By Chris McGrath
By this stage, they've probably had enough of being asked about that $1 mare. But the remarkable thing is that the first Thoroughbred ever acquired by Robert and Stacy Mitchell still cost more (cover fees aside) than all the others that have stocked Briland Farm, on and off the racetrack, since 2001. That was the year, having begun an inadvertent breeding career with a mare discarded by a friend of a friend, they decided to see what they could do with one that cost as much as $36,000. Her name was Rockford Peach (Great Above) and, now a venerable 31, she grazes the same pasture that nourished her granddaughter Secret Oath (Arrogate) to become a brilliant winner of the GI Kentucky Oaks.
To a degree, the fact that the Mitchells haven't bought another mare since Rockford Peach simply reflects the intimate scale of a program as hands-on as they come. The most foals they have ever delivered (always in person) in a single breeding season is six. Many years, there were only one or two. But it's also consistent with the way they got into the business, “somewhat by accident” as Robert acknowledges. Because even when they had some remarkable early luck, breeding a couple of graded stakes winners from the mare introduced–at a famously nominal cost–as a companion for a retired Quarter Horse, they never imagined doing more than selling on the foals.
“But that probably shows just how naïve we were,” Robert suggests. “Because if you're in the breeding business, you tend to find you have ended up going into the racing business by default.”
Secret Oath herself is a case in point. She was entered for the Keeneland September Sale of 2020, but was scratched. Okay, so she was tall, she was narrow, she lacked the kind of substance demanded by the commercial market. But you know what, her dam Absinthe Minded (Quiet American) had been tall and narrow, too–and she had won three stakes besides placing in consecutive runnings of the GI Apple Blossom, banking over $600,000 across 35 starts.
At the time, even so, to keep Secret Oath for the racetrack hardly felt ideal. “I wasn't sure we made the right decision that day,” Robert admits.
“It's pretty upsetting, you know, to bring all your horses back from a sale,” agrees Stacy.
But the rest is history, their filly having given the 86-year-old D. Wayne Lukas the opportunity to remind the world of his undiminished genius after other bigger investors had in recent years neglected him for younger trainers. Now Lukas–who also trained Absinthe Minded–is priming Secret Oath for a potential decider with Nest (Curlin), the Churchill runner-up having won their rematch in the GI Coaching Club American Oaks, in the GI Alabama S. on Saturday week.
Not that the Mitchells are immune to the standard tribulations of the game. Indeed, Absinthe Minded was fortunate to survive the horrible labor in which she lost a Liam's Map foal, just a couple of weeks after her daughter had put the Mitchells on top of the world. That was only the second such casualty that Briland has ever endured, but the circumstances could hardly have been more bitter.
No need to dwell on that, obviously, nor on the equally personal matter that must be addressed in the coming weeks: namely, whether or not Secret Oath has now put herself beyond the Mitchells' program, in elevating her value to the point that she warrants the best covers that money can buy.
“Yet to be determined,” is Robert's succinct and sufficient assessment of that dilemma. “We think about it a lot, but keep coming up with different arguments. We'll decide later. The thing about her potential, as a broodmare, is that really she could be bred to Into Mischief, Uncle Mo, Curlin, Tapit, Medaglia d'Oro. She really could fit any of those top five or six stallions out there.”
The one guarantee, if they do end up retaining Secret Oath, is that none of the elite farms, for all the consultants they can bring into the boardroom, would choose her mates more acutely than this kitchen-table operation.
Absinthe Minded herself resulted from quite a flamboyant mating: her dam Rockford Peach was by Ta Wee's son Great Above, himself a grandson of Rough n' Tumble; and her sire Quiet American famously combines Dr Fager–who was of course by Rough'n Tumble out of Ta Wee's dam Aspidistra–as close as 3×2.
Both Liam's Map and Arrogate, moreover, were chosen as representatives of the same Unbridled line as Absinthe Minded's sire Quiet American. And Unbridled's fourth dam is Aspidistra, while his sire Fappiano is out of a Dr. Fager mare. Liam's Map compounded that strategy to an audacious degree, because that stallion's second dam is herself inbred 2×3 to Ta Wee. While the experiment was tragically unfulfilled in the case of Absinthe Minded's foal, the good news is that Secret Oath's half-sister Sara Sea (Tiznow) is carrying a foal by Liam's Map.
“Absinthe Minded has three crosses of Aspidistra,” Robert remarks. “And the only thing better than that is four or five!”
Looking more closely at the mating that produced Secret Oath, he explains: “The first thing you need to understand is the relationship between In Reality and Great Above. In Reality is a son of Intentionally out of a daughter of Rough'n Tumble [My Dear Girl], whereas Great Above is by a son of Rough'n Tumble out of a daughter of Intentionally [Aspidistra]. Arrogate himself has two crosses of Intentionally's best son, In Reality; and Absinthe Minded supplies the cross of Intentionally's best daughter, Ta Wee. So Arrogate supplies two strains of Rough'n Tumble's daughter My Dear Girl, and Absinthe Minded contributes two different sons of Rough'n Tumble, Minnesota Mac and Dr. Fager. So you have that core of sex balancing in the breeding.”
If these deliberations suggest a surgical precision, then that's just as you might expect of Robert–for whom the farm provides respite from the most pressurized of day jobs, as a heart surgeon in Lexington. Actually, he and Stacy (they'd met when she was a nurse in intensive care) were taken to Churchill Downs for the first time by the much-lamented Dr. David Richardson, together with longtime racing partner Dr. Hiram Polk, who would always take their fifth-year general surgery residents at the University of Louisville for a bonding day at the races. They wouldn't have believed you, that day, if you told them that someday they would not only have a farm of their own, but raise an Oaks winner there.
“I had spent my weekends and summers on my grandparents' tobacco farm in Frankfort, so I had a little knowledge of mowing grass and things like that,” Robert says. “But horses? No, none whatsoever.”
Returning to the peace of their 92-acre farm, however, has for Robert become the best possible antidote to the daily application of skills that can meet the most urgent of perils. Does he, like the late Dr. Richardson, find a helpful perspective and succor from the calm and detachment of the farm environment?
“Absolutely,” he says. “I've done over 6,000 heart surgeries and I'd say 98% is routine and 2% pure adrenaline. And that 2% can be any time, though sometimes you know things are not going to be easy. But what was it Churchill said? 'There's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a man.' I don't play golf. It's so good to come here to the horses when I've stopped working at the hospital. Today I've been hunting for a four by eight-inch by 16-foot oak beam for our wagon, to replace the one that my wife fixed 10 or 12 years ago. We do everything ourselves here.”
Robert humorously reproaches the friend who “lured me in” with the observation that the Quarter Horse they'd bought, for Stacy to ride around their new rural retreat in Fayette County, might benefit from some company. After giving that famous dollar bill to formalize the transfer of a mare named Chao Praya (Gold Legend), they got it into their heads to send her to Storm Cat's $1,500 son Level Sands. She promptly produced that stallion's highest earner, Level Playingfield; and then, given a more ambitious covering by Empire Maker, another graded stakes winner in Imposing Grace. Both those horses achieved only a marginal yield as yearlings, but the Mitchells had been enjoying the ride enough meanwhile to buy Rockford Peach out of an Adena Springs auction. She had been no more than a hard-knocking claimer, but her daughter Absinthe Minded would match that toughness with class; and now her granddaughter has taken the Mitchells on a journey that gives everyone hope.
Stacy is adamant that the GI Kentucky Derby was never on their minds for Secret Oath, despite a springtime clamor from the sidelines.
“Not for one minute!” she exclaims. “Really, that was all perpetrated by the press. We were never, ever going to the Derby, when there's so much trouble to be had in 20-horse field. In the Arkansas Derby, we could run at the Oaks distance for over $1 million, or stay at a shorter distance for half the purse. Unfortunately she had that big run and then couldn't then make it to the line. But she did on the day that counted!
“When they passed the line [in the Oaks] I was just frozen, speechless. Luckily one of my friends behind us filmed it all, so I have that to look back on. Because it feels like I never saw our horse. I never even realized she wouldn't accept the lillies until I saw one of the assistants with them around his neck. But we had a great day, our friends were there, and it won't ever be repeated.”
Lukas has had a long conversation with Luis Saez–which the veteran trainer wryly describes as “very one-sided”–concerning the jockey's tactics for her last run. For their part, however, the Mitchells are simply content that their filly is there to fight another day.
“You come out and you try it again,” Stacy says. “It didn't pan out the way we expected but that's horse-racing. She stumbled out of the gate and we probably shouldn't have chased the other filly, we didn't have that big flash of speed at the end. But she'd been out eight weeks, so who knows?”
In the context of their program, it's not even as though Secret Oath is some unaccountable aberration.
“We bred another filly [Tempus Fugit (Alphabet Soup)] that won four stakes races, placed in a graded stakes and produced a Grade II winner [Majestic River (A.P. Indy), Molly Pitcher S.],” Robert notes. “With just three or four mares actively breeding each year, we've produced quite a few stakes and graded stakes horses. I don't know, a lot of it has been luck, but my wife works at it hard, every day on the farm. And after a while you tend to learn what works best with your mares. Unfortunately, that can take a long time! But even if they might be nearing the end of their career, by then, you do have the chance to apply what you have learned as you build those families over the years.”
And the intimate scale of the operation may itself make a more practical difference.
“We try to get our hands on them daily,” Stacy says. “Handle them as much as possible. And really I don't bring them up for the night at all, unless we're expecting some bad ice or something. Another important thing, for us, is to try not to overrun our fields; we try to rotate our pasture, keep the grasses good.”
“Yes, we spend as much time growing grass as growing horses,” agrees Rob. “I try to look at the phenotype a lot, too. I've never believed in breeding a big horse to a small horse with the idea of getting something in the middle. I've heard people say they're going to breed a speed horse to a stayer, but it just doesn't seem to works that well to me. I try to breed horses that look very much alike to each other.”
It goes beyond Rob's job description, perhaps, to be the cardiac surgeon who also warms the cockles of your heart. But that is certainly the case-not just for the way that such a tiny nursery has slayed the Goliaths with Secret Oath, but also for helping to restore Lukas to his rightful place, four decades after his first Oaks win.
“We've been with him, gosh, 15 or 17 years,” Stacy says. “He's fair, he's honest, a true gentleman, someone everyone should have the opportunity to sit down and have a coffee with. As he has said, times have changed. Some of his big clients got out of the business, some passed on. Again, he said it himself, people used to love the old guys, now they love the new guys. But a lot of those are people he trained himself. You don't forget how to ride a bicycle, and I don't think you forget how to train a horse. People can say Wayne is back, but in my mind, I don't think he ever went away.”
And if Lukas remains the horseman on whom many of us would cheerfully stake our last dollar, so much the better if it also happens to be your first.