By Sid Fernando
I called the elite bloodstock agent Donato Lanni last Wednesday only to tell him I'd call him again Sunday and to expect my call. I was fortunate he picked up, because he was on a golf course enjoying a rare day off following a busy Keeneland September sale where he'd purchased a number of million-dollar yearlings among many others. When we made plans to speak again, neither of us mentioned why I'd be calling. I didn't want to jinx him, with Cave Rock (Arrogate), War Like Goddess (English Channel), and Moira (Ghostzapper) entered in three Grade l races Saturday at Santa Anita, Belmont-at-Aqueduct, and Woodbine, respectively.
The weekend was almost perfect for Lanni, except for the hex that jockey Rafael Hernandez put on Moira in the Gl E.P. Taylor S., choosing the wrong path for her at a crucial stage in the race. Turning for home, Moira was behind five runners fanned ahead of her, and Hernandez, looking for a seam, chose to go inside where there was no room. In the process, he nearly took down Peter Brant's Lemista (Ire), who checked hard. Once on the rail, Moira still had nowhere to advance until late in the stretch, and by the time Hernandez slipped her through a narrow gap, the finish was fast approaching. Rougir (Ire), owned by Brant and Michael Tabor, nailed her by a neck, flying uninterrupted on the outside. No surprise, Moira was disqualified from second to eighth, but with a clean run she may well have proven the best in the race.
Lanni was still steaming on Sunday when we spoke. He'd purchased Moira for $150,000 at Keeneland September two years ago for a group of Canadian horsemen and friends who race as X-Men Racing. Lanni clients Madaket Racing and SF Racing, who are a part of the “Avengers” group that race colts with Bob Baffert, are co-owners. “Brant's filly could have gotten hurt, and I'm worried about our filly,” Lanni said of the incident.
The local E.P. Taylor was carefully chosen for Moira to get Grade l black-type on her resume.
“She was like a greyhound as a yearling, a long-distance type for turf and all-weather, not a horse for dirt. She's a classy filly, but not a typical Ghostzapper physically. Ghostzapper looked like a miler, he could sprint and go a mile and a quarter. She's not that way.”
Bred in Canada by Adena Springs and trained by Kevin Attard, the 3-year-old had previously raced exclusively on Woodbine's all-weather course against other Canadian-breds her age, but blowout wins in the Woodbine Oaks and the Queen's Plate against colts suggested she was something special. That was confirmed in the E.P. Taylor, regardless of the outcome. The race was Moira's first start on turf, her first against open company, and her first against elders, and she proved she belongs. She's now won four of six starts and earned $908,682. Rougir was a Group 1 winner in Europe last year and was purchased by Brant and Tabor at Arqana for the equivalent of $3.4 million.
War Like Goddess
War Like Goddess, trained by Bill Mott for owner George Krikorian, is a 5-year-old mare. She defeated males in the Gl Joe Hirsch Turf Classic S. and goes next in the Gl Breeders' Cup Turf. A winner of nine of 12 starts and $1,612,184, the daughter of English Channel was bred by Calumet, sold for $1,200 as a weanling at Keeneland November, was unsold as a $1,000 RNA at Keeneland September, and made $30,000 at OBS June when Lanni bought her.
“You just don't see too many English Channels showing up at an OBS 2-year-old sale,” Lanni said. “That's not what they're supposed to do. They are long on the grass. Anyway, she shows up and works and goes in like :10 2/5 and does really well. She's got a great stride and great action, but she comes back and she's got some pretty good shins on her. They were pretty big. I call them summer shins–shins that last all summer. And so I said to myself, there's only one guy I know who'd take this filly, meaning you need to be patient with her and give her time, and that was George Krikorian. I hadn't bought him a horse in a long time, so I called him.”
Lanni developed a relationship with Krikorian during his early days in Kentucky at Texan Johnny T.L. Jones Jr.'s Walmac International, which stood standouts Nureyev and Alleged among other well-known stallions. An outsized figure with a grin as big as his personality, Johnny Jones also gave Lane's End Bloodstock's David Ingordo, WTC's Frances J. Karon, Stonestreet advisor and agent John Moynihan, and Four Star's Kerry Cauthen a home at one time or another.
“[George Krikorian] was the first guy who ever let me buy him a horse where I actually got paid a commission for buying the horse,” Lanni said. “That was Starrer in 1999 at Fasig-Tipton. We'd gotten to be friends, he said he trusted me, likes me, and said if I see anything I like, buy it.
“When I found Starrer, I called him and said I found him a filly, and he said to just buy it and hung up. I'm in my mid-20s, and I'm like, 'What does that mean, just buy it?' I'm nervous. I don't have a signed agent agreement, I don't have any money, and what do I do If this guy walks away from me?”
Lanni paid $35,000 for the yearling Starrer, a daughter of Dynaformer who became a multiple Grade l winner for Krikorian and trainer John Shirreffs, earning $1,043,033 through four seasons.
“He's been my longtime friend and a client since. He's the greatest,” Lanni said.
Undefeated Cave Rock appears to be the leading 2-year-old colt heading to the Breeders' Cup. The son of Arrogate won the Gl American Pharoah S. at Santa Anita impressively–his second top-level win from three starts–and has now earned $408,000 for trainer Baffert and the “Three Amigos” partnership of Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman. Bred by Anne and Ronnie Sheffer Racing, Cave Rock was a $550,000 Keeneland September yearling.
After the Walmac stint, Lanni went next to John Sikura's Hill 'n' Dale, where he was a longtime presence until Sikura moved the Hill 'n' Dale operation to Xalapa a few years ago. It was through Sikura that Lanni established a relationship with Baffert, and it's under the Baffert banner that Lanni's reputation has grown.
“[Baffert] is not just an amazing horse trainer and person, he's also amazing at finding young horses at auction,” Lanni said. “He's been great at that forever, and he's taught me a lot. I can't ever take credit for what I do with Bob, because Bob is instrumental, but we work together closely and it's a team effort. I don't buy a horse for Bob if he doesn't agree.”
They agreed on Cave Rock.
Lanni said, “If he was a first-crop Arrogate, he would have made seven figures. He was amazing, he was beautiful. He had beautiful bone, he was correct, he had a great hind leg. But last year, no one wanted an Arrogate.”
Because the Avengers are usually looking for colts by proven sires to turn into stallions, Cave Rock didn't fit the profile, but he was a natural for the Three Amigos.
“Bob and Mike have been together from the beginning, and when we shop the sales, those guys are always ready to buy,” Lanni said. “They don't care about sires, they don't care about pedigrees, they want physicals and they want runners.”
Avengers and X-Men
Why Avengers and X-Men? Lanni said the Avengers nickname came about as convenient shorthand to refer to the string of owners in the SF/Madaket/Starlight group.
“And the reason I came up with Avengers is that my daughters and I watch all those Marvel movies, and I love them,” he said. “And it's great because everybody has a certain talent that they bring to the table, and it fit the group.”
When buying for the Avengers–a team effort with the principals, Lanni stressed–the criteria gets more specific: proven sires like Into Mischief, Quality Road, etc., and the physiques that will handle training and racing on dirt at the highest levels. “Tom [Ryan] put the Avengers together. It's Tom's masterpiece, and it's a great team.”
The SF/Madaket/Starlight group was a minority shareholder with WinStar and China Horse Club in Triple Crown winner Justify, who was purchased at Keeneland September for $500,000 and sold for $75 million to Coolmore in 2018. After breaking away and enlisting Lanni, the Avengers struck gold again at Keeneland that year, buying three of the 25 colts that would go on to win Grade l races from the catalogue: Eight Rings, a $520,000 yearling who was sold to Coolmore for $10 million; Charlatan, a $700,000 purchase that was sold to stand at Hill 'n' Dale for $10 million; and Horse of the Year and Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Authentic, who was purchased for $350,000 and sold to Spendthrift at a valuation of $36 million.
There were 10 fillies catalogued in the sale that also won Grade l races, and though Lanni didn't buy them there, he did buy two of them at the juvenile sales: Gamine, with Baffert, for $1.8 million at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic; and the previously mentioned War Like Goddess, for $30,000 at OBS June.
Lanni is from Canada, where he cut his teeth with Standardbreds, and some of his friends in the X-Men partnership for which Moira races go back a ways with him from those days. Lanni said Moira was one of seven yearlings he purchased for the first X-Men partnership. For the second batch, 2-year-olds this year, he already has Grade l winner Last Call, another English Channel filly. Bred by English Channel Co-Owners & Jodi Cantwell, Last Call, also co-owned by SF, was bought for $30,000 at Keeneland September last year and won the Natalma S. at Woodbine last month.
“I shop the entire catalog, from the first day to the last,” Lanni said. “I don't want to miss a single horse, and you never know where you'll find that good one.”
He seems to have a knack for finding them wherever they are, in all price ranges.
Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.