Prospective buyers at horse sales try to remove as much chance and risk as possible from a very risky game.
At the Saratoga Yearling Sales this week, the experts will run their hands over hundreds of ankles and knees. They will have their veterinarians scrutinize every centimeter of the young horses. They will feed the animals' pedigrees through the most sophisticated computers.
And most of them will lost their shirts, anyway. Perhaps some of the shrewd owners here should try to emulate the Frank Coniglio approach to buying horses.
Coniglio, the proprietor of a bar near Baltimore, was taking his 3-year-old son on an outing this spring, and so they drove to Timonium to look at horses stabled there awaiting a sale of 2-year-olds in training. The kid started petting a horse named Stephanie Girl and since his godmother was named Stephie, Coniglio took this as a sign.
Two days later, Coniglio was driving his wife, Gail, to the sale itself, intending to become a horse owner. "Frank, we don't know anything about horses," she pointed out, which was not entirely true. Coniglio has once bought a harness horse, who had raced for him twice and finished a distant last both times.
After they arrived at Timonium, Mrs. Coniglio continued to suggest that this hasty investment might be imprudent, and said, "You'd better have a vet look at the horse." So Coniglio hunted up a vet, who told him, "She looks fine to me," and collected $20 for his advice. But by the time he got back to his seat, he found that Stephie's Girl had already been sold. He was crushed.
"You want a horse real bad, don't you" Gail asked. She had been sitting next to a well-dressed gentleman who appeared to knowledgeable and now she opened to her catalouge and pointed to the page. "The man said this is a great horse and he'd be a steal for less than $7,500."
As a 2-year-old was being led into another section of the ring, Coniglio moved quickly away for his seat and started gesturing to the auctioneer. Minutes later, he returned and told Gail excitedly, "I got him for $5,700!
Gail looked at her husband in disbelief. " Not that horse!" she said. "The one in the ring now."
By error, Coniglio has paid $5,700 for a 2-year-old gelding whose breeding could most politely be described as obsure. The sire, Cloudpasser, had managed to win one race in his career. His dam, Petite Dandy, had won one race, too. The maternal grandsire had credentials as inelegant as his name: Spithead.
Coniglio was contemplating his $5,700 mistake when the well-dressed gentleman inquired politely, "Where are you going to send the horse." It hadn't dawned on Coniglio that he had to do something with the animal immediately. He didn't have a farm, a van or even a trainer.
"Where can I get a trainer?" Coniglio asked. The well-dressed gentleman pointed toward a young man in the corner. "He's a trainer." Coniglio walked up to Bill Wolfendale and asked if he would like to add some Spithead bloodlines to his stable.
Could there be a surer road to ruin at a horse sale?"
The experts with their computers and full-time veterinary consulatants at Saratoga would he happy with such a percentage return on their investment. Recognizing that the 2-year-old, who was named Nicky's Pop, wouldn't be ready to run for a while, Wolfendale suggested that he claim a horse for his new owner to put him in action. So he spent $5,000 of Coniglio's money for animal named Jove in Motion.
Jove in Motion ran second in his next two starts, then won his next four, advancing up the claiming ladder to $14,000. Not only had he appreciated by $9,000, but he had earned $20,480 in purses in two months, plus whatever sporting interest Coniglio might have taken.
A couple of weeks ago, the horse who started it all, Nicky's Pop, made his debut at Timonium and finished fourth. He's not going to be the first horse to carry the Spithead line to victory in the Kentucky Derby, but he showed enough promise to suggest that he may be a moneymaker, too. Starvos Niarchos and Skeikh Muhammad may be calling Coniglio from Saratoga and asking him to serve as a bloodstock consultant.