The Program that Made Vekoma an Alpha Male

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Vekoma took the Met Mile in July, one of two Grade Is for him this summerSarah Andrew

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“To be in the horseracing business, I think you need a lot of patience,” says Jon Clay. “With horses that don’t sell, even horses that get injured, I’ve learned to be patient; learned not to get too emotional.”

Easier said than done, naturally. But here’s a guy who absolutely gets it; who understands that the reckoning is not rendered in consistent, cogent cycles of dollars and cents, but in a longer, wider register of satisfaction. Yes, Clay is a commercial breeder and strives to make his program pay. He has invested plenty of money, time and effort in Alpha Delta Stables since 2006. But the story of its most accomplished graduate–a horse potentially on the threshold of a championship–shows that even the most spectacular vindication of your strategy can test resilience.

Having earned a crack at the GI Kentucky Derby by winning the GII Blue Grass S. last year, Vekoma (Candy Ride {Arg}) has this time around found his true metier round a single turn. After coruscating displays of speed in the GI Carter H. and Metropolitan H. (both under the Runhappy sponsorship umbrella), he is apparently only borderline to seek a third consecutive Grade I success in the Forego S. (presented by America’s Best Racing) on Saturday, having been held up with an abscess in a coronet band. Failing that, however, Vekoma will remain fancied to confirm his elite standing among the current herd at the Breeders’ Cup, with trainer George Weaver eyeing the GII Vosburgh S. at Belmont Sept. 26 en route.

On the face of it, the flowering of Vekoma represents the ultimate dividend on the $1.55 million Clay paid for his dam Mona de Momma (Speightstown) at Fasig-Tipton in November 2011. Earlier that year she had won the GI Humana Distaff in the Churchill slop, and she brought with her a deep pedigree to fortify the developing Alpha Delta program: she was out of a half-sister to Mr. Greeley, and also to the second dam of Street Sense.

But though she was still only 10, Mona de Momma died soon after delivering Vekoma.

“She had problems with arthritis and it was very painful for her to carry a foal to term,” Clay recalls. “We were very lucky to get that last foal out of her. It’s always sad when you lose a horse. But, as I say, you’re going to have ups and downs in this business. I’ve seen a lot of people get into it, dreaming about all the great things they’re going to achieve. And when it doesn’t turn out quite the way they pictured, they get out. If you want to last the course, you have to take the bad with the good.”

Nor was there even a particularly useful dividend when Vekoma was sold at the 2017 September Sale, raising $135,000 from R.A. Hill Stable (since partnering with Gatsas Stable).

“We didn’t set a very strong reserve because, as everyone can see from his races, he has that funny front end, the way his leg flails out,” Clay explains. “That was a conformation issue he always had, as he went through the ranks. But I remember him as being very precocious, despite the foaling date [May 22]. As a lot of people know by now, Code of Honor (Noble Mission {GB}) was another late foal and they were playmates in the same paddock at Lane’s End. So it’s been a lot of fun to see these two horses that literally grew up together, racing against each other so many times.”

Instead of dwelling on the Mona de Momma tragedy, Clay is just relieved that he set a more aggressive reserve on the first of what proved to be just three surviving foals, a War Front filly, who returned from the 2015 September Sale as a $275,000 RNA (Mona de Momma’s only other daughter, by Medaglia d’Oro, was unraced after being sold to Courtlandt Farm for $500,000 as a yearling).

Clay named the War Front filly Bloody Point, for a headland on St. Kitts, and she won three of six starts.

“We were pointing to a Listed race with her,” Clay recalls. “And then Vekoma wins the Blue Grass, and it’s April, and I said: ‘You know what? I think it would be better to breed her right now.’ Because, with Vekoma heading to the Derby, and having lost the dam, it would have been terrible for something to happen on the racecourse. She really had the potential to be a stakes horse, she was very multi-dimensional, excelled on grass and on dirt. But I just feel very fortunate to still be in that family. She’s obviously very well bred, and I’m hoping that she can carry on the legacy of her mother. She’s had a very nice Quality Road colt, and hopefully he’ll go through the ring next year.”

Bloody Point is now in foal to Street Sense, which will double up Mr. Greeley’s dam Long Legend (Reviewer) 4×4 in the resulting foal’s pedigree. This is the kind of long view that stimulates Clay, unsurprisingly in view of his own family tree: he is a cousin of Catesby W. Clay of Runnymede Farm, and owes some of his breeding philosophy to that branch of the family. Catesby took Clay to his first Kentucky Derby, the year of Genuine Risk (Exclusive Native), and assisted his evolution from intrigued novice to an impassioned breeder in his own right.

“I learned a lot from Catesby finding successful nicks deep in the pedigree,” says Clay. “It’s a lot of fun, trying to figure out what makes a good racehorse. You don’t just look at the first generation to see where the success comes, you look in the second, third, and fourth generation. If you find something that works back there, it may work again. [Bloodstock advisor] Reynolds [Bell] does the same thing: we’re both looking deep in the family for something that can still work today. He has been an invaluable resource in helping me develop my program.

“So I have really delved into various important female families in the breed. As I started to expand, I was really focused on trying to acquire mares from very strong families. That’s really what attracted me to Mona de Momma: a really strong, deep family as well as the speed and brilliance to have won a Grade I. I thought she might breed horses for both distance and speed.

“Certain families you can’t get into. So I was very intrigued when William T. Young had his dispersal, and Ned Evans had his, because you really don’t have access to those kinds of families in the commercial market, just by buying yearlings or weanlings.”

By the same token, Clay likes to adhere to old-fashioned principles even in striving for commercial yield. The first premise of a mating, as it always should be, is a balance of physical types; and Clay much prefers a proven sire to the rookie with his fleeting, flimsy appeal. And while he will make occasional exceptions, he will do so only according to his own instincts. He was prepared to pass up a virtually guaranteed market vogue for American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), for instance, but couldn’t resist breeding several mares to Justify (Scat Daddy).

Clay also believes in the invigoration available in blending blood from different racing environments. Last fall he bought G1 Prix de l’Opera winner Villa Marina (GB) (Le Havre {Ire}) out of a French stable to join Chad Brown. (Unfortunately she bowed a tendon, but she’s now in foal to Medaglia d’Oro; and is next being sent back to Europe, where the market should obviously be receptive to her pedigree, for a mating with Frankel {GB}). Earlier in his program, moreover, Clay made a seven-figure play for Love To Dance (Ire), a Sadler’s Wells half-sister to two turf champions in Dylan Thomas (Ire) (Danehill) and Queen’s Logic (Ire) (Grand Lodge).

“It was fascinating to get into that family,” he says. “I think it’s important to keep that kind of mix in the pedigrees, American and European. Because among the North American sire lines, we are really becoming very weak on Northern Dancer. That line is so strong in Europe, yet it’s dwindling here.”

After all, you never know which way the coin will fall unless you spin it. As Clay says: “I mean, I was always interested in War Front more for the dirt. I was breeding to him when he was $40,000, and then he just exploded as a great turf sire.”

In much the same way, he was early to spot another perceived (if, again, unfairly so) grass specialist in Chad Brown. Dividing the horses he retains between Brown and Linda Rice, Clay feels he has two of the best trainers in the land.

“Great trainers, both,” he says. “I’ve been with Chad since before he got famous! He hadn’t won any training titles at Saratoga or Belmont. But what I like about both of them is their honesty. They’re both incredibly straightforward, and I appreciate that in the business. I also like the fact that they treat horses well. They don’t use a lot of drugs to keep their horses sound. That’s very important to me. One of the first things I always ask a trainer is to see their vet bills. Because if they’re very expensive, then things are probably being done that are not in the best interest of the horse.”

Clay’s personal antipathy to abuse of medication is informed by professional judgement: his business is sports marketing, primarily focused on golf, and he has a corresponding sense of how best to engage a wider public.

“We’re never going to attract new people if they continue to drug the horses like they do,” he says firmly. “That’s the biggest problem we have, and I am all for Lasix-free racing. But I also think we need to do a better job of marketing, across all racing jurisdictions. Each one seems to have their own target market. There’s no unified message.”

Clay is not one of those horsemen who sees the world through blinkers. He studied art history and government at Harvard–Alpha Delta Stables is named for his fraternity there–and lived for a long time in New York before moving to Palm Beach five years ago. But for all his cosmopolitan interests, he finds palpable fulfilment in the obsession that began with three mares at the November Sale 14 years ago.

“When I started out, my plan was just to sell everything,” he says. “But my philosophy evolved, and now I tend to keep good fillies from good families. I kept Lewis Bay (Bernardini) as a $170,000 RNA as a yearling: she was out of a mare I bought from the Young dispersal, and became a multiple graded stakes winner and ran third in the [GI] Kentucky Oaks. So with Lewis Bay, I’m going to keep every single filly because of the great depth of her family. Same with the half-sister to Constitution I have [Grade III winner Jacaranda (Congrats)], with him turning out to be such a promising young stallion.

“I just love trying to figure out how to breed a good racehorse. That’s what keeps me in the game. My primary goal, going into it, was to breed a horse good enough to run in the Kentucky Derby, and the Kentucky Oaks. I’ve done both, so that box is checked. I have a great team around me, with [bloodstock advisor] Reynolds [Bell] and two of the great farms in Lane’s End and Mill Ridge. I am fortunate to have their wisdom and knowledge.

“But regardless of whether you get into the racing side or the breeding side, first and foremost it’s all about that patience. If you want longevity in this business, and long-term enjoyment out of the sport, that’s the number one thing. In the end, if you learn to take the ups and downs the same way, it all works out. I mean, I don’t see any reason to leave this business for the rest of my life. I just love it.”

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