The Lexington and Atlantic Classic sales may be over now, but hundreds more well-bred yearlings are soon headed to the sales rings at London (October 19-20) and Harrisburg (November 4-6). Historic highs were reached at this year’s Lexington and Crapaud sales, making the search for value that much more important to buyers with a budget. In the year of the first-ever million-dollar colts, and the highest overall sale total for the Atlantic Classic, can the smaller player compete?

R. Dustin Jones knows that feeling. The Waterdown, Ontario-based conditioner started out more than three decades ago, purchasing value-priced Quebec-bred yearlings on his own. “In the heyday, the yearlings would range anywhere from probably a thousand dollars to $75,000,” he recalled. “The first yearling I ever bought in Quebec was in 1982. They had the sale at Bromont, where they had the Olympics for equestrian.”

His initial purchase was a $1,700 filly named Zeno Vercheres (p, 5, 2:01.3f; $90,379). The Harmon Hanover-Impish Dolly (by Lehigh Hanover) daughter not only made the races as a freshman—she vastly outperformed her price. “As a two-year-old, I think she made $30-some thousand, which was pretty good. She actually finished third in our Coupe de l'Avenir,” said Jones. Zeno Vercheres raced for seven years, ending her career at Rideau-Carleton in 1989.

Jones spotted a second Quebec-bred bargain in 1983. “For myself—I had no clients at that time. The first owner I had was in ’87, who I bought a horse for,” he added. “I bought another one for $1,700, and she was the best filly in Quebec. She made like $128,000 as a two-year-old. Her name was Quenouille Ideale (p, 4, 2:01.4f; $174,632). She was bought at the sale at the Velodrome.” After three years on the track, the daughter of Brets Rocket-Moon Bayama (by Moonstar Hanover) produced four sub-2:00 winners, her best being Rumpus Hanover gelding Garsonne (p, 4, 1:57.0f; $104,972).

In the shadow of Lexington’s $1.1-million Maverick, $1-million Damien, and $800,000 Some Terror, the sport’s top-priced yearlings ever, Jones remains convinced that there is plenty of room for buyers with limited bankrolls. He said he’ll be at this year’s London and Harrisburg sales, yearling-shopping for Andrea Lea Racing Stable’s George Lowenfeld. Jones helped the Quebec-based owner land Southwind Serena (3,1:55.2m; $385,088): A Breeders Crown champion at three, she was inducted to the Goshen Hall of Fame this year on her broodmare credentials.

Hip #108 at Lexington in 2005, Southwind Serena sold for $45,000. “The thing was, she was a Varenne, and we all saw Varenne race in Montreal at the Trot Mondiale,” explained Jones. “So that sort of drew her to me, right off. But the fact that she sold for $45,000 was because there were no sires stakes for her—she was frozen semen, so all she was eligible for was Grand Circuit.” The New Jersey-foaled filly’s limited stakes eligibility didn’t deter Lowenfeld from going with his trainer’s recommendation: “I really liked her because she was a tall, long-legged filly and she had a really good way to handle herself, and her conformation was good too,” said Jones. “I think she worse a pair of trotting boots behind when she raced and that was it—no knee boots or anything like that.”

The young Southwind Serena displayed athleticism and presence, but her European sire proved a deterrent to most North American bidders. “My first impression was really good, but a lot of people thought I was crazy, buying a Varenne,” noted Jones. “Even George [Lowenfeld] doubted me for a while, I think.” The trainer recommended the gamble, based on what he had learned through a knowledgeable connection: “When I was in Montreal training, Jean-Pierre Dubois used to send me horses. He stood a couple of stallions in Quebec that had the French breeding in them. They were really tough and they could take a lot of air, and that’s what drew me to Varenne—watching the way he raced too, if you had that in the pedigree, you’d have speed and endurance.”

Ironically, the first foal of Southwind Serena’s World Champion daughter is one of the top-priced trotting fillies of 2019. “[Lowenfeld] owns a quarter of Mission Brief (3, 1:50.2f; $1,599,587), and they sold her first baby [One Alpha One] at Lexington for $400,000,” said Jones.

The year that Mission Brief’s brother Tactical Landing (3, 1:50.2m;  $812,300) sold was a different story. “Actually, George wanted me to look at him” prior to the 2016 Lexington sale, said Jones. “I saw him in the paddock the same day as Perry Soderberg, Takter’s man, and as soon as I saw him, I texted George and said, ‘I don’t know what he’s going to do, but he looks like a monster to me.’” Nonetheless, when bidding opened at $200,000 and heated up from there, Jones was floored: “I never expected him to go to $800,000. I thought he would have been $400,000-$500,000. But then the Burkes wanted him… He was well worth the money, because he made $800,000 and they syndicated him for $12-million.”

The former Quebec horseman said that besides the strong presence of European bidders at this year’s Lexington sale, he observed the continuation of another trend: The two record-shattering colts attracted considerable attention on the basis of their siblings. “I’m pretty leery on the full brothers and the full sisters,” cautioned Jones. “A very good example is Somebeachsomewhere and Donato Hanover. […] I remember at the sale, watching them sell and people paying good money for two or three of [their] brothers”

Partnerships have always played a role at public horse sales, but they are now ultra-visible at the top end of the market. “You get the syndications going in,” explained Jones. “You get like a Determination by himself, and you get the Brad Grant and Marvin Katz and people like that together…” Landing the most coveted colts and fillies becomes its own sport, one in which bidders with average bankrolls must eventually call it quits: “The two horses that sold for a million dollars [at Lexington] are nice horses, but you have to be in another tax bracket in order to be able to play that game.”

Jones once did the buying for Serge Godin’s Determination stable, one of the top owners at Woodbine Mohawk Park. “I was actually the underbidder on Propulsion when he was a yearling, for Determination. We bid $200,000 and then Myron Bell jumped it to $250,000. Propulsion went on to make like $4,000,000. Then two years after, Determination went and bought the full sister, Dream Together. She’s done good—she’s made like $700,000. At the time, when we got jumped $50,000, Mr. Godin just said, ‘Never mind—we’ll go for another one.’ But that was my pick of the sale.” The exported Propulsion is the #1 trotter currently racing in Europe.

After four-year-old Italian Zacon Gio’s impressive turn of foot in the 2019 Yonkers International Trot, more North Americans may consider European blood in their trotting yearlings this fall. “I actually think it’s great, because a few years ago Jean-Pierre Dubois gave me a free breeding to Infinif, who has European breeding in him,” said Jones. “I bred my Muscles Yankee mare Color Me Pretty to Infinif and she gave me Don’t Rush (5, 1:52.1f; $658,948), who won the Super Final in 2014 for two-year-old trotting colts, and came back the next year and won it in 2015 as a three-year-old. He repeated, which is pretty hard to do up here.”

Jones added that Dubois was unique in the North American industry when it came to breeding trotters. “He was doing it the other way, taking the US horses to France. He was way ahead of everybody on that part. He ended up getting Coktail Jet, who won the Prix d’Amerique and Elitlopp. Now, people are trying to do the reverse of that over here, to get a little bit of durability in the horses. The Antonaccis are doing it with International Moni. Even years before Infinitf, he had a stallion here called Kaisy Dream. He had the best filly in Ontario that year—her name was Brigham Dream (4, 1:53.2s; $639,280 ). So Dubois has done that before—he did it in Quebec. Now you’re seeing the Antonaccis in the US bringing in Ready Cash breeding. Dubois had a couple that he sold at Lexington that had the European breeding on them.”

Eligibility to regional sires stakes makes a difference when it comes to yearlings with unusual breeding. “I think [buyers] are still a little hesitant about it,” said Jones, in reference to European-bred trotters’ influence on this continent’s yearlings. “I think eventually it will all depend on how International Moni does and then Dubois has shipped semen over for Love You, for which the mares would be eligible to just the Kentucky Sire Stakes, because if the mare was boarded in Kentucky for half the year, her offspring would be eligible.”

Jones is seeking specific traits in five more yearlings this fall. He said that in order to come in under his (unspecified) price cap, “I have to be selective.”

“For sure I’m going to buy an Ontario trotting colt. I have like three Ontario-bred trotting fillies already, so I’m probably not going to spend too much time looking for an Ontario filly unless it’s a really nice one with a good pedigree and breeding for Mr. Lowenfeld, but most likely we’ll be looking for an American-sired filly for him.” If pacing colts he likes are within his price range, Jones said he may be interested, but he’s not looking to engage in bidding wars over fashionable pedigrees.

It’s impossible to know how every young horse will turn out, regardless of price tag. Jones said that the year George Lowenfeld first approached him to help pick out yearlings, he landed both Southwind Serena and another who never materialized into anything special on the track.

He noted that the newly-announced Mohawk Million race for two-year-old trotters can help both high-end buyers and people who succeed with lower-priced horses who become regional stars: “Everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s just for the guys with the money.’ But not necessarily. An example would be that Swandre the Giant (3, 1:51.3m; $645,743).” Currently owned by Diamond Creek Racing, J and T Silva Racing Stables, and Howard Taylor, the Swan For All-Adagio (by Valley Victor) colt was originally a $17,000 yearling at the 2017 Hoosier Classic Sale, later sold at age two for over a million dollars. Anthony MacDonald first selected and broke Swandre The Giant, who won his state-bred $270,000 Super Final division last week at Hoosier Park in 1:55 flat. “Nowadays, with the way that people focus on the good horses, usually after you win a few races with a horse that looks really good, you have the agents on the phone, trying to buy them,” added Jones.

He’s not a man to stay on the sidelines and watch the deep-pocketed buyers in action. “I did buy one [at Lexington]. I bought a Father Patrick colt, for myself and three other partners,” the 2014 O’Brien Award of Horsemanship finalist told Atlantic Post Calls. “I wanted to buy a couple of trotting fillies, but when you have a budget around $40,000, that’s kind of hard to do. You have to do a lot of looking.”

He said he keeps “mental notes” on horses that other knowledgeable horsepeople are checking out, whether he intends to bid or he knows he will already be priced-out. “You have to look at a lot of horses, but I did that, and I used to have to do that in Quebec, because when I first started out, I had to bid against Jean-Paul Charron, Benôit Côté, and Jacques Hebert, and people like that who were the top colt trainers in Montreal. How I did it is I bought lesser breeding, but I bought good conformation. And the thing was, we used to race most of our sires stakes on the half-mile tracks, so I figured if I could buy better conformation, but maybe a little bit smaller horses too… I made a lot of money racing them in sires stakes that way, by having a horse that could get around a half-mile track.”

Consideration for track dimensions where a young horse will spend most of its stakes career is important. Jones said when looking ahead to racing over bigger tracks, “It’s a different game. I know when Montreal started going as a 7/8-mile track, it’s a different thing. You have to rethink your whole process, because sometimes the smaller horses can’t carry their speed as well as the bigger horses, especially at three. But then you get a smaller horse like Bettors Wish, and it doesn’t matter, but most times it’s not like that.”

Bettors Wish (p, 3, 1:47.4m; $1,561,000) is a strong contender for Dan Patch Three-Year-Old Male Pacer of 2019. “He was a $20,000 yearling, so there’s value out there,” noted Jones, adding that the skilled eye of trainer Chris Ryder picked out the colt. “Yes, he had his faults. He’s a little toed-in, he isn’t very big, but he has a wicked good pedigree, and Chris knows what he can live with, so he got a hell of a buy for $20,000.”

That summarizes Jones’ approach to buying yearlings without breaking the bank. “Every person is different—it all depends on what they can put up with,” he said. “Some people can put up with a trotter that’s toed-out a little bit, and some guys can take a pacer that’s toed-in a little bit, but it’s all people’s choices, you know. That’s why nobody has ever been able to control the game, no matter how much money they have. That’s why in the horse business, there’s a lot of Cinderella stories.”

Note: Late-breaking news out of Bible Hill was confirmed at press time—the 2019 live racing season concludes at Truro Raceway on November 1. General Manager Kelly MacEachen was able to confirm that the shortened season should result in a healthier financial footing for the track next year. 2019 race dates originally extended to December 20, but live cards will now run just the next three Fridays (October 18 and 25, and November 1) at Truro Raceway.

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