The $300,000 crapshoot

AUG. 21, 2011, PART I
Sunday afternoon at Arlington Park. Sunshine spills over the grounds; flags snap in the breeze. It's five minutes before the fifth race, and on the far side of the track, Struck It Lucky trots back and forth on the all-weather surface. Like the 10 other horses loosening up, she's a 2-year-old filly running in a five-and-a-half-furlong sprint for maidens (horses who have never won). As the offspring of Smart Strike, a stallion whose other offspring include 2010 Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky, Struck It Lucky opened as the favorite at 2-1, but late action has her going off at 5-2. She wears a royal blue saddle towel with a white embroidered No. 3. Venezuelan Junior Alvarado, considered one of the best jockeys at Arlington, sits atop her in orange, white and black silks. A voice booms over the PA: "Making her bow here at Arlington, in the colors of Glen Hill Farm, it's Struck It Lucky."

This August day is unlike anything Struck It Lucky has ever experienced. At 4 a.m., instead of having her customary breakfast, she takes a tack walk -- a 30-minute stroll around the barn in her saddle, stirrups, halter and bridle -- with her exercise rider, Gabriel. She ate at 9:30, but only a handful of food, not her usual two bowls. Everyone steered clear of her stall.

Four hours before post time, a vet injected her with Lasix, a diuretic commonly given to thoroughbreds to control internal bleeding. Around 1:30 p.m., her front legs were wrapped in neoprene ice packs, and a groom stuffed cotton balls into her ears. Twenty minutes to post, assistant trainer Nicky Carrello escorted Struck It Lucky to the race paddock, where an inspector verified the ID tattooed on the inside of her upper lip. Alvarado, fresh off wins in the third and fourth races, materialized and introduced himself to Struck It Lucky -- their first-ever meeting. At 10 minutes until 3, the jockey guided his mount onto the track, where the filly, who has never galloped in front of more than a few dozen people at a time, discovered the 11,000 fans spending the afternoon at the suburban Chicago track. Now, as she awaits the start of the race, her eyes bulge and her ears twitch. "She has no idea what's going on," says her trainer, Tom Proctor, as he stands watching by the railing along the backstretch.

What's going on, without question, is the biggest moment of the filly's life. While LeBron James and Albert Pujols might claim they were born to play, thoroughbreds literally are created to compete. Every day of the past 899 days -- the entirety of Struck It Lucky's earthly existence -- has been in preparation for this late afternoon. Yet the ride to the starting gate, even for the sport's top prospects, is long and unpredictable. The finest pedigree and the best training don't guarantee a winner.

Post time. Gamblers hustle last-minute bets, fans settle into their seats and, one by one, the horses enter the starting gate. "Here's Struck It Lucky," says the announcer as the filly slides into gate three without a fuss. The metal door shuts behind her. The bell sounds. They're off.

Day 1 of the 90th annual Fasig-Tipton Select Yearling sale. It's standing room only at the Humphrey S. Finney Sales Pavilion, across from the Saratoga Race Course. The crowd, white and moneyed, wears Brooks Brothers and Lilly Pulitzer. The venue, formal and bright, feels more suited for a string quartet performance than a horse auction. "Next we have HIP No. 69," says announcer Terence Collier in his proper English accent. "A dark bay filly from Sam-Son Farm, one of the most successful owner/breeder operations in North America for the past 40 years." A door slides open, and an attendant leads the future Struck It Lucky onto a U-shaped swath of dirt that's been dyed green to resemble grass. "Registered Canadian bred," Collier continues. "They don't come much lovelier than this."

This is no ordinary auction. While there are countless yearling sales across the country, the one in Saratoga is the equine equivalent of the NFL draft. Of the 10,700 registered thoroughbred yearlings offered in 2010, these 202 horses are considered the elite. "First, they have to pass stringent pedigree requirements," says Max Hodge, Fasig-Tipton's director of client services. "Then they undergo physical inspections." Those lucky to make the grade command serious money. Last year in Saratoga, 160 yearlings sold for $52 million -- an average of $325,000 each. This for horses who have never raced, seen a track or been ridden. Nevertheless, the pavilion is packed with deep-pocketed buyers today: trainer Bob Baffert, chef Bobby Flay and Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

Another big-money buyer is Craig Bernick, a 33-year-old Chicago native who shops for fillies for his family's Glen Hill Farm in Ocala, Fla. Beside him sits Donato Lanni, one of the premier bloodstock agents (the horse trade's equivalent of a talent scout) and Bernick's de facto consigliere. For the past four days, the men have evaluated every horse. They researched breeding, looked for signs of a good demeanor and noted athleticism. Then they narrowed their list of favorites to a dozen. HIP No. 69 sits atop the list. "First time I saw her, I knew she was something," Lanni says.

Since these yearlings are sold as is, the vetting is crucial. Potential buyers run their hands over a horse's body -- a warm patch could be a sprained tendon or a pulled muscle. They have the horse walk back and forth to study the animal's conformation, looking for imperfections like knock-knees or cow-hocked legs. They hire veterinarians to take X-rays and check breathing passages. "I dissect a horse as if it were a race car," says Murray Smith, who's been pinhooking (buying horses as yearlings, then reselling them as 2-year-olds) for more than 15 years. "It's all about the pieces and parts."

There are exceptions to this axiom. As a yearling, Lookin at Lucky had overly long pasterns (the two bones directly above the hoof, responsible for shock absorption) and lesions in his stifles (knees). Real Quiet, whose slim frame earned him the nickname the Fish, lost the 1998 Triple Crown by a nose. But HIP No. 69? The filly with the white crescent moon on her forehead doesn't have any questionable parts. She's perfect. "A great hip and ass end," says Bernick. "Well-balanced. Proportioned. A real classy horse."

The bidding commences. "Fifty, fifty, fifty thousand," says the auctioneer. In front of the stage, four tuxedo-clad spotters scan the crowd. Bidders make the smallest of gestures: a subtle nod, a flick of a finger. Prices jump in $25,000 increments. Seventy-six seconds after the process begins, the auctioneer bangs his gavel. "Three hundred thousand. Sold."

A few minutes later, an official approaches Bernick. With as much emotion as a man buying the morning paper, the Chicagoan signs some documents and receives a yellow receipt and red envelope. "I'd never say that paying $300,000 is a bargain," says Bernick, "but in this case I would have paid double."


Early morning. Struck It Lucky pokes her head over the wooden fence of the Palmtree paddock and gazes out over Glen Hill Farm. The 400 acres of prime Ocala horse country have changed little since shampoo magnate Leonard Lavin bought the place in 1967. There are turn-of-the-century oaks draped in Spanish moss, rolling carpets of grass dotted with half a dozen barns, dozens of paddocks and 70-odd thoroughbreds -- from week-old sucklings to 20-year-old retired stallions. For five months, Struck It Lucky has called these grounds home.

As the sun climbs, the man responsible for the yearling's first phase of development pilots a quad along the Glen Hill grounds. With his canvas duster and sun-weathered face, Hap Proctor (trainer Tom's older brother) looks straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. "I was born on a horse farm," says the Texas native. "I didn't ride with a saddle until I was 16." In 1991, he inherited the Glen Hill general manager job from his Uncle Allan and has overseen all of the yearlings since. Although he calls his equine teaching methodology a family recipe, it's a formula used by virtually every horseman on every future racehorse in America.

Before any thoroughbred sets a hoof on the dirt, it's got to be broken. "There's no horse whisperer s--- around here," says Hap. "You have to get these animals used to being touched and handled and to wearing a saddle. They have to be comfortable with human contact." Step one? "Sacking them out." That means rubbing, gently slapping and patting them with a towel. Next? Saddling them up -- letting them feel the weight and the tension of the tack. If the horse isn't jerking and bucking, it's ready for a live body, which in Struck It Lucky's case will be 26-year-old Mandy Amos.

She'll spend a week riding her in the stall doing small circles (baby steps), another week or so guiding her through figure 8's in a pen, teaching basic commands (a "chirp" to move forward and a "whoa" to stop), and then it will be off to the farm's practice track. The 5/8-mile dirt oval, set beneath the main house, serves as the filly's first serious classroom. Young horses get lazy, distracted or spooked. They drift, zigzag, stop suddenly, bolt. They hang their head too low or too high. They don't concentrate. "You have to show them who's boss," Amos says. "If you don't correct bad behavior the first time, they'll keep doing it." Then there's getting them into shape. That means walking every day and jogging or galloping a lap or two a few days a week. Eventually, to "get a little air in 'em," as Hap refers to fitness, a horse will begin speed work or breezing. Once a week, the horse will run fast, but not full-out, for a short interval -- 1/8 of a mile at first, then 1/4 of a mile and eventually up to 3/8. "It's all about slowly building a foundation," says Amos. "You don't want to push too hard."

Ideally, a yearling bought in the late summer or fall should be ready to graduate onto a track the next May. Yet that's often wishful thinking. Ask any horseman what can go wrong with a thoroughbred and he or she will simply laugh. "You name it, it's happened," Hap says. Clicking hocks and swollen fetlocks, abscesses, ulcers and colitis. Calcification and conjunctivitis. Mud fever and equine grass sickness. Not to mention a variety of swelling, spraining, tearing, breaking and random mishaps. Bernick tells the story of
a yearling he bought at a sale in 2009. Two weeks after he shipped her to Ocala, he woke up one morning to find her dead from what he calls a busted gut. "You don't want remarkable days," says Bernick. "The best day in the horse business is when you go to bed and nothing happened."

Fortunately, nothing serious will happen to Struck It Lucky, save a bucked shin (shin splints) that will sideline her for three weeks. By late May, she'll be breezing 3/8 of a mile with little fatigue. X-rays will show her knees have closed, necessary proof that her bones are strong enough to handle the rigors of racing. On June 1, she will be loaded into a van and shipped off to an actual track for more training. Though much depends on her progress, Struck It Lucky will hopefully enter her first race by mid-August. If she wins and keeps winning, she'll step up in class and competition, with her sights on the Holy Grail in 2012 -- the Triple Crown.

Could Struck It Lucky be the next Zenyatta? Hap admits she's got promise but knows better than to expect too much. "It's all a big crapshoot," he says. "Down here you can see the slow ones, but you can never tell the great ones until they race."

Barn 1A at Arlington Racetrack. Stall 31 is exactly the same as the other 41: A 14-by-14 room made of cinder block and wood, a layer of straw on the floor, fresh water in a bucket and a bale of hay dangling outside its door. Unlike farms, racetracks don't have space for paddocks and pastures, so while she's here prepping for her maiden race, Struck It Lucky spends 22 hours a day, seven days a week in this stall -- a somewhat sad circumstance of a thoroughbred's life. Still, saddled for her morning workout, the filly whinnies playfully. "She's striding good, relaxed," says Tom Proctor, the man who trains all Glen Hill thoroughbreds. "But she's come a long way. When she got here, she was real aggressive, too much for our girl rider to handle."

The filly was fortunate to come to Arlington at all. Post-Ocala, she was shipped to Churchill Downs to train. There, one morning, while galloping on the track, Struck It Lucky threw her rider and ducked through a gap in the fence. Instinctively she tried to return to the barn but instead found herself in a parking area. "A horse's metal shoes on that gravel is like running on ice," Bernick says. "She slid and fell onto the hood of a car." Despite pools of blood, a crushed automobile, nearly 100 stitches and a six-inch scar along her left shoulder, Struck It Lucky avoided career-ending damage. After a few weeks of rest and observation, she made a full recovery and transferred to Arlington as one of 17 horses under Proctor's supervision.

A burly, toothy 55-year-old whose lexicon favors "a'ight" and "sumbitch," Proctor uses one word to describe a horse's life at the track: routine. The animals need it and like it, he says. Whether it's a million-dollar purchase or a thousand-dollar claimer, all thoroughbreds are housed in stalls of the same size, eat the same types of food and have the same daily schedule. Breakfast at 4 a.m. is followed by a health inspection. They'll get their feet picked out, hair brushed, stalls mucked and ankles wrapped. After a warmup saunter around the barn, it's 45 minutes at the track, then back to the barn for a 30-minute cooldown stroll. After a bath, it's back to the stall for lunch at 10 -- the usual mix of corn, barley, sweet feed and oats laced with vitamins and electrolytes. Afternoons involve getting temperatures taken, another inspection and 30 minutes on a patch of grass to stretch their legs, get some sun and graze. A final meal around 4, and they're done until dawn.

As Gabriel, one of the two exercise riders, mounts Struck It Lucky, Proctor delivers typical practice instructions: "Give her a decent 5/8. Let her gallop out." There's no pep talk or strategizing, or even much training when a horse reaches this stage. Once Proctor has determined whether he's got a sprinter or a distance runner (a ruling based on pedigree, conformation and time on the track -- Struck It Lucky's compact body makes her a sprinter), he orders workouts similar to those in Ocala: daily jogging, and galloping and breezing once every five days to build up distance. "You can't tell anything about a horse until it breezes 5/8," he says. "Any horse can keep up for half a mile, but the farther they go, the more quality horses separate from the pack."

What's curious about the training regimen of thoroughbreds is how little they actually work. "They're like MLB pitchers," says Proctor. "We don't want them to do much. They do too much, they get hurt." At most, 2-year-olds breeze every five or six days, and even if they're breezing a long distance, say 7/8 of a mile, it takes fewer than two minutes. That's in the neighborhood of eight minutes a month of serious exertion. The kicker? They're not even running full speed and won't until they're sporting silks. "Speed kills," says Belmont Park-based trainer Linda Rice. "Horses get torn up when they run fast, so you never let them go full-out until it's for money."

Proctor follows Struck It Lucky as she heads out for her workout. While the trainer is wary of racing a horse before it's completely ready, the cost of training thoroughbreds at the track (about $4,000 a month) ensures that he doesn't dawdle when they're good to go. From the grandstands, he watches the filly gallop two laps. She's cool and quiet. He likes what he sees: She's ready to turn pro. "She's no freak-freak," he says with a knowing smile. "But that horse can run." An hour later, Proctor submits Struck It Lucky for her maiden race. Turns out there's one on the 21st -- one week away.

AUG. 21, 2011, PART II
Race day. Struck It Lucky's maiden outing doesn't start well. While she breaks from the Arlington gate without incident, she immediately finds herself in a scrum of six horses along the rail, with little room to maneuver. Halfway through the race, Alvarado finally manages to find some space and slides her off the rail, yet Struck It Lucky is still running behind two horses.
Suddenly, after drifting to the outside, she moves. "Struck It Lucky has angled out and is charging now," says the announcer. As if she has an extra gear, the Glen Hill filly flies past her opponents. The crowd roars to life.
In her last few strides, a cautious Alvarado actually slows her down -- and she wins by 2.25 lengths. "A first and decisive winner! Struck It Lucky making a good first impression."

After photos in the winner's circle with Alvarado, Proctor, Bernick and his fiancee, the filly is led back to the barn. With ears still twitching and veins practically popping out of her skin, she ambles across the Arlington grounds. When they reach the "spit box," the six-stall building where winning horses are drug-tested, Bernick and Proctor are still raving about the race.

"That was a perfect race," Bernick says.

"Yep," Proctor says. "He didn't hit her once."

"She's not even tired."

"He schooled her too. Got her inside so she'd learn what it's like."

"She's got a future, no?"

"Oh yeah," says Proctor, with a theatrical laugh.

He knows that speculating "don't mean s---," that there's little justice or fairy tales in racing. A horse is only as good as its last race, and that's good enough for today. But still, it's hard for him to stifle his excitement.

"Breeders' Cup, here we come."

Tim Struby is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.