Some of the biggest gambles in horse racing take place not at the betting windows but in the auction ring. Most top horses are purchased in public auctions, which take place several times a year in locales such as Lexington, Ky., Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Ocala, Fla. The price tags for these future runners runs the gamut. Sometimes, a horse is sold for a few thousand; other times, they can go for $1 million or more.
This year, 13 of the 20 prospective entrants (as of April 30) in the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs were sold at public auction. Their purchase prices varied greatly, but they are all on pace to end up in the same spot: in the starting gate in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. Let’s take a look at them, listed from most to least expensive:
Taiba: $1,700,000 - Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale 2021
Bred by Bruce Ryan in Kentucky, this impressive-looking colt originally sold for $140,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale in 2020. A few months later, he was sold for a much higher tag to Amr Zedan, with agent Gary Young serving as the buyer. Taiba has shown plenty of promise in his two career starts, including a win in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby last out.
Messier: $470,000 - Fasig-Tipton Selected Yearlings Showcase 2020
In September 2020, this Ontario-bred colt was purchased out of the Selected Yearlings Showcase sale in Lexington by “the Avengers,” a large conglomerate of owners captained by SF Racing and Starlight Racing. Messier was bred by Sam-Son Farm, one of the major forces in Canadian racing prior to the start of their dispersal in late 2020. He’s a son of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, out of the Smart Strike mare Checkered Past. The late Smart Strike, bred and owned by Sam-Son, exerted his influence as one of the best North American stallions over the past two decades.
Tawny Port: $435,000 - Keeneland September Yearling Sale 2020
One of several Derby contenders sold at Keeneland in September 2020, Tawny Port was bred by WinStar Farm and sold to John Fort’s Peachtree Stable. A later-developing sort compared to some of the others on the Derby trail, Tawny Port broke his maiden at Turfway Park in December 2021 and most recently won the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.
Cyberknife: $400,000 - Fasig-Tipton Selected Yearlings Showcase
Ken and Sarah Ramsey are one of the major forces in Kentucky breeding. They bred Cyberknife at their farm and sold him to Al Gold in September 2020, just a few hip numbers before Messier. He’s coming into Louisville off an impressive win in the Arkansas Derby.
Tiz the Bomb: $330,000 - Fasig-Tipton Selected Yearlings Showcase
Tiz the Bomb was also offered at the Showcase in September of 2020 and was purchased directly by his owner and trainer, Ken McPeek. Sired by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Hit It a Bomb, Tiz the Bomb has done his best work so far on grass and synthetic surfaces. We’ll see how his form transfers over to dirt on May 7 in the Kentucky Derby.
Epicenter: $260,000 - Keeneland September Yearling Sale 2020
Epicenter was bred by Westwind Farms in Kentucky and sold to Winchell Thoroughbreds, a longtime family operation currently headed by Ron Winchell. Winchell Thoroughbreds’ previous Derby starters include Gun Runner, Whitmore, and Midnight Bourbon. Coming out of an impressive string of races at Fair Grounds earlier in the year, Epicenter is likely to go off as one of the Derby favorites.
Mo Donegal: $250,000 - Keeneland September Yearling Sale 2020
Bred by Ashview Farm and Colts Neck Stables, Mo Donegal was purchased, as his name implies, by Donegal Racing. Led by Jerry Crawford and several partners, Donegal Racing has been to the Derby three times and has finished third twice with Dullahan and Paddy O’Prado.
Early Voting: $200,000 - Keeneland September Yearling Sale 2020
Three Chimneys Farm, one of the most venerable breeding operations in Kentucky, bred Early Voting and sold him to Klaravich Stables in the fall of 2020. Klaravich and trainer Chad Brown have teamed up on many top grass horses over the years and they won the Preakness Stakes with Cloud Computing in 2017. At press time, they were leaning towards skipping the Derby with Early Voting and bidding for a second Preakness win.
Smile Happy: $185,000 - Fasig-Tipton Selected Yearlings Showcase 2020
Smile Happy, as his name implies, was sired by the ever-present stallion Runhappy, who won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 2015 and serves as a sponsor for many races and events in the sport through his owner, Jim McIngvale. Smile Happy was sold as a weanling for $175,000 at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale in 2019 to Cooper Bloodstock, and then sold for a slightly higher number less than a year later at the Fasig-Tipton sale to Lucky Seven Stable. He won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes over the Churchill track last year.
Zandon: $170,000 - Keeneland September Yearling Sale 2020
Zandon has some very local connections. He was bred by Brereton Jones, who served as governor of Kentucky from 1991 to 1995. In 1972, Jones opened Airdrie Stud in Midway, Ky., and he has won the Longines Kentucky Oaks three times. Jones elected not to campaign Zandon himself and sold him to Minnesota businessman Jeff Drown. Zandon most recently won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Summer Is Tomorrow: $169,743 - Arqana Deauville 2-Year-Old Breeze Up Sale 2021
The only horse in the field sold at a sale outside of the United States, Summer is Tomorrow was also bred by Brereton Jones in Kentucky. The bay colt originally sold for $25,000 at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale in 2020 but then did not sell when offered at the September Yearling auction. He was bought by his current owners, Michael Burke and Negar Burke, in France in the spring of 2021. The May 7 Kentucky Derby marks his American debut.
White Abarrio: $40,000 - Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. March 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale 2021
This striking gray colt originally sold for just $7,500 at the Ocala 2020 Winter Mixed Sale to Jose Ordonez. A few months later, Carlos Perez purchased him for C2 Racing Stable and La Milagrosa Stable for more than five times that price. He’s more than exceeded expectations, with wins in the Holy Bull Stakes and the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa under his belt.
Barber Road: $15,000 - Keeneland November Breeders’ Stock Sale 2019
The least expensive horse in this year’s Derby was bred by Susan Forrester and Judy Curry in Kentucky, who sold him as a weanling to former Walmart CEO Bill Simon and his wife Tammy through agent/advisor Jared Hughes. His dam, Encounter, was bred by Brereton Jones and raced just once in her career. Barber Road has qualified for the Derby by hitting the board in four prep races at Oaklawn Park.