When you first walk into trainer Federico Villafranco's barn at Remington Park, you will be greeted by a barn full of happy horses sticking their heads out of stalls hoping for a mint. But the most hopeful of all is also the flashiest, with recent addition Southern Phantom not above using his unique looks if it gets him his beloved treat.
Sent to the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, the white-headed 3-year-old colt drew plenty of attention. Making a last-second decision to bid on Southern Phantom, owner Danny Caldwell didn't know exactly what he was signing up for when friend and agent Don Waits told him he needed to buy the horse.
"I'd seen him on social media when he'd run up in New York, but at the time when I was bidding on him, I wasn't familiar (with him)," Caldwell said. "(Don Waits) told me to watch Hip 3111. … We got to our house in Oklahoma City, and I ran over and pulled him up on the internet and looked—he'd run third his last out. I said, 'Yeah, we'll pay $20,000 to $25,000 for him. I need another racehorse.' He walked in the ring, and I told my wife, Allison, 'Holy cow, that's the colored horse. I can't afford that horse.' He kind of stuck at $15,000, then went to $20,000, and we got him bought."
It was obvious how much the horse was loved by his former connections when former trainer Eric Guillot reached out to tell Caldwell all about him in the weeks after the sale. But it also became clear to Caldwell how much fans loved “Phantom” when he saw all the social media chatter almost immediately after the hammer dropped.
The Caldwells set up Facebook and Instagram accounts with behind-the-scenes posts about Southern Phantom to assure everyone he was going to be headed to a good home.
"(The social media reaction) was big, and we had to kind of let everyone know—Allison, she's done a great job of getting him his own Facebook page and Twitter page—to let everyone know he's safe, he's in good hands," Caldwell said. "Everybody always wants to question when a horse goes outside of New York or Kentucky if he's going to be OK, he's well taken care of. We just had to assure everyone that he's fine here, he's well taken care of."
Once Southern Phantom arrived at Remington Park, people were also able to get to know how much personality the horse has, with the colt using his best mint-begging face for photos.
The colt has taken well to life at Remington Park and is a consummate professional heading to the track. But he quickly turns into the barn jokester at the end of the morning when the mints are brought out. His antics when he's trying to convince humans he needs all the mints in their pockets has led him to be affectionately dubbed "The Prince of Peppermints" around the barn.
"He knows he's a stud," Caldwell laughed. "He understands that, 'Hey, I've been messed with my whole life. Everyone has spoiled me, so you gotta keep spoiling me.' He's a big spoiled brat. He wants a treat every time you walk by—he loves peppermints—but he's doing really good."
Also the owner of a small breeding operation that stands Da Stoops, Caldwell bought Southern Phantom to race before a potential career as a stallion. Southern Phantom spent the past month getting into shape, and his connections are targeting a return to the track in February or March at Oaklawn Park, though Caldwell and Villafranco will give him more time if he needs it.
Southern Phantom has shown signs he wants to be a racehorse, often wanting to head back to the track when he's brought out of the barn. But if he gives any indication a racing career isn't right for him, Caldwell isn't afraid to look at other options.
"We enjoy having him in the barn and we're looking forward to him being a racehorse. But if he decides that's not his passion, then we're going to go other venues. Maybe breeding or showing, but right now he wants to be a racehorse."