Thursday, 7 June 2012

Bought and sold for a pittance, I'll Have Another is a horse for the everyman

Fourteen months ago, he wasn't I'll Have Another. His name was "Cheetos." And he wasn't anything special.
On April 19, 2011, a 2 year-old with not much in the way of pedigree or prospects was sold for a mere $35,000 after trotting around for show at an auction in Ocala, Fla. How was he regarded? Well, he was horse No. 494 at that auction, and horse No. 495 sold for $55,000.
Back then, I'll Have Another was nothing more than the product of two horses named Flower Alley and Arch's Gal Edith. Although there was racing talent in his blood, you have to go back four generations in his lineage to find a stakes winner. The general manager of the house that auctioned him, Tom Ventura of Ocala Breeder Sales, says he doesn't even remember seeing the colt that day. The owner of the farm where I'll Have Another was taught to race, Barry Eisaman, describes him "a nice and likeable horse. … It wasn't like he was Shaquille O'Neal out there."

On June 9 at the Belmont Stakes, I'll Have Another will try to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years. If he does it, his current value of more than $2 million – from winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes – will skyrocket even more. Triple Crown winners, once retired, can command six figures per breeding and can breed more than 100 times a year. I'll Have Another, sold last year for $35,000, could be worth tens of millions as soon as next year.
It seems the horse was only slightly less of a bargain than the purchase of Manhattan for the equivalent of $24 in 1626.
But there is more to the I'll Have Another story, and the most wonderful part isn't how he came out of nowhere in his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes wins, but how he did it in real life. He was originally purchased for $11,000 off a Kentucky farm as a yearling in 2010 not by a superagent in seersucker, but by an exercise rider from Mexico whose father started his life in the United States selling tacos off the back of his truck.
The man's name is Victor Davila, a 34-year-old employee of Eisaman Equine in central Florida who drives a beat-up Toyota pickup and, in his boss's words, "hasn't missed a day of work in 10 years." Davila's oldest daughter, Bianca, saw the colt's bright coat and started calling him Cheetos.
"Everyone thinks the horse business is made up of super rich, super wealthy blue bloods, and that they dominate the races," says Ventura. "But there's also stories like this."

If you look at the video of I'll Have Another's auction and workout – scary, by the way, how much it all looks like the NFL combine – not a whole lot stands out. Horse experts have a lovely term called "way of going," which describes how a horse moves. Cheetos had "a smooth way of moving," says Ventura, who has posted the video at "I would call him very efficient. Not up and down up and down. A nice stride."
But that was pretty much it. Two year-olds like him can go for six figures or more, but No. 494 went for about the cost of a cheap horse trailer. Really the only person who saw much in the horse in the beginning was Davila, who loved the yearling's sense of balance in 2010 and went a little over his meager $10,000 target price to get him. Eisaman jokingly calls Davila "semi-cheap," so spending an extra grand of his own money was a sign of something. But if the horse had any legitimate shot of being a Triple Crown threat back then, Davila would have been way out of the bidding.
His goal in buying the yearling two years ago was not to find a Triple Crown thoroughbred, but merely to sell him at a profit. Eisaman and Davila (who has only a handful of colts of his own) are in the "pinhooking" business, which means they flip horses like houses. There's no interest in keeping a colt. In fact, not selling a horse would be a failure.
Perhaps an apt comparison is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady: a late-round draft pick that wasn't expected to do much but found greatness. To say Davila should have kept I'll Have Another is a bit like saying Brady's high school coach should have become his agent and remained his coach throughout his NFL career. Looking back, Davila's sale of I'll Have Another for $35,000 seems like a colossal blunder, but he was happy to make more than three times his investment.
And he did that by teaching the horse to run.
"We start from scratch," says Eisaman, who breeds and sells hundreds of horses every year. "It's a bit like a track athlete that's a couch potato."
It's a painstaking process, beginning with a saddle, which the horse isn't used to, then a bridle, then eventually the rider lies on top of the horse on his belly to get the animal used to walking with weight on its back. All of this takes time. So does loading the horse into a starting gate, making sure he knows there's nothing to be afraid of. Davila did all this without knowing he had a historic horse in his midst. He only did it because it was his job.
"I never imagined him in the Derby," says Davila. "He was a good horse, but not for the Derby."
The big moment comes when a horse starts to run with others. Sometimes a horse won't like being behind because it gets dirt kicked in its face. Sometimes a horse won't like being in the lead because it can be disorienting. I'll Have Another – Cheetos at the time – was fine with both. And that's when the hints of greatness began to emerge.

   Victor Davila bought Cheetos for $11,000 and sold him for $35,000. (Courtesy of the Davila family)"It's when you put him in company," Davila says. "I did it three or four times, and he was happy. He gave more than you asked him. When you ask him, he goes. It's gotta be a special horse to do that. Not every horse has that pattern."
And yet there was no way to measure the horse's heart in a race. There was no way to know how he would respond in a field. There was no way of knowing what would happen to the horse's way of going.
Davila would part with the horse without finding out. To him, I'll Have Another was just the horse his daughter called Cheetos.
So how did this horse with only traces of brilliance turn into a star? We don't really know for sure. It could be a great jockey with a sense of when to let him go, a top trainer at the elite level or just genetics.
Or, since this is horse racing in the modern era, it could be something more nefarious. After all, the current trainers don't have a completely clean track record. I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug O'Neill, was recently suspended by the California Racing Board for giving another of his horses an illegal performance-enhancing mixture. O'Neill has denied the charge.
But Davila's story, so far as we know, is pristine. He couldn't afford the money to train and travel with I'll Have Another at the top level, anyway. These days, he's asked if he regrets selling a horse that could be worth tens of millions. "No," he says. "Not really." His business isn't a lottery. He can't afford to gamble. And if he could, he might have kept another horse, like the one he bought for $8,500 and sold for $100,000. That was in 2010 as well – the same year he sold I'll Have Another.
Davila's goals are to provide for his family and to become a U.S. citizen, something that should happen this year. His payment for I'll Have Another comes mostly in pride. When he watched the Derby at home a few weeks ago with Bianca, his younger daughter, his son and his wife, he was overwhelmed. "I can't describe it," he says. "It's something so special. You feel so happy you want to cry."
And that's what makes I'll Have Another so relatable. He's not a horse of supposed destiny, like Fusaichi Pegasus or Big Brown. He's not even Bodemeister. There were hundreds of horses sold in Ocala that day last April. I'll Have Another was, well, just another. In a sport of kings, he was a horse for the everyman – bought for a pittance, bred by a foreigner, and blessed with great training and a knack for winning. Now the whole world knows his name, and a little-known exercise rider from Mexico will be at Belmont Park to cheer him on.
But Victor Davila and his family won't be cheering for I'll Have Another.
They'll be cheering for Cheetos.

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