By Chris McGrath
Taken a chance on a cheap mare at the November sale? What are your thoughts, now, as you lean against the fence and watch her figuring out the hierarchy among her new companions? Did you really see something, when she stood up on that rostrum, that everybody else missed?
Turn back the clock three years, and that was just what Troy Rankin and his son Cody were asking themselves, after taking a 4-year-old daughter of Kitten's Joy up the road from Keeneland to their home on Paris Pike.
Tollgate Farm comprises 165 acres and, between the cattle and the grain, the number of mares on the site never exceeds a dozen, and has often been closer to half that. The Thoroughbreds fit in where they can. For some years Troy actually trained a few, and he knows that you can break one in over a plowed acre as well as anywhere.
“I had a horse, we raced him in the West Virginia Derby,” he remembers. “And he galloped out here around the cornfield.”
They took an Indiana-bred to the Breeders' Cup once, at Santa Anita in 2012. They had driven I'm Boundtoscore (Even The Score) up to Woodbine to win the GII Summer S. Having found the dam for $10,000, Troy was registered as breeder, co-owner, trainer. Sadly the horse pulled a suspensory in the Juvenile Turf, and finished last.
That's what tends to happen, in this game, when your dreams run ahead of your dollars. So what could he realistically hope of this new mare, Flirt, and the Declaration of War foal in her belly?
If she really had fallen through the cracks, well, she had nearly slipped their grasp too. Carrie Brogden had made them a shortlist, as usual. With everything else to manage on the farm, they're just too busy to be browsing pedigrees, cover sires, sales records. Troy went to see the young mare, who had only managed a single start but had realized $375,000 in the same ring as a yearling. She had an aristocratic maternal line, after all, tracing to Moccasin and Rough Shod; and was built accordingly.
“Oh, she had all the goods,” Troy recalls. “She was a good-looking broodmare: good size, good bone, everything was correct.”
But that comes at a price. “We were thinking she might be in the $50,000 range,” Cody says. “Which was more than we wanted to pay for what looked an all-turf pedigree.”
So Troy had put her out of his mind, was shooting the breeze with someone, when Cody came running up. “That mare's not bringing anything!” he exclaimed.
Cody joined at $6,000, and the hammer came down at $8,000. “I think she just kind of got overpowered,” he says. “And Declaration of War was a bit spotty at the time. But he was still $35,000 when she was covered. And now she wasn't even going to bring home the stud fee. If she'd been in a later book, maybe…”
But then that's what they try to do. “They might be too early in the sale, or in foal to an undesirable stallion, or a bubble-year stallion,” Cody explains. “At our level, we've got to compromise on something.”
“Later in the sale, she'd have been more of a standout,” Troy adds. “I'm sure she was in there to appeal to the Europeans, and sometimes they're not there for them, you know. Anyway that's the way we looked at it; that's how we try and find those bargain buys.”
And, as things turned out, her foal alone would make Flirt a shrewd play. True, she only delivered her colt on Apr. 27 and, for a while, it showed. He appeared no more than “average” as a foal. Brogden or her colleagues at the time at Select Sales would come round and shake their heads: “Well, he just needs more time. We'll push him back.”
So he was scratched from the weanling auction. “But as we got through the summer, he just began to blossom,” Cody recalls. “He always had a lot of height to him, but he began to fill out and the closer we got to the [September] Sale, the better he did.”
And then, on the middle weekend of the sale, Flirt received an exceptionally timely boost. Her dam Gamely Girl (Arch) had herself been covered by Declaration of War, and the resulting colt Decorated Invader had recently broken his maiden at Saratoga. Now he proceeded to win the Summer S. (elevated to Grade I status since Rankin had won it).
By the second Thursday, then, Flirt's son was subject of an unusual level of interest for Book 5. He was knocked down to Three Diamonds Farm for $97,000. Stop the story right there, and the $8,000 mare has already worked out a treat.
“We were pleased how everything lined up,” says Troy. “I mean, we couldn't believe how they were already getting off of Declaration of War. Because when they hit the track, they were knocking it out.”
The buyers, moreover, were bound to send the colt to a barn where he had every shot. Sure enough, Mike Maker launched him at Saratoga. Though beaten on debut, he showed a deal of promise. And, since then, he has outrun the odds every time. First he won an off-the-turf stakes at Saratoga; and then he made off with the GII Pilgrim S. at Belmont. Albeit he controlled an easy pace that day, he had earned a gate in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf presented by Coolmore America. And so it was that the Rankins were among the privileged few admitted to their local track to watch Flirt's baby, Fire At Will, clear away at 30-1.
“Oh, it's been a beautiful ride,” Troy said. “Maker said, all the way up to the Breeders' Cup, that we hadn't seen the bottom of that horse. He just didn't know how much better he was going to get! My family all went with me. Out of our small broodmare band, our second runner in that race. That was quite an honor for us.”
They had, moreover, already decided to put Flirt into the Fasig-Tipton Sale after the Breeders' Cup, Decorated Invader having meanwhile confirmed himself among the premier grass sophomores in the land-a status he bids to consolidate in the
GI Hollywood Derby this weekend. Fire At Will's participation at the Breeders' Cup was a bonus roll of the dice. In the event, with the ink barely dry on that astonishing upgrade, Flirt was sold through Brogden's Machmer Hall Sales to Meridian International for $500,000.
“We'd had offers for the mare, when Decorated Invader started doing so well,” Troy explains. “But not really for more than we had already sold babies out of her. So we said we'll go on. And after seeing Fire At Will in his maiden race, in tough traffic, we thought he could be a serious horse.”
Emotions were high as she entered the ring. “Oh, yeah, everything in the world goes through your mind,” Troy reflects. “But I guess at the same time, you're humbled to have had the experience. And Maker thinks he's a dirt horse as well!”
Indeed, Cody is already monitoring Fire At Will's odds in the Derby wagering pool. Because while Flirt has now left the farm, they still have his weanling half-brother by Mendelssohn. Like his sibling, he will be sold as a yearling.
“Again, he has all the components but they just blossom that bit later,” Troy explains. “We know that, so there's no point in leaving anything on the table I guess. He's a lot like Fire At Will in how you handle him, and how he goes along with everything. He's growing, but he already has that look that people pick him out. We had an agent here looking at another horse and he picked him out of the field, not knowing anything about him.”
Stories like Flirt shouldn't be romanticized. Plenty of horsemen work extremely hard, every day of every year; and plenty of them take a shot on the odd mare that might have missed her market. The Rankins have been doing so for years: trading one or two in, one or two out. But they know that toil and even skill are together only two-thirds of the deal; that everyone needs to get lucky, also. Certainly they won't let this coup go to their heads.
“We might add a mare or two, but we like the level that we play at,” Troy reasons. “We're confident at that level, and think we do a good job at it. Yes, what has happened is a game-changer–just in your everyday life. But I don't think that we'll be trying to step up a level. We bought four new mares in November, and we'll be selling a couple or three as normal too.”
Besides, having always pinhooked younger horses as well, they find themselves with unsold yearlings out of the Covid marketplace. So there will be a return to racing, as well, albeit Troy won't be doing the training himself this time.
“I was fortunate enough, when I started [training] in 2008, to have three good horses that I raised,” he says. “They took me to the East Coast, the West Coast and the South. After that, they said: 'How come you're going to quit?' I said, 'Well, I've had beginner's luck–and I don't know how you beat that!'”
Troy Rankin has paid his dues. He watched his father raise horses, selling them out of the field to a Canadian client. A school buddy, Jamie Bruin, rode over 2,000 winners–one of which was owned by Troy while still at high school, and trained by a cousin.
“After that I kind of got out of it,” Troy recalls. “To be honest with you, I didn't think I had the patience for it. And then I used to raise 300,000 lbs. of tobacco, and a lot of cattle. But with the tobacco buyout, I went and tried to learn my way back into the business. I just kept buying a mare here and there, just one or two at a time until I got back to where we are.
“When I decided to train, I had never ever been around anybody that trained. I'd had some bad luck with a horse who looked like he was going to be a real nice horse, down in Florida, but it ended up we had to put him to sleep. And I guess after that I figured I couldn't do any worse than a dead horse. So I tried to train them myself, and I had pretty good luck.”
Now that he again leaves training to others, he is at least grateful to tune out from “all the hollering about medication”.
“It worries me,” he says. “A good racehorse has to have maintenance. I think it's cruel if they don't. Now I'm not talking about snake oils and all that stuff. I'm talking about things a good racehorse needs, just like a football player needs to be a good athlete. I think racing could get caught up in a lot of turmoil if we don't look at those things.”
While there's nothing like dealing with Thoroughbreds every day to keep you humble, you have to believe that there is a point to what you are doing. That if you know your job, you can improve the odds.
“I do believe you can make your own luck, in the racing,” Troy says. “I think my advantage, training, was that I was smaller: I trained the individual. The way I looked at it, my job was just to keep the horse out of trouble. He would tell me what he could do, and what I needed to do.”
And he feels it's much the same in raising a horse.
“You can buy what looks like the best one in a sale, if you can afford it,” he says. “But it's going to take a lot of money, and there's no guarantees at that point. I once sold a horse at Saratoga for $300,000, and he went on to be no more than a claiming horse. But I think the breaks are there. I mean, you've got to do your due diligence. We have Carrie on our side, as the bloodstock person. I guess we know what the market is asking for. And we breed a sound horse. Our farm has the clay loam and limestone base. We can lay down bone on a horse just from our grass and soil.”
“We do it all ourselves,” Cody stresses. “We've just one other guy that helps us with the horses. So we're definitely more hands-on. We raise the horses to be runners. They don't get babied. It's survival of the fittest. I mean, they get taken care of. But we're giving them the background, the foundation to go forward, once they come off our farm. As much as possible, they're in big groups as long as they're outdoors. It's just trying to let nature grow them the best way it knows how.”
“And I enjoy it a lot,” emphasizes Troy. “I really love the racing. Unfortunately that's the very expensive part! With this mare, the stars just aligned. And what's happened is great for anybody who wants to play in the horse business, because we don't play at a big level. However small you have to play, I think there's always a level you can play the game.”