By Chris McGrath
Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat. Even setting aside the fact that our industry–with the complicity of the media–devotes disproportionate attention and resources to freshman sires, July is way too early to be deciding which few will ultimately build a sustainable career in Kentucky.
True, it can only be auspicious to see Gun Runner already perched at the top of their prizemoney table. Though he put together his Horse of the Year campaign as a 4-year-old, he has already had eight winners from 18 starters. But other two-turn types in the intake still have plenty of time to show their wares.
By the same token, while horses of that kind have barely adjusted the microphone, some of their more precocious rivals are already halfway through their routine. But with that in mind, whoever ends up with the last laugh, there's no mistaking who got the first one.
Practical Joke, who had taken the stage before a packed house, has immediately settled any nerves after his son Wit produced a flamboyant performance in the GIII Sanford S. last Saturday.
After opening for business at Ashford in 2018, this son of Into Mischief saw his stock secure a striking fidelity in an era when so many breeders flit neurotically from one newcomer to the next. Having mustered a remarkable opening book of 220 mares, Practical Joke retained 200 customers in 2019, and 188 for that tricky third cycle. In this day and age, that represents an exceptional commercial commitment.
Despite lavish supply, Practical Joke made a strong debut at the yearling sales, achieving a $90,000 median, three times his $30,000 opening fee; and behind only Gun Runner, Arrogate and Mastery with his $120,243 average for 74 sold (of 92 offered). What has been particularly striking, however, is the vogue achieved by that first crop both with pinhookers and then with their clients. No fewer than 56 were processed through the 2-year-old sales, with 48 achieving a $152,500 median and $188,993 average. One of his daughters topped OBS March at $750,000, and then another ended up as the second highest filly at Gulfstream, at $800,000. News traveled fast, too: a third Practical Joke filly topped the Tattersalls Craven Breeze-Up Sale at 360,000gns.
So Practical Joke has maintained persuasive momentum all the way. To be fair, there were always solid grounds for believing that he might not just be a fast starter. He's a strongly made, quick-looking horse who could nonetheless appeal to those shrewd enough to distinguish between speed as an indicator of class, and speed as an indicator of mere precocity. Yes, he won on debut at Saratoga, followed up at the end of the meet in the GI Hopeful S. and confirmed himself the top youngster on the East Coast in the GI Champagne S. But he also matured well enough to win the GI H. Allen Jerkens S. back at the Spa, a performance that suggested sprinting to be his true metier despite having held out for fifth in the Derby.
As such, he made a significant contribution to the evolving profile of his own sire. An ongoing upgrade in Into Mischief's mares, however, has since allowed them to start stretching his brilliance through a second turn. And it is the resulting, stratospheric elevation in his fee that gives all his young sons at stud their most obvious selling point, as a more affordable route to the most expensive blood in the land. Trimmed to $22,500 (from $25,000 in 2020) to maintain momentum in the pandemic economy, Practical Joke this spring traded at a fee exactly 1/10th of that now commanded by sire.
We had seen this angle worked at the first opportunity, with Goldencents graduating from Into Mischief's first crop to join his sire at Spendthrift–where he covered 929 mares across his first five seasons. (A stark contrast with Into Mischief himself, whose fifth crop of 168 live foals surpassed 150 from his first four combined!)
His legacy as a sire of sires is the last remaining challenge for the Into Mischief revolution. Remember that he was still standing at just $20,000 when conceiving Practical Joke, whose own juvenile endeavors would assist his sire up to $75,000 (from $45,000) for 2017. It stands to reason that Into Mischief's stallion sons will become more attractive with the improved bloodlines he has been able to access with each passing year.
Of course, the most blatant clue to his potency was precisely the fact that he produced such effective runners from his mediocre early mates. Practical Joke belongs to his breakout fifth book, a response to the straws in the wind among his first juveniles, such as Goldencents, Vyjack and Sittin At The Bar.
(The latter, incidentally, is not just nursing a drink telling everyone who comes in that she was a daughter of Into Mischief when nobody had heard of him: last month her first foal Club Car (Malibu Moon) was runner-up in the GIII Chicago S. while a few days ago her third, Cilla (California Chrome), won a stakes at Monmouth. A promising marker, this, for Into Mischief's embryonic career as a broodmare sire.)
Among those who had cottoned on was Keith Crupper of Whispering Oaks Farm, Ky., who sent his Distorted Humor mare Halo Humor to Into Mischief and sold the resulting colt for $135,000 to Clear Ridge Stables as a Keeneland January short yearling. He was pinhooked through the same ring that September for $240,000, a sum exceeded by just three of the other 123 Into Mischief yearlings suddenly offered to the market in 2015. (Up from just 38 the previous year.) Named Practical Joke, he raced for Klaravich Stables and William H. Lawrence from the barn of Chad Brown, for whom only Good Magic has ever earned more on dirt.
His sales history attests to the inherent physical appeal of Practical Joke, but what makes him an interesting test case for Into Mischief, as a sire of sires, is that his own family remained typical of the relatively modest material then still being transformed by the genetic alchemy of the Spendthrift phenomenon. Halo Humor herself did have ability and significant precocity, winning her first two at Saratoga in a light career, but produced only one other foal sound enough to show the modesty of his competence. She also had a half-sister who won a Louisiana-bred stakes as a juvenile, but the only real distinction in Practical Joke's page occurs under his fourth dam, who produced two graded stakes winners including GII Stuyvesant H. winner and GI Vosburgh S. runner-up Moment Of Hope (Timeless Moment).
But just as he vindicated a high valuation, among his sire's first big crop, Practical Joke has immediately found an ambassador to do the same in Wit, at $575,000 handsomely the most expensive of the yearlings sent into the ring from that huge debut book.
He was bred by Rosilyn Polan of Sunday Morning Farm from an unraced Medaglia d'Oro mare, Numero d'Oro, acquired as a 9-year-old (with a Frosted cover) for $175,000 at Keeneland November in 2017. By that stage her first foal, the Emerald Downs stalwart Barkley (Munnings), had won seven of his first dozen starts–though he was reserving his GIII Longacres Mile H. success for the following year. (Of her three subsequent foals, the only one then of racing age was an industrious son of Caleb's Posse, who had won the first of what would become six wins at claiming level.)
Polan only keeps a handful of mares on her farm outside Versailles, but has evidently assembled them with skill. At Keeneland a couple of years ago, for instance, she sold a Runhappy filly out of her Tapit mare Anchorage for $370,000. In the case of Numero d'Oro, she covered her outlay at the first attempt by selling the Frosted colt acquired in utero for $250,000, also at the September Sale. She had meanwhile sent the mare to Practical Joke, and obviously did an outstanding job in preparing the resulting colt for the equivalent auction last year.
Though Polan had four others to bring in (a couple as agent) deeper into the catalog, to those prospecting the third session of the sale this appeared a one-horse consignment. But what a horse!
Alex Solis II, in his first year as Director of Bloodstock and Racing at Gainesway, was bowled over and later brought Jason Litt, his longstanding partner at Solis-Litt Bloodstock, and their colleague Madison Scott, to look at him. Did they see what he saw? Indeed they did: same energy, even at the end of the day; same physical flair, same buoyancy. “A man among boys,” as Solis puts it. He also consulted his new Gainesway colleague Brian Graves, who had pinhooked Practical Joke through Clear Ridge Stables, and was assured that the colt was the very image of his sire.
So while the docket for the colt was signed by Jacob West on behalf of Repole Stables and St. Elias Stable, who have partnered in so many good horses, this was one in which they also took aboard Gainesway's owner Antony Beck.
“Alex had joined our team at Gainesway and he selected some horses for us to buy in partnership with some other people, amongst them Vinnie Viola and Mike Repole,” Beck explains. “It's wonderful to have a good horse with them and I think we're going to have a lot of fun together.”
Beck's recollection of the young Wit is powerful. “As a yearling, he was one of the most impressive horses I've ever laid eyes on,” he declares.
The colt's stylish debut for Todd Pletcher last month set up a great day for Beck, who later on the same card saw Essential Quality become a record-equalling fourth winner of the GI Belmont S. for Gainesway's champion Tapit.
Wit was again a little tardy from the gate in the Sanford, but you have to love the controlled way he came bounding along the rail before being driven eight lengths clear, looking highly eligible to emulate his sire in the Hopeful.
“The Sanford isn't always a very strong field,” Beck remarks. “But this looked a very good field, and he was extremely impressive. If you look at the history of the race, a lot of great horses have won it. We're tremendously excited about his future.”
Whether Practical Joke might someday get his stock to stretch, after the eventual fashion of his sire, remains to be seen. As such, Wit's prospects for a second turn are opaque. He does appear to have a helpfully composed style. But his dam, as mentioned, was unraced and her sire Medaglia d'Oro, while obviously a proven Classic brand, is also a pretty diverse influence. In this case he had been paired with a mare by the speedy Afleet who had twice been placed in graded stakes around a mile; she is also the second dam of a classy one-turn operator in Ivy Bell (Archarcharch). The next dam was an ordinary producer by Caro (Ire), but she was out of a top-class juvenile (later Classic-placed) in France, Silver Cloud (Fr)–by Dan Cupid, quite a name to find pegging down the pedigree of a new force on the scene in 2021!
Incidentally, anyone disposed to follow the family still farther back will eventually reach another resonant name: Wit's seventh dam is a sister to War Relic, who gave the male line of their sire Man o' War its survival, now so precarious, through his son Intent.
Rather too long a perspective, no doubt, for most tastes. Nonetheless we have to remind ourselves that even a horse as exciting as Wit can still only be welcomed as the first green shoots of whatever harvest eventually awaits Practical Joke. From 104 named foals, he has so far launched a dozen starters and four winners. But he couldn't have scripted a better ice-breaker, launching his most expensive yearling to look just what he was bought to be. If we reiterate that Practical Joke has barely started, then that may well turn out to be simply because there's so much more still to come.