Taking Stock: Quality of Baffert and Hancock with The Avengers

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Quality Road | Sarah Andrew

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Bob Baffert is banned from Churchill Downs for two years and his 3-year-olds are ineligible for points in qualifying races for the Gl Kentucky Derby and Gl Kentucky Oaks. He may also get banned (again) from NYRA, which hosts the Gl Belmont S., which could leave only the Gl Preakness open to horses from his barn. So perhaps it's appropriate that he won a race over the weekend–the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate–that gives the winner a guaranteed entry to the middle leg of the Triple Crown.

Blackadder, a son of top sire Quality Road, won the listed race in the colors of Sol Kumin's Madaket Stable from Mackinnon, an American Pharoah colt also flying the Madaket silks but trained by Doug O'Neill. If you haven't noticed, the Madaket silks are ubiquitous across the country these days, particularly in Baffert's barn, which is loaded with well-bred Triple Crown hopefuls belonging to “The Avengers” partnership that includes many entities, headed by principals SF Bloodstock, Madaket, and Starlight Racing. Aside from the three named, Blackadder, a $620,000 Keeneland September yearling, is owned by Robert E. Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital, Catherine Donovan, Golconda Stable, and Siena Farm. All of the 3-year-olds owned by this group run either in the colors of Madaket or Starlight, and they have become a familiar sight in the winner's circle of quite a few Derby preps lately.

Blackadder is the latest. The colt, who was bred in Kentucky by Arthur Hancock III's Stone Farm, won the race with a rousing finish, and the farm was quick to tweet the news of its latest stakes winner. Stone Farm also bred Baffert's 2019 Gl Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster, another son of Quality Road who was on the Triple Crown trail for the Speedway Stable of Peter Fluor and K.C. Weiner, with Hancock retaining a 10% interest. Speedway picked up an Eclipse Award last week when its undefeated colt Corniche, also by Quality Road and trained by Baffert to win the Gl Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Gl American Pharoah S. last year, was named the champion juvenile male for 2021–the third Eclipse winner for his sire after champion juvenile filly Caledonia Road and champion 3-year-old filly Abel Tasman.

Baffert trained Abel Tasman, the 2017 Kentucky Oaks winner, for China Horse Club and breeder Clearsky Farm, and he clearly has an affinity for the offspring of the Lane's End-based sire, who stands for $150,000 live foal this year. One reason for this is that the Quality Roads like West Coast tracks. Baffert also trained the Quality Road son Klimt for Kaleem Shah when that colt won the Gl Del Mar Futurity in 2016.

All told, Baffert has trained two of Quality Road's three champions, and four of the stallion's 12 Grade l winners to date, and any owner or breeder with a classic hopeful by Quality Road in Baffert's barn would be understandably hyped. At the end of the day, winning championships and races at the highest level boost bloodstock values, and that's what it's all about to owners and breeders who play at the top of the market.

Abel Tasman, for instance, won six Grade l races and earned nearly $2.8 million on the track but made the ultimate score when selling for $5 million as a broodmare prospect at the 2019 Keeneland January sale. Likewise, the breeding rights to Corniche have already been sold for $17 million, I've been told, even though the colt is unlikely to make the Derby after a lengthy freshening. And that's miniscule compared to the more than $100 million for the breeding rights generated together by the Baffert-trained Justify (Scat Daddy) and Authentic (Into Mischief)–the former a Triple Crown winner, the latter a Derby winner, and both Horses of the Year. SF, Madaket, and Starlight were involved in Justify and Authentic, as they were in Charlatan (Speightstown), another Baffert trainee whose breeding rights made significant millions. There are several others as well, and it's one reason why the group has been loyal to Baffert through the trainer's recent travails.

Hancock connection

Blackadder isn't the only colt for the SF/Madaket/Starlight group with Baffert with a Stone Farm/Quality Road connection. On Jan. 21, the Quality Road 3-year-old Armagnac, flying the Madaket silks and under the same ownership as Blackadder, won a mile and a sixteenth maiden special at Santa Anita by 2 1/4 lengths in his second start. He appears to be another with future stakes potential. Armagnac was bred in Kentucky by Stone Farm and Joseph W. Sutton, and he was purchased by the SF group at the 2020 Keeneland September sale for $210,000 from the same Stone Farm consignment as Blackadder, as mentioned earlier a $620,000 buy.

There's no question that Arthur Hancock knows how to breed and raise a good horse at Stone Farm. He raised Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence, stood his sire, Halo, and raced him with trainer Charlie Whittingham and another partner before selling him to Zenya Yoshida for a reported $10 million (after initially selling a quarter of the 1989 Horse of the Year to Yoshida for $2.25 million in early 1990 when the colt was four); bred and raced 1982 Derby winner Gato del Sol with Leon J. Peters; bred with Peters and sold 1988 Preakness and Belmont S. winner Risen Star; and bred with Stonerside and sold Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus for $4 million at the 1998 Keeneland July sale, among others of note. And he's raced more than a few partnership horses in the Derby aside from the colts mentioned, including homebreds Menifee, who lost the Derby by a neck in 1999; and Strodes Creek, a Whittingham-trained colt who was second in the 1994 Derby.

A savvy commercial breeder with a great understanding of the potential of winning big races on the values of sires, dams, and female families, Hancock has tasted Derby success doing things his way and knows how the sausage gets made with the right trainer, such as a Charlie Whittingham, at the helm.

After Fluor and Weiner, clients and friends of Baffert, purchased Roadster for $525,000 from the 2017 Stone Farm consignment at Keeneland September, they offered Hancock the opportunity to stay in for 10%, and Hancock took them up because he was well in the black on the colt and was high on his chances for success. He'd bred Roadster when the Ned Evans-raced Quality Road was standing for just $35,000, and he'd purchased the colt's dam, Ghost Dancing, a few years earlier from the Ned Evans dispersal for $220,000, in foal to Candy Ride (Arg).

The Candy Ride, named Ascend, was gelded and initially raced by Hancock with Graham Motion, but sometime in 2016 when Ascend was four, Madaket became a partner in the gelding with Hancock. In 2017, a few months before Roadster was sold at Keeneland, Ascend won the Gl Manhattan at Belmont, which was pivotal in enhancing Roadster's value at auction.

After Roadster won the Santa Anita Derby–defeating Baffert's juvenile champ, Game Winner–and was headed to Churchill Downs, Hancock was sitting pretty because his mare Ghost Dancing was now the dam of two Grade l winners, something that would greatly enhance the value of her Twirling Candy yearling; and Hancock had a minority stake in a potential Derby winner, trained by Baffert.

In an interview with Zoe Cadman in the week before the 2019 Derby, Hancock was asked about his trainer, who'd won five Derbys at the time, including two Triple Crowns, and he said: “I can see, just being around Bob, his record speaks for itself. I told him the other day, you're Charlie junior, talking about Charlie Whittingham. He laughed.”

Unfortunately, Roadster finished 16th of 19, but, thanks to Baffert, he did have that Grade l on his resume, which helped Hancock later that year when his Twirling Candy half-brother made $950,000 at Keeneland September. Twirling Candy's stud fee the year the colt was conceived was $20,000.

Blackadder is from the Pulpit mare Chapel, a Hancock homebred from a family he has cultivated through generations. Baffert jumpstarted this mare and her family as well, training Chapel's first foal, the Hancock-bred Quality Road filly Gingham. She'd been purchased by Sarah Kelly for $420,000 from the Stone Farm consignment at Keeneland September in 2018.

For Baffert, Gingham won a listed race at Santa Anita and was Grade ll-placed and Grade lll-placed, earning $214,000. The black type helped her realize a price of $1 million at the 2020 Keeneland November sale as a broodmare prospect.

Moreover, her black-type success with Baffert obviously contributed to SF/Madaket/Starlight paying Hancock $620,000 for her full brother, who is now a black-type winner himself and one with a pedigree suggesting further improvement. With two Quality Road stakes winners on her resume, Chapel's value has skyrocketed, especially as she was bred to Quality Road for a 2022 foal.

But with the Baffert runners out of the Derby as things now stand and the Avengers group showing no signs of switching trainers to make the Derby despite holding a full house of promising candidates, the financial ramifications for the ownership group potentially extend to the breeders of these colts as well.

That's something that must be disappointing for Hancock and others.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

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