By Chris McGrath
When the market determines the value of something, they call it “the going rate.” In the case of George Weaver's two juvenile winners at Gulfstream last Saturday, however, a recent pricing had meant that neither was going anywhere. No Nay Mets (Ire) (No Nay Never) was staying in the same ownership; and Crimson Advocate (Nyquist) was staying in the same barn. And now both, from going nowhere, are on their way to Royal Ascot next month.
No Nay Mets, in particular, has had an extraordinary month. On Apr. 17, he posted the fastest two-furlong work at the OBS Spring Sale, blitzing :20 4/5 for Ciaran Dunne. It looked very much as though a pinhooking experiment for Houston Astros third-baseman Alex Bregman, looking to finance his nascent program with a few colt sales, was going to prove a rewarding experience. The Bregman family, through agent Mike Akers, had exported this one for €180,000 from Arqana last August, as the first foal of Group-winning juvenile Etoile (War Front), herself out of a Classic-placed sibling to G1 Derby winner Pour Moi (Ire). In the event, however, bidding in Ocala stalled at $335,000. Dunne called Weaver and asked whether he could turn the horse round in time for the Royal Palm Juvenile S., a Royal Ascot qualifier carrying a $25,000 travel bursary.
Wavertree Stables had also overseen the education of Crimson Advocate, after her acquisition by a pinhooking partnership for $100,000 at the OBS October Yearling Sale. Weaver was asked to put her in the shop window on the racetrack, and she duly shaped with abundant promise when a green third in a dirt sprint at the Keeneland spring meet. At the price they were asking, however, Weaver put together a syndicate of his own patrons-for whom she then switched to turf, for the fillies' equivalent stake at Gulfstream.
Both horses broke fast and never looked back. Wesley Ward had the odds-on favorite in each race, and now Weaver is hoping to emulate his colleague's pathfinding success at Ascot.
“Ciaran called after the colt didn't make his reserve and asked if I thought I could get him ready for the stake,” Weaver recalls. “I quickly glanced at the calendar and saw I had about 15 days to get it done, but I said yes. It wasn't going to be a matter of physical fitness. Those 2-year-olds at the sales, they work the quarter in 20-and-change and gallop out strong. It was mostly just a matter of getting him educated at the gate.
“And he adapted very well. Every horse has their own personality and make-up, and he's just very classy and smart and willing. Every time we asked him to do something, he did it. The gate can be a little stressful for a lot of racehorses and many of them wouldn't handle an accelerated program. But I took him five or six times, and he never batted an eye.”
That reflects well both on this particular colt but also on Dunne, who like all 2-year-old consignors must strike that difficult balance between satisfying the market's addiction to a “bullet” and keeping a horse confident and progressive.
“But Ciaran's just an all-round horseman,” Weaver says. “He could train at the track if he wanted to. He's one of many that do a great job over there. I'm sure some people perhaps don't pay as much attention to the horse's mental wellbeing, and do the crazier stuff, but Ciaran's horses are well educated and ready to go on when he's done with them.”
Crimson Advocate has been in the barn rather longer, since around March 20. She was part of a package assembled with an eye on precocity and private resale, with the Horses of Racing Age Sale in July as safety barrier.
“She trained like she had some early speed and kind of shocked me at Keeneland, where I really expected her to be up on the pace,” Weaver says. “But in a 12-horse field, going four and half furlongs, she just got a bit scared and backed off the bridle for a moment. A couple of offers came in, and from my standpoint I thought, 'Hell, at that price I'd like to buy her for my own people.'
“I hadn't really seen the bottom of her in the morning, and hadn't breezed her on turf, so there was some guessing involved. But she'd shown me enough that, if they were going to sell, I'd rather keep her in the barn than not. It was a good deal for both sides. Luckily, these guys stepped up and got paid back pretty quickly.”
Weaver has made one previous foray to Ascot, sophomore sprinter Cyclogenesis (Stormy Atlantic) finishing down the field in 2015. While that horse proved not to be the right fit, the experience certainly left his trainer eager to try again.
“He was undefeated at the time,” Weaver reflects. “But just looking back-and hindsight's always 20-20-he was a big, heavy horse that was hard to keep fit. He needed company to breeze, and not really sound enough to take the kind of training he needed anyway. But I did think, 'Man, wouldn't it be cool to come back over here with something that had a good chance!' We went to Dubai early in my career, when I won the [G1] Golden Shaheen [with Saratoga County (Valid Expectations)] in 2005, and obviously had fun on that trip. But I'd never been to England and, while I'd heard about Ascot, there's just no way to explain it unless you can be there and take in the pageantry, the whole experience.”
Ward's best Ascot raiders have tended to leave the home defense standing at the gate, which obviously augurs well for the dash shown by Weaver's pair at Gulfstream. But he is under no illusions that any single dimension will suffice on its own.
“They do have a great first gear and that gives them a little bit of an advantage, particularly with the 2-year-olds,” Weaver acknowledges. “But look, you need to bring a good horse there, whether they're quick out of the gate or not. A lot will also depend on the conditions, but we're hoping they get a fair chance to show what they can do because I think they've both earned a shot.”
The whole enterprise promises to be a stimulating new chapter for the respective owners-whether for Bregman, whose Turf adventure began only a year ago, or for the Crimson Adventure partnership, which features several barn stalwarts.
Some of those, in fact, are also involved in Pass The Champagne (Flatter), who finally nailed her graded stakes in the GII Ruffian S. two years after running Malathaat (Curlin) to a head in the GI Ashland S.
“She really deserved that,” Weaver says. “I'm ashamed it's taken me this long to get her to win one of those races, but after the [GI Kentucky] Oaks she needed time and then she only got back for one race last year before going back to the shelf. Now she's finally been able to put some races together in a row, and learned how to use her acceleration at the right time. I think that's the key. She's got a burst of speed that has to be timed correctly. But she's always been a really talented filly and we'll put her in a position to win some big races this year.”
The obvious next assignment is a return to Belmont for the GI Ogden Phipps S. With luck, perhaps, Pass The Champagne can take up the baton of Vekoma, who has naturally been greatly missed since his departure for Spendthrift. For now, however, it remains too early to know whether these Ascot raiders can build sufficiently on their promising foundations to help fill the void left by the GI Carter H. and GI Met Mile winner.
“At the very least, they're going to be nice 2-year-olds,” Weaver says. “Whether they go on, after five-eighths of a mile, we'll have to see. Not many horses that are so speedy and precocious do you see running a mile and a quarter the next year. But every horse is different. More Than Ready won at Keeneland as a 2-year-old and went on to a very prolific career.”
That was a horse Weaver saw develop at close quarters during six years as assistant to Todd Pletcher. Both men, of course, had previously been with D. Wayne Lukas. That Hall of Fame grounding means that Weaver was always going to feel comfortable with the kind of opportunity he seized, among 929 winners since 2002, with Vekoma.
“It does help to have that experience,” he accepts. “Being in Wayne's barn, initially, and then with Todd was certainly a blueprint. You recognize those horses when you get them, and know what to do. I'm forever grateful for the education I had, from [walking hots for] John Hennig right through to when I went out on my own.”
Like so many other graduates of the Lukas academy, Weaver has exulted in the rejuvenation of the old master at 87.
“I pull for him every time he runs that good mare,” he says of Secret Oath (Arrogate). “Wayne was a great coach and role model and obviously a lot of great trainers worked underneath him. I look back on those days fondly and I'm amazed and so proud that he's still doing it like he always has.”
The elixir, plainly, never loses its hold. So Vekoma has gone? You just go out and seek another one.
“You want horses in your barn that take you to those great races,” Weaver says. “As a trainer, when you get your hands on an elite racehorse, it's a whole different feel you get. They start to amaze you. It almost feels like it doesn't matter what you do: breeze once or twice, half-mile or mile. That's the type of horse Vekoma was. He was so determined, I'm not sure I know a horse that would beat him around one turn as a 4-year-old, when he was right.”
Yet there are times when even this all-consuming obsession is placed in chastening perspective; when even training a Vekoma is no more than getting one quadruped to run a circle faster than another. Last summer at Saratoga, a meet full of great memories for the couple, Weaver's wife and assistant Cindy suffered a serious brain injury in a training accident. Her ongoing rehabilitation has demanded immense fortitude and patience. There have been times when everything else has seemed trivial; but there have been times, too, when the horses have offered not just distraction but purpose.
“Initially, when she was unconscious-for a little over three weeks-it was hard to get through [the meet],” Weaver admits. “But at the same time I needed to focus on keeping the business going, keeping the pace going. And she moved on from there, she emerged, and she's slowly but surely getting better and better as time goes by. She's put a lot of work into it and, yes, the whole experience has put a lot of perspective on everything. You just can't help but be a changed person, both of us.
“We're sad that she can't go out to the barn and do what she's always done, which is love those horses and teach them their job and make them happy. She's just a terrific horse person. Luckily, a lot of her inspiration and lessons had rubbed off, on me and all our staff, and we try to carry that on while she's not there. And we always hope for the best. You never know what's going to happen in life, so you try to take whatever silver lining you can.”
And those consolations can abide, whether you win a maiden claimer or, indeed, find a couple of horses for Royal Ascot.
“I don't know,” Weaver says. “It's so hard to get to that winner's circle, sometimes it feels like at any level. And I think that that's part of the satisfaction. Because, man, you know how much goes into it, how much can go wrong. In that moment, watching your horse, there's just such majesty in the way they go out there and do what they know to do. It's something really rare to be a part of. Obviously I made a life out of that, and I can't imagine doing anything else.”