By Chris McGrath
So just what are those Derby gods up to now? What seeds of comfort, of commemoration, did they sow in the grief of last summer?
Bernardo Alvarez Calderon was not just patriarch of a large and loving family, but something of a godfather for the entire Thoroughbred racing and breeding community of Peru. Its esteem was palpable after his loss last August, aged 78, following a fall. The president of the national breeders' association described him as “a horseman par excellence, whose contribution to our breed will last forever; an example for us all, both in his knowledge and his passion.” Another leading breeder suggested the ultimate tribute lay in their own hands: “Someday, I hope, we can all arrive at his type of horse; can all do things the way Don Bernardo did them.”
Nor should that ambition be confined to his countrymen. Don Bernardo–who excelled in show jumping in his younger days, but whose goatee and spectacles ultimately gave him rather a professorial air–was also much respected in the U.S. It was here that Teneri Stable, a small satellite of his Haras La Qallana, produced no less a horse than GI Pegasus World Cup winner Mucho Gusto (Mucho Macho Man).
And now his family and friends, approaching a first spring without Don Bernardo, find themselves wondering whether the first flowers of consolation, in the garland draped over the GII Tampa Bay Derby winner last Saturday, could yet bloom into a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May. For Helium (Ironicus), now unbeaten in three starts, traces four generations to Don Bernardo's very first American purchase, a pregnant mare named Redwing Blackbird acquired for $9,600 at Fasig-Tipton in January 1986.
In gratefully accepting the Tampa Bay garland, on behalf of Helium's owners D.J. Stable, Don Bernardo's daughter Gabriela could not help sensing that the colt's GI Kentucky Derby candidature has a unique benediction. On the way home she rang Jon Green, manager of D.J. Stable. “I just want to let you know that my dad is looking down on us and smiling,” she said. “I really appreciate the fact that you've allowed me and my family to stay involved in this horse, because he belongs to the last group that my dad actually bred.”
She told Green that she had been holding back tears in the winner's circle. “Because she knew it was all about her father,” Green explains. “It was her father that had gone against conventional wisdom, breeding to this $5,000 stallion.”
“It was so special,” assents Gabriela. “I don't even have words for it. I was there with my brother and his children, and we just feel like we're receiving so many incredible gifts. My father was a genius with horses. When he started breeding, he came up with a [Peruvian] Triple Crown winner within four years. He breathed, dreamed, talked of nothing but horses. And such a horseman: he could get on anything and a minute later it would be like he had been riding that horse all his life. And when he planned a mating, he would already be thinking ahead to three generations on.”
Don Barnardo had a sixth sense for horses. At Keeneland November in 2006, for instance, he bought a Rahy mare for $16,000 and a daughter of Sadler's Wells for $60,000. The foals they had respectively delivered the previous year turned out to be dual Grade I winner Life At Ten (Malibu Moon) and four-time Group 1 winner Campanologist (Kingmambo). In the same ring, a couple of months previously, he had bought a Touch Gold yearling for $7,000. The following year her half-sister Ginger Punch (Awesome Again) won the GI Breeders' Cup Distaff.
It tells you everything about the wholesome nature of Don Bernardo's bequest to the breed that he named Teneri for the example of Federico Tesio and his iconic champions, Nearco (Ity) and Ribot (GB). (Each donated the first two letters of his name to form the composite Te-ne-ri.) Similarly, his choice of Shawhan Place as nursery for his U.S. stock–where their supervision includes two sons of that doyen of Kentucky horsemen, Gus Koch–attested to his faith in the best principles of the old school. (How typical of this up-and-down business that the Shawhan team, derailed from the Derby trail by a setback for graduate Senor Buscador (Mineshaft), should find themselves back with a rooting interest just days later.)
As such, it's not hard to imagine what appealed to Don Bernardo about Redwing Blackbird. Her sire Bold Favorite was admittedly not one of Bold Ruler's significant sons, but represented a fine Argentinian family. More importantly, her own maternal line brought into play trademark Tesio influences and, in turn, the stud of the 17th Earl of Derby–itself so key to the Italian's work. (Redwing Blackbird's second dam was by Bold Ruler's sire Nasrullah, duly securing a 3×3 foothold to this great conduit of Nearco.)
Redwing Blackbird was carrying a Proud Appeal filly, who became the graded stakes-placed Proud Emilia. Bred to Saint Ballado a couple of times before being sent to her owner's homeland, she produced a Peruvian champion miler, Domingo, who eventually stood at Haras La Qallana; and Saint Emilia (Per), a local Grade III winner/Grade I runner-up who made the reverse migration for her own breeding career, joining the Teneri broodmare band. (This has never exceeded nine mares, compared with around 40 on the Peruvian farm.)
“She was only 440, 460 kilos but beat the colts many times,” Gabriela says. “When people at the sales said her foals were little, I would tell them that this was a family of small horses that could run big.” Four of Saint Emilia's daughters have duly become stakes producers, mostly in Peru though the most accomplished, Thundering Emilia, did transfer to the U.S. to win an 8 1/2-furlong turf stake for Michael Matz.
Helium is Thundering Emilia's fourth foal. A couple of her previous ones have already excelled: Emilia's Moon (Malibu Moon), as a Peruvian Classic winner; and graded-stakes placed Mighty Scarlett (Scat Daddy). Despite their contributions to his page, Helium was by a sire struggling for commercial traction and the $55,000 given by Cool Hill Farm at Fasig-Tipton October made him the most expensive yearling of that debut crop.
“Matt Koch at Shawhan had said that he was an incredible colt from the moment he was born,” Gabriela remembers. “We were there with Dad, at the sale, and those Ironicus babies weren't selling. So we said we would keep him if he didn't make more than $50,000. Unfortunately he did, just!”
Helium had been bought as a pinhooking project for Bo Hunt, but fell into the juvenile auction cycle that was so disrupted by the onset of the pandemic last year.
“My parents are in their 80s, it wasn't on the cards to travel down there to the sales,” Green recalls. “But we've known Bo for 15, 20 years, and knew we could trust him enough to ask: 'Out of the 70-something you have, who are your top three or four candidates?'”
Hunt came up with a shortlist, and trainer Mark Casse went over to see them gallop. He didn't take to one; they couldn't quite agree on a price for another, who turned out to be Miss Brazil (Palace Malice), an excellent second in the Busher S. last weekend; and two that D.J. Stable did buy. One of those was Helium.
Though he won on debut at Woodbine in late September and then followed up in a stake over the same seven furlongs of Tapeta, things then started to conspire against the colt. Woodbine suspended first for snow; then for the pandemic. Shipped to Fair Grounds, Helium was nearing a return when he wrenched an ankle. In the circumstances, then, nobody should underestimate the talent underpinning a pretty extraordinary performance last weekend.
This was Helium's first start in nearly five months; and his first ever on dirt, or round a second turn. The idea had been that if he was going to experiment on the surface, he might as well stay local to Palm Meadows; and they could get a seasoned reading from Jose Ferrer, who actually won a race in these silks as long ago as 1987. They told him simply to keep out of the kickback, and not to punish him if the wheels were spinning. Sure enough, Helium raced wide the whole way until sweeping round the field on the far turn and grabbing the rail into the stretch. Understandably, that big move seemed to tell, and he was headed around the eighth pole. Outrageously, however, he then rallied to win going away.
“He literally had a half a dozen excuses not to hit the wire first,” Green says. “We were asking him to do so many things that were out of his wheelhouse. But when Jose asked him, he just exploded. And then to see him put the other horse away, that's what got us really excited. We would have been very satisfied to run second, and have something to build upon. The fact that he had something left in the tank, and also had the interest to continue to run, is frankly mind-boggling.”
Training up to the Derby is obviously a bold move, but Helium has himself a gate and has shown that he excels when fresh. The other obvious reservation, to conventional thinking, will be his pedigree. We've already seen how Don Bernardo rooted this family in Classic influences, but Helium remains one of just four winners to this point by his young sire.
These, however, remain the earliest of days for a stallion certain to advance his stock with maturity; and one who simply doesn't have the numbers behind him to permit standard commercial comparisons.
Ironicus was homebred by Claiborne's longstanding client, Stuart S. Janney III, and returned to his native farm after maturing at four and five into one of the better turf runners in North America, just missing his Grade I by a head in the Shadwell Turf Mile. The son of Distorted Humor had the page, for sure: four siblings had won graded stakes (divided between turf and dirt), while his third dam is second dam of Flatter (A.P. Indy) (therefore also the family of Sea Hero, Roar, Congrats, etc).
Sadly the commercial market's puerile terror of slower-maturing/turf horses means that Ironicus covered only a couple of dozen mares last spring–but he's absolutely entitled to breed a Classic racehorse, on any surface, granted the support of breeders as far-sighted as Don Bernardo. It goes without saying that he is on the right farm for that, so perhaps Helium is about to reward those who persevered through a phase of his sire's career that was always going to require patience.
“I guess people will say it's a question mark on Helium's resume, that he's not by Tapit or Into Mischief,” Green acknowledges. “But if you look at his pedigree and race record, Ironicus checks a lot of boxes; while the female family brings in very respected broodmare sires.”
D.J. Stable has duly doubled down on those genes. Helium's half-sister Mighty Scarlett, now a 6-year-old, was acquired for $240,000 at the Keeneland November Sale and sent to Uncle Mo, while a foal-sharing agreement has been negotiated on Helium's dam Thundering Emilia, with an American Pharoah covering. (Teneri, by the way, offered the dam of Mucho Gusto at the same November Sale but retained her at $500,000. She has since delivered a Medaglia d'Oro filly at Shawhan, and was this week covered by Uncle Mo.)
“My dad has an accounting firm that has 750-something Thoroughbred-related clients, so we're able to drill down on a lot of questions with people that have even more experience than we do,” Green says. “And this is something I noticed that Darby Dan would do, years ago, and Claiborne: collect family members when they felt like they had a good runner. That way, a positive change in a family would appear on three or four or five different assets. We've tried to replicate that.”
Whatever Helium can still do for the pedigree, the one guarantee is that the whole team will enjoy the ride.
“My dad said to me this morning: 'There are only a couple of things that got me more excited than this race–and those were meeting your mother, and when your sisters were born!'” says Green with a chuckle. “So yeah, this is a highlight in our 40 years in the business. We've been very fortunate: we've won a Breeders' Cup, we campaigned a champion, bred a champion. Years ago we even ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby, Songandaprayer [Unbridled's Song]. So we've had a great run in this wonderful business. But this is the first time I can remember having a horse that just checks all the boxes.”
One of those, of course, is a Hall of Fame trainer–something that heightens confidence in the unorthodoxy of the strategy now. Green knew not to expect big speed figures out of Saturday: the performance was all about context, and the eyeball test. “I honestly don't know if he's good enough to beat Life Is Good [Into Mischief] or those other top horses,” he says. “But I know that we're giving him the best chance possible.”
And it's not just his own family's long commitment to the game that could be consummated here. Another lifetime of study, patience and skill is dovetailing with their own cause. The Greens are delighted, then, to be sharing with his family this posthumous flourish from Don Bernardo.
“Gabriela is such a wonderful, kind individual,” Green says. “She's modest and humble, and just feels that this horse is carrying the banner for her late father, and for his family's love for him. So we just feel like everything's falling into place. It's a tremendous gift that we have, with this horse. So yes, maybe there are some racing gods smiling on us.”
“I really feel that with all these incredible things happening, it's one of those things in life that makes sense,” Gabriela says. “I feel Dad knows; I feel he's close to us. I know the passion he had, all his life, and this is the reward for that dedication.”