By Bill Finley
He has bred a Triple Crown winner, but John Gunther has yet to have his first superstar as an owner. He's hoping that may soon change.
Gunther is the owner and breeder of Stage Raider (Pioneerof the Nile), a half-brother to Triple Crown winner Justify (Scat Daddy), who will make his debut in Saturday's sixth race at Gulfstream. And while no one is predicting that Stage Raider will win the Triple Crown, both Gunther and trainer Chad Brown are optimistic that the 3-year-old colt has above average talent.
“He seems to have plenty of ability,” Brown said. “Being a half-brother to a legendary horse, the expectations are lofty. In his works, he seems to have plenty of ability and definitely belongs in the 'A' circuit in a race like this with these kinds of horses.”
Gunther is primarily a breeder, so it was no surprise when he entered Justify in the 2016 Keeneland September sale, where he sold for $500,000. Less than two years later, Justify completed the Triple Crown sweep with a win in the GI Belmont S. and was soon thereafter retired. The dam, Stage Magic, was named the 2018 Broodmare of the Year.
“To me, it's far more exciting to be able to keep them and race them,” Gunther said. “I love racing but having the operation like ours, especially one our size, you need that cash flow. You have to sell them just to keep the operation profitable going forward. You have to take your yearlings to market.”
That doesn't mean he is willing to give them away. Stage Raider was entered in the 2019 Keeneland September sale, but did not meet his reserve price of $950,000.
“I felt the price we had on him at the sale was a reasonable price, seeing that he is a half-brother to Justify,” Gunther said. “He was not small, he was medium-sized. I think when a lot of people looked at him they thought of Justify, who was probably one of the best yearlings we've ever consigned at the sale. Justify was so big and strong when he was at the sale and I think people were expecting there would be a little more size with this horse.
“What we usually do is if they don't sell, we race them,” he said. “We are always excited to race them. That's just the business we are in. I wish I could afford to race them all.”
When Gunther doesn't get his price at the sales, he will normally race the horses himself. He owns another half-brother to Justify, a horse named One More City (Will Take Charge). A 4-year-old who has yet to race, he RNA'd at the 2018 Keeneland September sale for $1.75 million. He has had three published workouts, none since May.
Stage Raider was sent to Brown last summer and had his first workout for him Sept. 29 at Saratoga. While sensing that the colt had promise, Brown wasn't satisfied with how he was developing mentally.
“When he first came into us, he was a bit immature,” Brown said. “It took a while for him to get things together mentally. The owners, the Gunthers, have been very patient and are never in a rush.”
Brown said that Stage Raider started to put it together in recent works, in particular his last two. He worked five furlongs in 1:01 Jan. 16 at Palm Meadows and seven days earlier went a half-mile out of the gate in :48.
“I've been really pleased with his training over the last month,” he said. “He's really come together mentally. He's always been a good mover on the track.”
On paper, it looks like Brown has chosen a particularly tough race for Stage Raider's debut. Todd Pletcher will send out Ghazaaly (Curlin), a $1.05 million purchase at Keeneland September. Godolphin has a well-bred first-time starter in Prevalence (Medaglia d'Oro) and Shug McGaughey has the first-timer Marching (Liam's Map). Traveller (Tourist) is another Pletcher-trainee making his debut and has a pair of bullet workouts at Palm Beach Downs. He is a half-brother to Grade I winner Eight Rings (Empire Maker).
“I am nervous, of course,” Gunther said. “He's a half-brother to Justify, so there are a lot of expectations out there. Talking to Chad, he seems very pleased with the way he is coming along. He seems to be improving week to week, so we are keeping our fingers crossed and will see how he handles that first start. I'm just hoping for the best.”