Most yearlings arrive unnamed at Thoroughbred auctions, identified only by their hip numbers and pedigrees, before being named by their purchasers.
Hip #2271 at the 2019 Keeneland September yearling sale wasn’t like most horses then, nor is he now. He came to the Taylor Made Sales Agency consignment named Jackie’s Warrior, and though he was sold to Kirk Robison for $95,000, his name was not changed.
That was serendipitous considering the back story. Jackie’s Warrior was named by her breeders, Jennie and John Williams of J and J Stables in Florida, to honor Jennie’s sister, Jackie Ross, a brain cancer survivor in remission.
Kirk Robison, unaware until late October of the background, kept the name because he liked it for the son of Maclean’s Music. He never contacted The Jockey Club for a change, he said, though the practice is allowed for unraced horses.
On Nov. 6 the two Jackies — horse and human — have a date at Keeneland in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Ross and her husband plan to join the Williamses at Keeneland, and the colt’s owners, Kirk and Judy Robison, will head there from their home in El Paso, Texas.
“It’s just one of those things that thank God they didn’t change the name and Jackie is able to watch the horse and the horse is performing with the same spirit Jackie showed as she battled cancer,” John Williams said.
Their original intention, he said, was not to sell Jackie’s Warrior, but to race him, as they did the first two foals out of his dam, the A. P. Five Hundred mare Unicorn Girl. But managing a stable of broodmares, young horses, and racehorses requires cash flow and occasional thinning of the herd.
“We were downsizing the stable to bring some new horses in, and we made a decision to sell a couple of them off. Our good fortune is we have Unicorn Girl and their good fortune is they got Jackie’s Warrior,” Williams said of the Robisons. “It’s just awesome to watch.”
Kirk Robison, who grew up in Southern California attending Santa Anita Park and Hollywood Park before moving to Texas with his wife in the 1970s, also considers it good fortune, though he has another term for it: luck.
The owner is 81, though he doesn’t act it. “Just say I’m 61, and we’ll say it’s a typo,” he quips.
He continues to manage the family business, Pizza Properties Ltd., which encompasses over 40 Peter Piper Pizza stores in Texas and New Mexico.
Some of his horse business decisions are delegated. He played no role in the selection of Jackie’s Warrior, for example, leaving the choice of the colt to Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who buys yearlings for him.
They’ve had success together, racing some graded stakes horses, one of whom was Mico Margarita, who ran 12th in the 2014 Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint. A year before, the Robisons had their other Breeders’ Cup starter when the Henry Dominguez-trained Wine Police ran eighth in the Sprint.
“A lot of people pay the same kind of money for a colt, and they don’t get one close to this guy,” Robison said of Jackie’s Warrior. “I understand there is a lot of luck involved. And sometimes you have luck, sometimes it’s me. It just depends. I feel very grateful for the horse. Steve gets all the credit for picking the horse.”
Asmussen calls him a “wonderful horse” and believes his achievements rank ahead of any 2-year-old that has come through his barn over the years.
“We’ve had some very nice ones but I think he is the first horse to win the Saratoga Special, Hopeful, and Champagne since Dehere did it [in 1993],” Asmussen said. “So, he’s obviously a very accomplished 2-year-old. We’re very proud of that.”
Those victories in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite, Grade 1 Runhappy Hopeful Stakes, and Grade 1 Champagne Stakes pushed his record to 4-for-4 after a debut maiden win at Churchill Downs. They also caused Robison’s phone to ring. Beginning after the Saratoga Special, Spendthrift Farm began showing an interest in securing his breeding rights as a stallion and a deal was struck in late summer.
“After the Hopeful — gee, the race was barely over — they sent me a text to talk about doing a deal, and we did,” Robison said. “The deal is Steve and I manage the horse during his racing career and they take over when he goes to stud. We get the purses and the expenses, and in addition to some up-front, I got some incentives like if he wins the Breeders’ Cup coming up or a future Breeders Cup race or Triple Crown races, bonus money gets paid.”
His breeders are also sitting pretty, still owning the mare, for at least a little while. The 15-year-old Unicorn Girl, in foal to Into Mischief, was supplemented to the Keeneland November breeding stock sale as Hip #244C, as was Jackie’s Warrior’s weanling half-brother by American Pharoah , Hip #244B. Beau Lane Bloodstock consigns the pair, currently stabled at Lane’s Woodline Farm near Paris, Ky.
Another half sibling to Jackie’s Warrior, a yearling filly by Candy Ride, went through the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October yearlings sale as part of the Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency consignment. She fell short of her reserve after bidding halted at $675,000. She would have been the sale topper if she had sold.
Unicorn Girl previously was unsold for $110,000 at the 2018 Keeneland November sale carrying the Candy Ride filly, well before Jackie’s Warrior had hit the track.
Few could have predicted that Unicorn Girl and her offspring would garner such attention. She raced for a claiming price as low as $7,500, and her pedigree was void of graded stakes winners in her first two dams. There are successful horses in her bloodlines, but more of the blue-collar variety, even if they managed to win a stakes race.
Unicorn Girl never did, nor did she even race in one. But she racked up $483,508 in earnings by winning 19 lower- or mid-level sprint races and earning the respect of John Williams. After J and J raced her for several years before she was claimed away, he continued to follow her career and decided to reclaim her for $16,000 in her 54th and final start in July 2013 at Monmouth Park. Although more than a half-year away from the breeding season the following spring, the then 8-year-old was retired to become a broodmare, he said.
“She ran a long career,” Williams said. “That’s why we didn’t want to run her anymore. She put her time in.”
Unicorn Girl was not bred until age 9 when many mares have already produced a few foals. But she’s making up for lost time with three foals on track. Her first, Little Hidden Gem (by Bodemeister), failed to win in six starts, but her next foal to race, King Theo (by More Than Ready), has been successful, breaking his maiden at Gulfstream Park and later placing in an allowance there and at Ellis Park over 11 career starts.
Jackie’s Warrior is on another level. Quick into stride, he often will establish a lead in a matter of seconds and then sustains his advantage. He has yet to face a serious challenge, winning every race by more than two lengths.
Now his first test comes around two turns and beyond a mile. The Juvenile is 1 1/16 miles and drew more opposing speed horses and depth than the Champagne.
“He’s never run at or won on Keeneland. It’s always a different challenge, a new surface,” Robison said. “I’ve heard, from people that know, that Keeneland is usually pretty favorable to speed horses, which would be nice. I’m extremely optimistic. The oddsmakers have made him the [early] favorite, and usually, they kind of know what they’re doing.”
His wife, kids, and grandchildren will cheer on Jackie’s Warrior at the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, where participating owners and connections are permitted, though not paid spectators as a COVID-19 safety precaution. The Williamses are also keen to make the trip there with the colt’s namesake, Ross.
“She’s really excited,” John Williams said of his sister-in-law. “She just learned recently about the success that he’s had. She knew I named a horse after her, but now she’s going to get an education in the horse business.”