Mike Lightner’s Chance of a Lifetime

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Chance It winning the Mucho Macho Man S. | Lauren King

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No doubt about it: if he can keep going the way he has started, this horse has the potential to open plenty of doors onto our sport. Pending any such breakout, however, let’s first acknowledge a man on the inside–one quite likely to be lost from growing attention should Chance It add another unfeasible chapter to his story in the GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. on Saturday.

Chance It’s journey, to this point, has the potential to engage a wider public precisely because it has been so divergent from the road typically taken by a champion Thoroughbred–such a forbidding one, to the layman, in terms of expense and expertise. He is owned by a syndicate of $2,500 shareholders, many of them complete novices. His dam was salvaged from an adoption program. And his sire, Currency Swap, disappeared a couple of years ago to South America.

If Chance It can propel himself from the periphery of the Kentucky Derby picture, even Mary Lightner might tire of telling the story. It is, admittedly, a remarkable one: the dart thrown by Fred Pace’s stepson at Darby Dan, winning a free season to Jersey Town; Fred giving $250 to rehome a suitable mare; Mary sitting beside a lady in an empty diner, who proved willing to take on the mare as Fred quit breeding; who then sent her to Currency Swap; and the resulting colt being acquired for Mary’s new power-to-the-people syndicate, Shooting Star Thoroughbreds.

But the one protagonist who links all the others, while keeping himself modestly in the background, could not be closer to the coalface of the business; to the unsung, arcane, day-to-day chiseling of a living from the discovery of talent in cheaper seams of pedigree. As such, of course, Mary’s father Mike understands the odds against Chance It even becoming the horse he is already–a nine-length maiden winner, a seven-length stakes winner, his comeback form already boosted by the third Sole Volante (Karakontie {Jpn}).

For here is a horseman who has paid his dues. Mike first took out a trainer’s license back in 1969. In fact, he saddled the very first winner to graduate from the Kentucky Training Center, then still home to the Kensington Sales.

“I never trained a whole lot of horses,” Mike recalls. “I started at the Training Center with three. I went to River Downs, Turfway, Woodbine. But I never had a chance because I was raising a family, and anytime a horse would show something, we’d sell it. That’s the business I’ve always been in. Just to develop them and then sell them to other people. Sent a lot of them, over the years, to Vladimir Cerin out in California. Pete Miller. Mark Casse and I have been friends forever, since he was about 18. I predicted he would be in the Hall of Fame, and I’m going to be right. Hopefully, this year.”

One day, an elderly man drove up to the training center and started talking to his father. Mike was busy: galloping, mucking out. His father came over and explained that Mr. Eachus was from Las Vegas, and wanted him to look over some horses at the sale. Mike rolled his eyes, but had a scout around. Nothing. But Eachus came back for the Keeneland summer sale, asking for two colts at $20,000 apiece.

“Well, Mr. Eachus, I don’t know if we can do that. We might get one filly for 40.”

And that’s just what Mike did: a filly by Silent Screen, a grandson of Princequillo and champion juvenile in ’69. Eachus named her Taisez Vous, and she won 11 of 17 starts for Robert Wheeler, six of them graded stakes, including the GI La Canada S. Not bad, for Mike’s first ever buy.

He wasn’t even from a horse family: his father was a tool and die maker. But they lived on a small farm, at Becknerville in Clark County, and Mike loved riding. Quarter Horses, barrel racers, jumpers. Already as a schoolboy he would ride work at Keeneland.

“I loved horses my whole life,” Mike says. “They were the only toy I ever wanted to play with, as a kid. I bought my first broodmare in 1966 from a guy named Henry Alexander, who stood Our Michael and kind of took me under his wing. Once she foaled, he guided me through the whole thing. He was a big help because I didn’t have anybody in front of me. But I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I’d pick anybody’s brain. I’d sit on a feed tub or a water bucket in a shedrow and just talk to every old groom I could.”

And always a trader. He’d go through advertisements in the bloodstock publications, looking for one guy wanting to sell and another wanting to buy, hoping he could be the middle man. T.A. Grissom, leading owner at 14 Keeneland meets, always called him Lightning. “Lightning,” he would say. “Just find one thing in this business that you’re good at-and stick with that.”

“And I didn’t,” recalls Mike with a grin. “I stood stallions, I had broodmares, I’ve tried every phase of it. But my knack, I think, was picking. I don’t know if I’m going to like how this will sound, but I picked out a bunch of good horses over the years. I bought Northern Afleet as a baby, and broke him. Treekster, won the California Derby. Of course, my name’s not on all of them. Some I bought as agent for other people. I don’t know, I counted one time, there was 50 or 60 [stakes winners]. But really that’s what I should have done the whole time.”

Those he did sign for included Captain Squire (Flying Chevron) and Bluesthestandard (American Standard), for $13,500 and $20,000, respectively. Both became millionaires; once they finished second and third in the same Grade I race. But Mike married young, started a family, and always had bills to pay; always had to sell.

Eventually, in 1992, they moved to Florida; started pinhooking, prepping. He quit training: there was “a bad test,” one time, but he didn’t want to raise his daughters on the back stretch anyway, not with all that rough language. In the event, even so, both Mary and Molly ended up in the horse business; and likewise his son, Raymie, also a bloodstock agent. Molly worked for West Point and now assists Becky Thomas at Sequel New York; while Mary trained a small string between 2014 and last year.

One of Mary’s best moments as a trainer was the debut success at Churchill Downs of Trenton Traveler–the son of Jersey Town delivered by Vagabon Diva (Pleasantly Perfect), the mare Fred Pace had adopted to exploit that dart at Darby Dan.

Pace had kept a small band of broodmares for years.

“Though he was actually trying to get out of the business when all that happened,” Mike says. “Fred’s the best. We’ve been friends our whole lives. We rode ponies together. I was very close with his father Leon.”

When Trenton Traveler won, Mary was straight onto the phone to her father: “You need to find that mare and take a look at her weanling.”

By this time Vagabon Diva had been passed along to Bett Usher, the lady with whom Mary had got chatting in the diner that time. It had turned out that Bett had just been on foal watch at a local farm; and that she knew Mike from O.B.S. After being given the mare, Bett and her sister had her covered by Currency Swap; and, after delivering a colt, she was now in foal to Prospective.

Mike and Raymie went along to the small paddock Bett rented for Vagabon Diva and her weanling, along with one other mare and a donkey. And they couldn’t believe what they found. They had to chance it.

“Oh, he was awesome,” remembers Mike, shaking his head. “I’ve bought a lot of horses, and he was really a good one from the beginning. When we were breaking him, I had like 20 babies there, and I’d tell people: ‘I’ll bring Chance out there, and if I tell you I paid $200,000 for him, you wouldn’t doubt it a minute.’ He is so beautiful. And I think he’s 17 hands now.”

While they were about it, they also bought the Prospective foal in utero. Both would go into Mary’s new syndicate venture. (Unfortunately, Vagabon Diva has lost consecutive foals since, but she is still only 12 and booked to Bucchero this spring.)

While Shooting Star Thoroughbreds was not looking to compete at the same level as West Point, the idea was to generate a similar buzz from an affordable piece of the action.

“Not long ago I told Terry Finley that when he started West Point, I thought it was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard,” Mike admits. “Who in the world would want to own one percent of a horse? But the answer is: a lot of people. Terry just laughed and said, ‘Well, I’m glad I didn’t listen to you!'”

The blue-collar complexion of Chance It’s ownership–he was one of three horses divided into 100 shares, held by people from all walks of life–would invite obvious media traction should he put himself on the Derby trail.

“The whole premise is to try and bring more people in the game,” explains Mary. “There’s a lot of people that are intimidated, for whatever reason. Financially, or just not having the connections, or the knowledge how to go about it. A lot of the people in our syndicate, they aren’t real versed in it. But, we tell them there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and they feel comfortable with that.

“Of course, we’ve been lucky to get a bit of recognition because of Chance. People have been reaching out to get involved. Some people do call and their first question is: ‘What kind of return can I expect on my investment?’ You pretty much know right away that it’s not really the thing for them. Hopefully, they might make some money, but they’ve got to know it’s really about enjoying themselves.”

Mike emphasizes how the shareholders love the certainty of a one-off, up-front payment. Nowadays, moreover, they can watch their horses from anywhere; can ask their pals over for a beer round the television. True, when they fly in for the big races, they are liable to crowd out the winner’s circle; but Mary commends Gulfstream for making everybody welcome.

Astonishingly, the debut syndicate’s three horses also included Island Commish (Commissioner), a $32,000 yearling–trained, like Chance It, by Saffie Joseph Jr.–who was cashed in after winning a second time for Shooting Star, and has since won a Grade III. And the other one, who cost even less, was placed in all three starts for Peter Miller. Mike, plainly, retains an undimmed eye for a young horse.

The one unexpected challenge was that everyone would want to retain Chance It, who duly required a small supplementary costing to cover his sophomore fees.

“The original shares were $2,500, and they can sell the horse for a million,” says Mike. “But while people accept that $10,000 would be a good return, they want to go through and see what happens.”

So far, after his return in the Mucho Macho Man S., so good. Mike never thought of Chance It as a mere sprinter, and loves the way he galloped out; and the way he has trained since.

“I think Mary has managed the horse really well,” he says. “She made great decisions in hiring Saffie, and getting Tyler [Gafflione] to ride, and skipping the Breeders’ Cup. You can get pressure from everybody that’s got one share. Mary loves them, she’s so kind and considerate to them. But she will always tell them that we’re only going to do what’s best for the horse.”

Shooting Star is now filling new syndicates of three and two juveniles respectively–the first comprising colts by First Dude and Brethren and a Constitution filly, again at $2,500 for 1 percent; the second, an Uncaptured filly and Chance It’s brother by Prospective, trading 2.5 percent shares at $9,000–as well as a pinhooking partnership, with four short-yearling fillies by Runhappy, Upstart, Noble Bird and Shakin It Up.

Last year’s debut pinhooking package made 42 percent in eight months. But even that financial dividend pales next to the deeper rewards of Chance It. Privately, Mike has seen too much of a hard business to resist a spiritual view of the advent of this horse. A fateful signpost was even legible in the pedigree of Vagabon Diva, who herself came into their lives so adventitiously: her fourth dam happens to be grand-dam of one of his best finds, Northern Afleet.

“Though probably the closest to a champion I bought was the first one ever, Taisez Vous,” he says. “But yeah, Chance could be the best. The thing is that if I owned all of him, I would have sold him for $100,000 when he broke his maiden. Because that’s what I’ve done my whole life.

“You know, I’ve owned a lot of good horses. But I did sell them. They’re perishable, so that’s what I do. But this partnership Mary’s put together, they didn’t want to sell. The thrill–that’s what they signed up for. If they want to make some money, they go sell another car or whatever else they do to make a living.

And some of them are our lifelong friends. So that joy of victory, hugging each other and stuff, really makes it even more exciting. Fred came into it. Billy Ballard, he’s a dentist, we went through high school together; raised our kids together. Over the last 50 years we’ve all been through our ups and downs. So that’s why I don’t think this is just coincidence, or luck. I know this isn’t always a popular belief, in horse circles, but for me it’s a blessing from God. And it’s no telling, what the horse might do.”

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