By Chris McGrath
It is now a decade since John Sikura was walking through a Lexington steakhouse and glimpsed, on a screen over the bar, a bay colt coasting clear of his pursuers with sparks coming from his heels: :21.24, :43.48, 1:07.44.
He was puzzled: it wasn't yet the weekend, and he wasn't aware of any stakes being run that day. Seven lengths in a hand ride. Then they told him that this was just a maiden race out at Santa Anita. Sikura couldn't believe his ears. He wasn't alone: a 114 Beyer for this son of Distorted Humor was the highest ever awarded for a debut.
To Sikura, this was an epiphany comparable to the time he was making a fishing trip in Argentina and hooked Candy Ride (Arg) running a mile in 1:31 flat. In the event, that horse would only start his stud career at Sikura's farm before moving on; but Maclean's Music has conversely initiated a relationship, with breeder Barbara Banke of Stonestreet, that has meanwhile only strengthened through the arrival at Hill 'n' Dale of Curlin, Good Magic and Kantharos.
Sikura remembers arranging to meet Banke and her advisor John Moynihan at the September Sale and asking himself how he could adequately convey his zeal, despite the fractured splint bone that had confined Maclean's Music to that single, dazzling excursion. After all, Banke had herself shown extraordinary belief in retaining the colt at $900,000 as a yearling; and Sikura's soundings with the horse's trainer had drawn a commensurate endorsement.
“Steve [Asmussen] told me that this was not only the fastest horse that he's ever trained,” Sikura recalls. “He said, 'This is the fastest horse I've ever seen.' And from someone like Steve, that really stuck with me. I felt bound and determined to buy that horse, because I believed him to be a supernatural talent. It took about two years of conversation. And when the horse was finally retired, I made what I thought at the time a ridiculous offer–as if he was a Grade I horse. But what you bid should show your commitment. So we struck a deal quickly. I jokingly say that I know I offered too much, because once I made the offer, we discussed everything else–but we never discussed money again.”
Yet whatever Sikura put on the table that day is now proving good value. For one thing, he felt certain that Maclean's Music, but for his injury, would have put himself way beyond reach. As it was, Sikura and his partners started Maclean's Music at just $6,500. Last Saturday, two of his sons finished a street clear of the rest in a stirring duel for the GI Woody Stephens S. The winner, Drain The Clock, is his fourth at the elite level. The first, of course, had been 2017 GI Preakness S. scorer Cloud Computing from his debut crop.
Over the years, the example of Danzig has inspired many failed speculations on talents that had flared only briefly on the track. But Maclean's Music, now up to $25,000, already has Cloud Computing and Complexity at stud; while the two protagonists at Belmont, Drain The Clock and Jackie's Warrior, will presumably follow them in due course. Other recent credits include a first graded stakes success, after consecutive Grade I podiums, for Estilo Talentoso; and a :55.3 track record for Pimlico stakes winner Firecrow. All this when priced for mares who could bring little to the table.
But then one of Sikura's axioms has always been that “the genetic switch” is either on or off. “I think Quick Temper (A.P. Indy) was 16, she'd never had a black-type horse,” he notes. “And then she has a Preakness winner. Complexity's dam is by Yes It's True. Okay, a good broodmare sire, and he was a lovely type–but I didn't see Grade I. Jackie's Warrior is out of an A.P. Five Hundred mare. So credit to the horse, these mares have just been a conduit of his success.”
And whereas Into Mischief was required to seal his rise by stretching his trademark speed to Classic distances, Maclean's Music had addressed that challenge straight off the bat with Cloud Computing. True, his highest achievers since have been dashers, consistent with the overall branding of his family: his remarkable dam Forest Music (Unbridled's Song), who last year came up with her third graded stakes winner in Uncle Chuck (Uncle Mo), made all in the GII Honorable Miss and extends a branch of the Lady Be Good (Better Self) dynasty also decorated by the dashing sprinter Mining (Mr. Prospector).
Remarkably, despite soaring to 181 mares in 2017 after clocking 20 winners from just 40 freshman starters, Maclean's Music had slumped to 57 by last year–and of these, Sikura supplied maybe 35. Fortunately, that bumper 2018 crop is the one that has already produced Drain The Clock and Jackie's Warrior. It seems safe to say that Maclean's Music has now ridden out the bump in his road.
“This year we've had more than 300 requests to breed the horse,” Sikura reveals. “His fee will definitely rise next year: I believe he's emerging as an important young sire that has proven he can get the utmost quality without the coveted mares. And when a horse like this starts breeding graded winners, or three dams deep in black type, then the possibilities are endless. He's getting patronage from serious breeders that hadn't considered the horse before.”
That, he stresses, is not intended as criticism. After all, he himself didn't use Into Mischief until he had reached $100,000. Yet everyone in the business knows that Sikura mixes his colors on a different palette. Yes, he knows that the sums will only add up if you ultimately achieve commercial traction. As he often says: “The market is always right–even when you disagree with it.” Nonetheless a different mindset is required when prospecting for stallions. Otherwise you find yourself in a long line for the obvious horse, with the last guy standing guaranteed to have overbid.
“Everything I do in my life, every time I have big decisions to make, I try very hard not to listen to the chatter,” Sikura remarks. “Without being reckless, I think you have to believe in yourself and heed your intuition. That's the way I've always been: I'm not driven by projections, or odds. I've certainly been wrong plenty of times, and will be wrong again. But when it's all over, I wouldn't have changed anything. Because making decisions that way has served me well even in defeat. The reward is always the journey. Successes are only fleeting. But my failures, my disappointments, have taught me lessons. If you're in the middle of the road, you're going to get run over by a car going one direction or the other. So you have to act and think boldly.”
Not that he senses any imperative to quirkiness or unorthodoxy. Charlatan, for instance, he notes as a very obvious specimen–and, sure enough, potentially the best he has ever recruited for the farm. But what Sikura does resent is when that herd mentality denies a stallion a fair chance to show his potential. He wants people to think for themselves. Deriding their meek obedience to trends, he recalls a period when every middle-aged man of his acquaintance bought a Harley Davidson and smoked Cuban cigars. (Never mind that some dude in Miami had stuck on a fake label.)
“And when most breeders hear the same opinion often enough, they start to think it's their opinion too,” he says. “It's against human nature to be independent: to support a horse until your belief is either proven out, or proven wrong. We have such a commercial business, everybody wants to be so current that they ignore a body of work. Yet the reality of breeding to a stallion who's hot in 2021 is that your foal will not be born until 2022, or sold until 2023. And by then all the drive behind him will most likely have transferred to another horse of the moment.”
Any horse can have a good or bad year. Sikura feels they get overpraised for one, overpunished for the other. Like so many of us, he is depressed by a “travelling caravan” from one new stallion to the next; by the stigma of familiarity against the proven horse; by breeders paying extra for the unknown, only to find themselves competing with each other on a flooded market.
But every now and then you get a young stallion that does make it over the crossroads. At 13, Maclean's Music now looks like he is the latest to weave through the traffic of fashion. “You can't pinpoint the moment,” Sikura says. “There's just a sort of energy in the pavilion that changes.” Sure enough, the top colt of the opening session at OBS this week was a $350,000 Maclean's Music that had failed to meet his reserve as a $6,000 weanling.
It's a rare stallion, though, that can beat the odds in an environment where farms must throw so many incentives into getting people aboard. Sikura feels that a left-field proposition like Lost Treasure would have been given a far better numerical opportunity 10 years ago. Nonetheless he will keep rolling the dice, for instance by backing Army Mule just the way he did Maclean's Music.
“I have to be very cautious, very selective, in doing anything 'obscure,'” he accepts. “Because I will have to do all the heavy lifting myself. If it works out, good. But it's a lot of time, money and effort to invest, if the only believer is yourself. Do that too often, and you'll go broke finding the mares to prove a point. And I'm not just trying to be contrary or counterintuitive.”
When things do work out, however, there is a corresponding sense of fulfilment. “It is rewarding,” Sikura says. “If the odd time you're the only one with that strong belief, then you should go for it. Because most good horses, there's a story behind them. It wasn't easy or obvious, wasn't always A.P. Indy topping the sale. American Pharaoh was out of a Yankee Gentleman mare. So many good horses come from a place where opinion hasn't identified them–but they've always been right there. So the only thing changing is the momentum of support.
“There will be mockery and ridicule, usually from those that never take risks or were born with enough that they really don't have to create for themselves. But my passion and my commitment will always take priority over commerce. If you do it right, commerce follows.”
Especially if people see that you have done something once, and then do it again. They figure that you might just keep doing it. That applies as much to maverick horsemen, like Jim Bolger, as to stallions themselves.
“I think every year it gets harder,” Sikura concedes. “Every year opinions narrow. But I was taught to be authentic–in what you do, and in the business that represents who you are–and that's the way I want to stay. I'm not saying it's enlightened or better or smarter. It's just my way. You have one life to live. And this is a hard business. But it's one where you can express yourself uniquely. You can find the mare that piques your interest in Book 6 as well as Book 1. And I think it's more enriching if you can make your own path rather than follow the trodden highway all the time.
“You can set trends or follow them. But when you follow them, the opportunity to make money is gone. I always say that when everybody knows, it's too late. Maclean's Music was possibly a reckless pursuit. But there's a very pure litmus test: his offspring competes against the offspring of others, and we can judge them on performance. A smalltown kid that shows up in the big city won't get much initial opportunity. But the one that eventually wins out is recognized for what he is. So for Maclean's Music I hope this is just the beginning.”