LOUISVILLE, KY. — The towering young horse rounded the tight oval track in Timonium with an ease that caught the eyes of some of the most successful thoroughbred buyers in the country.
Bloodstock scout Donato Lanni and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had long since learned to be skeptical of big horses. "They have breathing issues," Baffert said. "They're hard to keep sound."
But Dortmund won him over, enough that he and Lanni urged their client, Kaleem Shah, to buy the colt for $140,000 at auction last spring. "For a horse to go that fast, especially on that tiny track at Timonium … if they can survive that and come out pretty good, hey that's huge," Baffert said.
It's looking like a mighty good bet, given that Dortmund will enter the Kentucky Derby undefeated in six races and a 3-1 second choice in the morning line.
This year's Derby is short on connections to Maryland racing. But the successes of Dortmund and other contenders such as Materiality and International Star have brought significant attention to Fasig-Tipton's 2-year-old and yearling auctions in Timonium, where all three were purchased.
Shah, aided by advice from Lanni and Baffert, has particularly thrived at the sale, where he also bought Bayern, winner of last year's $5-million Breeder's Cup Classic.
"Timonium has been good to me," said Shah, a Reston, Va.-based businessman who learned to love racing in India, where his father was a top trainer.
The annual auction of 2-year-olds, where Shah bought Dortmund, might be little known to casual racing fans. But in its way, it ranks among the most important events on Maryland's thoroughbred racing calendar. Traditionally held the week after the Preakness Stakes, the sale attracts some of the wealthiest and most successful horsemen in the country to speculate on future champions.
"Granted, these aren't Maryland-breds, and the economic impact isn't direct, but it puts an important spotlight on Maryland," said Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "People are coming to Maryland to buy good horses. It adds to the perception that we have a valuable commodity market in our state."
Paget Bennett, who supervises the Timonium sales for Fasig-Tipton, said the run of Derby contenders can only help an auction that's sometimes overshadowed by larger counterparts in Kentucky and Florida. "You can't imagine how exciting it is," she said. "We're kind of the little guy here, selling at Timonium."
Not so little. Fasig-Tipton sold 329 horses for a total of $19.6 million last year, and Bennett hopes those numbers will rise given the hype around Dortmund, Materiality and others. "It gives buyers confidence that consignors are bringing good horses to the May sale," she said.
Respected talent scouts such as Lanni consider the auction a must because it's the latest sale of 2-year-olds on the calendar and thus offers an optimal look at horses that might turn into next year's Kentucky Derby contenders.
"The timing is good, giving them that extra time to develop as opposed to March," said Lanni, who serves as director of bloodstock services for Hill 'n' Dale Farm in Kentucky. "That extra month or two gives those horses time to get their feet underneath them. They come to the sale in one piece and happy."
Certainly, Dortmund had matured into quite a sight when Lanni glimpsed him last May. "Big as he was at the time, he was super-athletic," he recalled. "He was like little LeBron, or what LeBron looked like in high school. He towered over other kids, but he was super-athletic."
In the same sale, Baffert and Lanni had their eye on Materiality, a 12-1 co-fourth choice for the Derby. They backed off for reasons neither can remember. "We're kicking ourselves on that one," said Baffert, who will saddle the top two favorites in Saturday's race.
In swooped Steve Young, another bloodstock agent who's enjoyed repeated success at the Timonium sale. He bought Materiality for $400,000 on behalf of Alto Racing, a union of partners from New Mexico and Houston.
"That's OK," he said, laughing when he heard of Baffert's regret. "I'm kicking myself for not buying Dortmund."
Of the Timonium auction, he said: "There's good horses that come out of there every year. Just a terrific sale. It's big enough where it spreads things out, and it's the last dirt sale of the year."
Materiality is also a large, powerful colt, but unlike Dortmund, he was not ready to run as a 2-year-old.
"When we got him back from the sale, he needed to be backed off," said Gil Moutray, the New Mexico half of the Alto partnership. "We huddled up and made the decision to take it slow. He's a big horse and we wanted to plan for a big, two-turn stakes. The way it worked out was best."
Materiality is undefeated this year under the guidance of trainer Todd Pletcher. And he opened many an eye with his victory in the Florida Derby, where he outdueled fellow Kentucky contender Upstart over a deep, physically demanding track surface.
Pletcher was pleasantly surprised at how fresh Materiality seemed, training in the wake of that victory. His resilience suggested a real potential to handle the grind of the Triple Crown schedule, despite the fact no horse since 1882 has won the Derby after not racing as a 2-year-old.
"Todd thought it would've taken a lot out of him, just like everyone else expected," Moutray said of the Florida Derby. "But then he called me and said, 'Gosh, he looks like he's ready to run right now. Maybe this race really just woke him up.'"
Suddenly, that $400,000 price tag seemed a relative pittance.
Alto Racing also scored at the Timonium sale with Winning Cause, a Derby qualifier two years ago, and Chipit, another undefeated 3-year-old.
Among this year's Derby entrants, International Star also came from Timonium, though he was purchased at the September yearling sale in 2013 by longtime Kentucky owners and breeders Ken and Sarah Ramsey. The Ramseys paid $85,000 for a horse who'll enter the Derby with $1 million in career winnings. Not bad.
Harry Rosenblum bought War Story, a 50-1 Derby longshot, for $51,000 in the same sale that featured Dortmund and Materiality. The colt has already earned $243,600.
Baffert summed up the recent spate of stars from Timonium as "freaky luck."
But the sales carry a long history of producing stars, from recent Hall of Fame selection Xtra Heat to 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex. There's a reason Baffert and other luminaries will be hanging around the Timonium Fairgrounds the day after Preakness, scouting another offering of more than 400 2-year-olds.
"You buy 'em and then you go to Michael's and have the best crab cakes," Baffert said with a grin.
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