By Chris McGrath
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Erich Brehm is quoting Mike Tyson. He knows how it might look, from the outside: this charmed, clockwork progress from one fairytale to the next. Texas Red (Afleet Alex) cost just $17,000 as a yearling and–racing for Brehm, trainer Keith Desormeaux and a bunch of pals–won the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile of 2014 by 6 1/2 lengths. Upon his retirement to stud, Brehm bought Texas Red a mare for $21,000. The resulting foal, My Girl Red, pulverized her opponents on debut for Desormeaux at Santa Anita in June; and then, a couple of weeks ago, followed up with an equally emphatic success in the GII Sorrento S. (video).
And yes, sure, My Girl Red is the result of a plan. Brehm sat down and drew up a strategy for getting Texas Red some traction in his new career. But nobody should be deceived that its apparently linear fulfillment, to this early point, has been in any way immune to the vicissitudes that must always be expected with Thoroughbreds.
“You could have the greatest plan on earth, and have no idea what a torturous pathway this is,” Brehm says. “One of the mares I bought the same day as My Girl Red's dam, a beautiful, stakes-winning mare, colicked after she had her Texas Red foal. We lost her, had to get a nurse mare. Another mare I bought for the first crop, she'd won the Ontario Debutante Stakes as a 2-year-old, we lost her too, along with her foal. Then there was the first-crop Texas Red foal out of the most expensive mare I ever bought. It was out on the training track, a windy day, something spooked the horse, it flipped, fractured its skull. And to cap it all, earlier this year, we lost a full-sister to My Girl Red. When all that happens, it doesn't matter how good your plan is. It kind of throws everything out the window.”
But that doesn't mean you throw up your hands and give up. Brehm believed that the same principles that have served him well in business life could be validly extended even to the volatile fortunes of the horse industry. He knew that Texas Red was in the best of hands, with the McLean family at Crestwood Farm; but he also knew, with the partnership (also comprising Wayne Detmar, Lee Michaels and Dr. Gene Voss) having retained a 75% stake in Texas Red, that a game plan was needed. Forsaking the warmth of Texas, Brehm shivered around the Keeneland barns at the 2017 January Sale to find suitable dates for the rookie.
“I felt that if we didn't support Red, he would never have a chance,” Brehm explains. “So I laid out some criteria about the kind of mares we needed: mares that were nine years or younger; that had made over $100,000, or were stakes-placed; with one or two commercial foals on the ground; and in foal to a commercial sire. I hoped to keep in a range between $15,000 and $40,000. I did better on some, probably spent too much on others.”
He bought five mares from Book 1. Among these, Morakami (Fusaichi Pegasus) was a bespoke fit. A Saratoga debut winner who ran fourth in the GI Spinaway S., she had admittedly just turned 12 but was being cheaply culled by Watts Humphrey while in foal to Street Boss. The resulting colt, cashed in that winter for $55,000, became dual stakes winner Gold Street.
“And not only does Morakami produce fast horses, she also produces durable horses,” Brehm notes. “Last year, Oh Marvelous Me (Bluegrass Cat) won a stakes race aged seven. Over Thinking (Overanalyze) has also made over $200,000, and was beaten a neck and a nose in a grass stake at Del Mar only last weekend.”
That's an encouraging context for a roll of the dice when Morakami's Texas Red filly was sent through the ring at the OBS October Yearling Sale via Lisa McGreevy of Abbie Road Farm.
“I never wanted to not sell a horse so bad in my life,” says Brehm. “All our Texas Red foals were just beautiful, but you have to try and make sense of the economics along the way, going back to this whole thing of a business plan. Fortunately I was doing some pinhooking that helped me, but there came a time when we had to put some of those babies in a sale. This was before Gold Street had hit, but I really, really did not want to sell My Girl Red. I can't remember, I put the reserve at $75,000 or $100,000. And when they stopped at $70,000, I was so happy.”
The filly was sent to April Mayberry to be broken and pre-trained, and by March she was on her way to Desormeaux at Santa Anita.
“She's a filly that's just never taken a step backwards,” Brehm enthuses. “At every stage, everybody thought she had ability. She's always been correct. She's very smart, not as spicy as her dad was. But then I'd say, having looked at so many Texas Reds, that they have really good minds. I have one with Steve Asmussen at Lone Star Park, he will nip at you. He has a little personality of his own. But for the most part, the Reds, you can walk up to them. They're very confident.”
The window of commercial opportunity for a young stallion being so notoriously narrow, it's hard to overstate the importance of an early flagbearer as stylish as My Girl Red. With just 49 going out to bat for Texas Red in his first crop, some indices are going to be tough in the freshmen's championship, but he has already had another stakes-placed runner from 10 starters to date. And Brehm is confident that Texas Red, far from overloading on his poster girl, has spread his chips around the roulette wheel.
Poignantly, the filly raised by a nurse mare after the death of her dam is showing plenty of promise for Patrick Biancone, who also trains her half-brother, the dual Grade III winner Diamond Oops (Lookin At Lucky).
“We named her Viva La Red and I think she's going to be outstanding,” Brehm says. “She's big, strong, gorgeous. Patrick has taken his time, she's gone through some growth spurts, but he says she is just like Diamond Oops.
“I do think you need two [first-crop stars] because everybody can say a 'onesie' is luck, right? You have two, it's a different deal. But I think we have other horses in the mix, some good ones coming. A couple should have won already, with better luck. The good news is I don't think anybody expected Red to have 2-year-olds. We expected them to be mile-and-eighth, mile-and-a-quarter, coming around as 3-year-olds. But right now I'm tracking 21 that have had official works.”
Certainly there's no doubt that Texas Red maintained his form as a sophomore. Though sidelined for the Triple Crown series, he ran Lord Nelson (Pulpit) to a neck around one turn and stretched out to beat Frosted (Tapit) in the GII Jim Dandy S. But it was for his theatrical, last-to-first romp at the Breeders' Cup that he is best remembered, spectacular vindication for Desormeaux's perseverance at the previous year's September Sale.
The trainer had never lost faith in Afleet Alex; had just needed to wait until he went out of fashion. Even so, he couldn't believe it when this one slipped through the cracks.
“Texas Red was a stunning physical,” Brehm says. “But by that stage nobody was going to pinhook an Afleet Alex, that ship had sailed, so he was relegated to the back of the book. Keith has such a great eye–he picked Texas Red, he picked Exaggerator (Curlin), he picked many others. And he saw a perfect horse that everybody else ignored, back of day nine, and it just happened that nobody came back at $17,000. It's funny: it's never been asked, and I never even thought about it until right now. How high would Keith have gone? Interesting. I'll have to ask him that the next time we talk.”
Texas Red was denied the 2-year-old championship only by American Pharoah (Pioneerof The Nile), who had laid down his Triple Crown marker in the GI FrontRunner S. over the same circuit as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Texas Red closed for third that day.
“But there's one interesting stat that everybody leaves out,” says Brehm. “We all know that luck takes a big part in this game. We got a bad break that day. Not that that's an excuse, but running the same mile and 1/16th at the Breeders' Cup, we actually ran faster. Unfortunately [their next encounter] in the Travers, Red hit the gate and hurt himself, and American Pharaoh didn't have his best race either. So we never had a day where both American Pharaoh and Texas Red were at the top of their game. I think that would have been really spectacular.”
Regardless, Texas Red gave hope to everyone. He showed that a second-week scavenger can still beat the Book 1 tycoons with Hip 2703. Brehm had transferred his regular Breeders' Cup house party–a gloriously ritualized jamboree of golf, poker, gambling, food and drink–from his home outside Dallas to Santa Anita.
“And I don't think we're over it yet,” he says. “I mean, it was just the most jubilation you can imagine. My wife, my family, my kids were all there, friends I grew up with in Chicago. And then when we won, it was just crazy. I mean, you just can't imagine that happened.
“Where I grew up in Chicago, we didn't even have grass. I had a bus line on my street. But when I was in pre-med at college, a friend and I would study every night till 10:00 and then we'd go out to the harness track, which was open until midnight, and bet the last two or three races.”
Actually, they proved pretty hot on their trifectas, but a more reliable income was required upon graduation and Brehm became a respiratory therapist.
“But I was working shifts from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” he recalls. “And it didn't take me long, seeing the sales guys strolling in, to decide that they had a much better life. So I switched to medical sales, started my own company a couple of times. One or two failed, but then I had one that was successful, in laser rentals, and I sold it.”
He has since remained in the cardiovascular field, while his own heart became ever more consumed with Thoroughbreds. Among horsemen, of course, there is growing curiosity about cardiac capacity, but Brehm's immersion goes far beyond what he feels to be a marginal crossover.
“I would say it's a piece of it, but if you have the greatest heart on earth and don't have the mind, you're not going to succeed,” he says. “We've talked about this, some of my horse partners–one is a cardiologist in Montreal, and another's a transplant surgeon in Toronto–and the feeling is that the tests they're using on horses right now aren't really significant to us.
“I think where it all became fun was when my wife and I came to Texas. There was no racing, gambling was illegal, and so we started going to sales, we read everything we could, and after about 10 years we bought a mare. A daughter of Seattle Slew. And actually the first time we picked the stallion, which was Citidancer in Maryland, the foal turned out a stakes horse. From that point on, we were going to be in the game one way or another.”
Now Brehm hopes the wheel can turn again. Not just for himself, his family and friends; nor just for Desormeaux. He wants others out there to mine the same seam; for the word to spread that Texas Red, having already proved himself a conduit of unsuspected brilliance as a $17,000 yearling, is now going to do much the same as a $10,000 stallion. Perhaps he can even extend his Eclipse Award rivalry with American Pharoah to their second career.
“What the market is looking for is big, correct, precocious horses,” he says. “And Texas Red was an almost perfect physical, and he was precocious. But he didn't come from War Front, he didn't come from A.P. Indy, so his good-looking babies were pushed to the back of the catalog–just like he was. We don't have the numbers, so obviously it's going to be harder. But if we continue to do the right things, I think we can match up in [percentage] performance. Yes, Pharaoh got off to a great start, but hopefully Red's now doing the same.”
Brehm casts his mind back to the day he bought back My Girl Red.
“Unless you're a bazillionaire–and I'm not–you're trying to make a business work,” he muses. “And it's a challenge. But we've hung in. My wife Janet has been spectacular: she's always supported me, never questioned my commitment to the game, even my occasional over-commitment. My son Erich Jr. is also extremely involved; he manages two racing partnerships himself. But a lot of people have helped me along the way: Keith, April, Lisa, Archie St. George. And I think they're really happy for me because they know what I went through to get here.
“I guess you look at My Girl Red and say that's pretty lucky. But there's two kinds of luck, good and bad, and we've had our share of both. When a horse who's been perfect up until that morning flips at the track and crushes his skull, you're like, 'How did that happen?' But when you buy a $17,000 yearling and he wins the Breeders' Cup, you're like, 'How did that happen?!' We've been very lucky, no doubt about it. But I mean, it wasn't without a lot of effort. I tried a lot of different things. So I think there's a part of it where you make your luck too.”