you'd get with a colt with the exact same pedigree if he can't run.”

Having embarked on a road tapering to a far horizon, Flay has learned to moderate his stride. “Because in the horse business you have no choice,” he says. “This has been a 15-year plan. I bought my first good piece of bloodstock in 2007: a stakes-placed 2-year-old, hailing from the Best in Show line. She RNA'd for $1.4 million, and I ended up buying her for $1.2 million–easily the most money I'd ever spent, on anything. And I remember the consignor saying, 'Just think of this like you're buying a building.' And he was right. It's a long process. But what I always say is that good blood is going to show up. You don't know exactly when. But if you're patient, at some point it's going to show.”

Sure enough, this first big investment produced a filly named America from the final crop of A.P. Indy. Herself a graded stakes winner (and twice Grade I-placed), America in turn produced a first foal by Curlin that made $1.5 million as a yearling. And his endeavors, as First Captain, contributed to the even bigger sum banked by his younger sister at Saratoga the other day.

It was a similar, slow-burn story with a Galileo (Ire) filly acquired for 1,250,000gns at Tattersalls in 2014. Her dam had already produced Derby winner Pour Moi (Ire) (Montjeu {Ire}), and Flay named her White Hot (Ire).

“I don't know what it would be on today's exchange rate, but at the time she cost the equivalent of $2.1 million,” Flay recalls. “She was the most expensive yearling filly of the hemisphere [from that crop]. But she didn't have the heart to run. I remember John Gosden calling and saying, 'Look, I can run this filly, but I just want you to understand that she's never going to show on the racetrack what's on her page. If she were mine, I would just move on and think about breeding her.' So I did.”

White Hot's yearling by Uncle Mo sells as Hip 115 at Keeneland September | Thorostride

He sent White Hot to Fastnet Rock (Aus) and retained the resulting filly, Pizza Bianca, to win the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last year.

“That's a story where people could say, 'You got lucky,'” Flay says. “And yes, absolutely, I guess there was some luck involved. But at the same time, it was a plan. There were a lot of lean years, holding onto this very expensive piece of bloodstock. But she's beautiful, she's by Galileo, she has that incredible female family. And I just relied on that belief, that at some point the blood's going to come through.”

White Hot's colt by Uncle Mo goes under the hammer at Keeneland as Hip 115. That's a mating characteristic of this program, and too few others. Flay has done his homework and knows how priceless to the breed, historically, has been cross-pollination between the European and American gene pools. After years of short-sighted retrenchment, on both sides of the water, it's heartening to find such a smart investor mingling lines that most commercial breeders would keep dogmatically apart, as exclusively dirt or turf.

Two of his Book I fillies, for instance, share Butterfly Cove (Storm Cat) as third dam. She was not only a half-sister to Aidan O'Brien's champion juvenile Fasliyev (Nureyev), but also delivered a Coolmore linchpin in Grade I winner and producer Misty For Me (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}). Flay bought Misty For Me's daughter Cover Song (Fastnet Rock {Aus}) for $1.6 million as an auction wild card after she had won the GIII Autumn Miss S. for Spendthrift. He remembers seeing B. Wayne Hughes on his way out of the pavilion and asking: “Why did you sell this filly?” Hughes gave a long pause, looked at Flay and shrugged, saying: “I have no idea.” Now Cover Song's third foal, by Quality Road, heads to Keeneland (Hip 191) with her first, Contemporary Art (Dubawi {Ire}), meanwhile targeting the same Santa Anita graded stakes once won by their dam.

Quality Road filly out of Cover Song sells as Hip 191 at Keeneland September | Thorostride

Another long play has been Amagansett, an $875,000 yearling by Tapit out of Misty For Me's stakes-winning sister Twirl (Ire). She never made the track, but again Flay is banking on residual value telling in her first foal, a filly by Uncle Mo (Hip 131).

“This mare was another example of what I was talking about,” Flay remarks. “I paid a lot of money for her as a yearling, but she had an ankle problem and obviously as things stand she's an expensive project. But she's got a lot of quality and class, and we'll see what happens: this is her first foal to the ring and she's very, very nice.”

So while the other Book I pair are both bred on the same commercially live cross as Tiz the Law, as respectively a colt (Hip 320) and filly (Hip 88) by Constitution out of a Tiznow mare, the fact is that Flay is presenting three beautiful yearlings in the sale's premier book on a bolder formula: each by an elite Kentucky stallion, out of a mare from an aristocratic European family.

“I'm not going to say I'm the only one doing it, because I'm definitely not,” Flay says. “But it does seem to be rare to bring over European blood and tie it to American sires, or vice versa. Yet this kind of thing was done for decades by some of the world's best breeders, people like Coolmore and Juddmonte, or Bull Hancock before them. We get so conditioned to say that this horse, with this pedigree, will only run on grass; and that horse, only on dirt. Yet we've been proved wrong so often, I just want to keep an open mind.

“I do wonder how people feel, when they see pedigrees like these. Are they turned off? Are they excited? Probably it'll be a bit of both. But the bottom line is that I know that it works.”

Flay acknowledges the argument that equivalent regeneration is no less urgent in Europe. When Australian friends congratulated him on an inspired mating between White Hot and Fastnet Rock, he demurred: Europe's top stallions were so genetically clustered, in the same neighborhood as the mare, he had felt as though he hadn't a great deal of choice. But he's palpably animated by the idea of reviving the speed-carrying impact of Northern Dancer and his sons on European turf. Someone, I suggest, needs to try once again to win an Epsom Classic with a horse by a perceived dirt stallion. “I'd like to be that person!” he exclaims.

That's an ambition a world apart from the New York kid who cut high school to bet at the track, or indeed the guy who made his first piecemeal investments in horseflesh like “throwing darts at a board”. And Flay gives huge credit, for that transformation, to the seasoned counsellors who have helped him navigate his Turf adventure.

The first to illuminate the mysteries of pedigree was his old friend Barry Weisbord, founder of TDN, who channelled Flay's raw enthusiasm into a proper strategy. Then there was James Delahooke, proven as one of the great judges after helping to assemble Juddmonte's foundation mares. It had been too long since the English agent had been deployed by someone equipped to make the most of his exceptional eye, and Flay's subsequent record only confirms what others had meanwhile been missing.

“I've loved working with James for the last 15 years,” Flay says. “You know, he's 'out of the movie' as The Bloodstock Agent because he looks the part, he sounds the part, and he knows the part. I've learned so much just talking to him, every single sale we go to, every dinner that we have together. And James has a very simple project, which is: 'Find me the best-looking physicals among all the fillies in the sale. Don't worry about the pedigrees, we can put those together later. Find me a beautiful horse that's going to make a broodmare one day.'”

But there has also been a third vital dimension: entrusting the care of his mares and foals to a horseman of genius in Arthur Hancock.

“One of the best things I have ever done is employ Stone Farm,” Flay says. “They're a lovely family, first and foremost, and it has been such a pleasure getting to know them. But I remember when James told me to go take a look at their land. That's not something you hear a lot of people say in the commercial horse world, but he believes in a correlation between success and the amount of land each horse is given. So I took a drive out to Paris, Ky., got to the top of this hill and saw their property. And I was like, 'I'm home. This is where I want my horses to live.' So that's the whole formula, right there. It's not overcomplicated. One person that takes care of the physicals, another that takes care of the pedigrees. And of course they live in Shangri-La.”

But Flay does all the matings himself, seeking the same kind of elusive balance as any other breeder–and inviting, in the process, an obvious analogy: don't throw too much chili into the pan, but don't let things get too bland, either. In keeping with his far-sighted dissent on surfaces, he also resists the standard commercial refuge in unproven sires. Apart from anything else, of course, matings have to be commensurate with the value of the mare, which in this program tends to be high.

“I've seen plenty of mares with world-class pedigrees get ruined by sire decisions that are just guesses,” Flay observes. “So I don't use unproven sires. I would rather pay more for the sire later.”

As we've already seen, he's confident that Constitution has made the grade, and expects better again as his upgraded books kick in. (One of his Constitution yearlings in this sale is out of a mare purchased, uncharacteristically, at 13 and already responsible for Grade I winner Come Dancing {Malibu Moon}–and that was precisely because she was carrying this foal by the breakout WinStar sire.) And Flay also loves the injection of speed that qualifies Not This Time to fill an impending void, with Classic sires like Curlin, Tapit and Medaglia d'Oro entering the evening of their careers. (Sure enough, White Hot has a weanling colt by Not This Time.)

All the while, however, his aspirations must be tempered by the reality with which we started: that some of these other guys have reserves as deep as their oil wells.

“Their ammunition and mine is very different,” Flay reflects. “I have to save my powder. I have to be very strategic. There are many sales, including premium sales, where I can't identify a single thing I want to buy–because the pedigree just isn't good enough. That doesn't mean a filly won't come out of that sale and win the Kentucky Oaks. But if a horse can't run, gets hurt, whatever, I need something to lean on.”

By the same token, he would rather double down on a pedigree than undersell.

“That's maybe my more impulsive side,” he says. “But like last year, literally a week before the Keeneland sale, Cover Song's Quality Road colt got an abscess in his foot. I said, 'Okay, we'll race him.' If I have seven foals this year, I know there's a good chance seven aren't going to make the auction ring. That's okay with me. And if nobody wants to pay me what I think a horse is worth, I'm okay taking it back home. Because not only do I know the horse is going to be taken care of, which is incredibly important to me, but it will also be given every opportunity to succeed. So we're all working toward bettering these pages, and strengthening my roster.”

Having built something so impressive through the first 15 years, Flay can now start to consolidate for the next 15. Among his small band of mares, he has “pillars” that look eligible to start a dynasty: the likes of America, Cover Song, White Hot and Dame Dorothy (Bernardini), a $390,000 yearling who won a Grade I and whose first foal by Curlin, Spice Is Nice, brought seven figures when taking her own turn at the September Sale, before becoming a graded stakes winner last year.

“I mean, these are mares that are already producing beautiful progeny,” Flay reasons. “They're selling at the sales, they're running on the racetrack. So I would love just to continue growing these families. My daughter is 26, she's interested, and I say to her: 'I don't want you to make this your life, but I do need you to keep up with what's going on–because at some point you're going to have to know what to do with a lot of valuable bloodstock.' I want to grow my horses' family trees so that my own family tree can enjoy it, too, decades later.”

Rather closer to hand, meanwhile, is a momentous staging post in the annual cycle.

“We wouldn't have put any of these in Book I unless we thought them really 'primo',” Flay emphasizes. “We feel like we've had some really good luck, from a physical standpoint. I love Saratoga so we took America's filly up there and she was an absolute queen. But just from an international standpoint, we like going to Keeneland with pedigrees like these.”

And he could offer no higher praise than this: if he didn't own the fillies already, they would be the ones he'd be looking at. When Delahooke gives him a shortlist, he always asks: “Is there anything better than what I have in the sale?” Because if the answer is no, it can be hard to let them go.

“But that's the whole thing,” Flay reasons. “I've been able to put together this very small, boutique broodmare band, and it's all very good stuff, the top of the pedigree chain. And when I put something in the ring, there are people out there with the same feeling that I have. People that when they turn the page and see these pedigrees, and then see what these horses look like, will raise their hand with fervor. Because they know how hard it is, to get into these families, and here they have an opportunity to get it ready-made.”

It's a long time now since Flay was fired up with a new passion, watching old races and poring over pedigrees deep into the night.

“And I still have a lot to learn,” he stresses. “It's like the wine business: you can know a lot but you can never know it all. I know it's not a perfect science. Sometimes these families get hot, sometimes they lose a little steam. But that's what's so wonderful, everything continues to evolve. If you want to play at the highest level, you really have to pay close attention. But I absolutely love it. It's become a very important part of my life, and I love it dearly.”

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