By Jessica Martini
Hotelier Greg James, who has over two decades of pinhooking under his belt, will be looking to follow up on a career year in the sales arena when the 2-year-old auction season opens next week with the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's March Sale. James, with consignor Jesse Longoria, will offer six juveniles at the three-day auction, led off by a New York-bred son of Laoban (hip 79) who is scheduled to work during Tuesday's first session of the sale's under-tack show.
“So far, Jesse is very optimistic,” James said of expectations for his March sextet. “We've got a nice New York-bred Laoban that he likes and we have a couple other horses that he calls push button. That's always a good word to hear around Jesse, that they are push button.”
A native of Louisville, James's interests in racing are multi-faceted. He purchased Benny the Bull (Lucky Lionel) for $38,000 at the 2004 Keeneland September sale. He sold a controlling interest in the future Eclipse Award winner to IEAH Stables and the speedy dark bay went on to win over $2.3 million. James also campaigned multiple graded stakes winner Victor Avenue (Avenue of Flags).
“I was involved in many facets of the game back in the '90s,” James said. “And I was attracted to some returns that I saw pinhookers getting. So I began to invest in different operations in Ocala. I have, off and on, been pinhooking probably about 25 years. My first venture, I think, with Jesse was all the way back in the late '90s. And we've been off and on doing business together since.”
The partnership scored a pair of pinhooking home runs last year when a filly by Shackleford, purchased as a yearling for $40,000, sold for $300,000 at the OBS March sale and a colt by Race Day, purchased for $42,000 as a yearling sold for $475,000 at the OBS April sale.
“It was probably my best year,” James said of the 2022 results. “My highest horse that I ever sold before was $300,000, so the Shackleford replicated that and then the Race Day was certainly my biggest hit ever.”
Asked if his success at the juvenile sales last year made him change his approach at the yearling auctions, James said, “Well, obviously it gives you optimism that success is out there if you partner with the right people and do the right thing. So for me, that's Jesse Longoria. Jesse has always been brutally honest and I think he has an impeccable eye for a horse. So I am quite comfortable letting him spend my money to fund this venture.”
On behalf of James, Longoria purchased 10 yearlings last fall. Following the six scheduled to sell at OBS March, four will be catalogued at the company's April sale.
Working on a budget, the partners focus on the individual over pedigree.
“Jesse and I, we are looking for athletes,” James said. “It's hard for us to buy the pedigreed horses that we want. But we buy athletes and we have had success doing it.”
The colt by Race Day who sold for $475,000 last April is a case in point. Now named Tshiebwe, he was a close-up third in a Feb. 26 Gulfstream Park maiden special weight for trainer Todd Pletcher.
“He just ran third in a maiden special weight going long,” James said of the colt. “So I think there is some future for that horse. He was a little slow getting started, but it looks like they've got him going now.”
The Shackleford filly was purchased by Hideyuki Mori last March and, named Ecoro Ai, she is stakes-placed in Japan.
The highest-priced yearlings in James's March contingent were purchased for $35,000; Hip 79 brought that price at the Fasig-Tipton October sale and at that same price from the same auction were a colt by Mor Spirit (hip 252) and a filly by Take Charge Indy (hip 782). The group also includes a colt by World of Trouble (hip 617) purchased for $30,000 at Fasig-Tipton October; a colt by Frosted (hip 569) purchased for $25,000 at October; and a colt by Anchor Down (hip 608) acquired for $8,000 at Keeneland September.
“I think the most we paid for any yearling was $50,000,” James said. “We have a nice Bolt d'Oro that we were able to get for $50,000 [who will sell at OBS April]. So we are looking for athletes, for racehorses, more than pedigree. If there is some pedigree there, that's great, but we are going to buy the horse first.”
While he enjoyed top-level success in racing in the '90s, James currently has just one horse in training, but that could change soon.
“I only have one horse in training right now, but with the purse structure, racing is becoming more attractive again to me,” James said. “I cut my teeth in this business with claiming horses. And I have been thinking about putting something together and maybe claiming a few more and going back into racing a little heavier because the purse structure allows it now. Racing is tough. We all know that. But if ever there were good opportunities, I think it's now.”
Looking long-term, he did admit to one concern about racing's future.
“My only worries are, are we cultivating new horse racing fans? Slots are great, they have added such great purse money, but I do worry if we are cultivating horse racing fans or just relying on purse money,” James said. “So that's a decision I will have to make as I go forward.”
For James, who owns Radisson Hotel Louisville North, racing and pinhooking provide a pleasing counterpoint to his day job.
“I am in the hotel and shopping center business,” he said. “So this is quite apart for me from what I normally do, but I have always been able to mix the two together and enjoy them. I spend a lot of time at the sales. Jesse has taught me a lot. And I've learned a lot about what a good horse looks like through the years. Bernie Flint trained for me, and in my mind, there is no better judge of horse flesh than Bernie Flint was in his day. I love being around it. The pinhooking gives me a chance to be around it more.”
After their standout 2022 results, can James and Longoria strike again in 2023?
“I don't know,” James said. “You never know in this game what you can do. You have to be good and you have to be lucky. And anybody who says differently is wrong. Because that's what this game takes. It takes good fortune and good hard work.”
The under-tack show for the OBS March sale begins Tuesday morning with hips 1-208 scheduled to breeze. Hips 209-416 will work Wednesday, followed by hips 417-624 Thursday and hips 625-833 Friday. Each session of the show begins at 8 a.m.
The March sale will be held next Monday through Wednesday, with bidding beginning each day at 11 a.m.