John Sikura thinking Free Solo ahead of selling Lady Aurelia and Lady Eli
Michele MacDonald speaks to the consignor set for an explosive few days
When John Sikura thinks ahead to the November sales and his views on selling and buying top-level bloodstock, he is reminded of the National Geographic documentary film Free Solo about a climber who scales Yosemite’s stunning sheer peak El Capitan without any safety gear.
“That’s what we feel like - we’re trying to ascend a very tall mountain without a rope. If you conquest the summit, it’s elation. At the same time, if you have a misstep, you can fall a long way,” Sikura says.
“That’s what high-end horses are about - that’s the challenge. But the higher the risk, the higher the rewards, the more heightened your senses are, and the sharper your approach should be.”
Sikura, president of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms and its sale agency, has honed as keen of an approach as anyone at the lofty peaks of the Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton November sales since 2006. Hill ‘n’ Dale has consigned a total of six mares that have topped one of the sales, or 25 per cent of the highest-priced mares in that time frame, including two that set world records, the $10.5 million Playful Act and, subsequently, the $14m Better Than Honour.
He also has bought a pair of sale-toppers, including champion Take Charge Brandi for $6m at Keeneland in 2015, for partnerships he directs, and he has routinely offered some of the most esteemed bloodlines while appealing to his target audience, the world’s best breeders.
Yet this year is shaping up to be exceptional, even by Sikura’s standards.
Hill ‘n’ Dale will offer the two most exciting mares to come to market in America this season: 2017 female turf champion Lady Eli, in foal to War Front and catalogued as hip 111 at Keeneland, and 2016 European champion Lady Aurelia, a brilliantly fast daughter of Scat Daddy consigned as a broodmare prospect and listed as hip 200 at Fasig-Tipton.
“Our perception of those two mares, and I think the market perception of those two mares, is that they’re unique offerings and they’re very special in their own regard,” Sikura observes. “They were great racemares and they’ll provide an opportunity for an elite buyer to buy a special racehorse which hopefully will become a foundation broodmare.”
Lady Eli, a six-year-old by Divine Park, raced to five Grade 1 victories for the Sheep Pond Partners, Sol Kumin and Jay Hanley. She was withdrawn from last year’s Keeneland November sale after being injured while in tight quarters in the early stages of the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
Lady Aurelia, a four-year-old who defeated males in the 2016 Prix Morny and 2017 King’s Stand Stakes, is coming to market because breeder Barbara Banke of Stonestreet Farms wants to ensure fair value for her partners, George Bolton and Peter Leidel, who are more involved in racing than commercial breeding.
Knowing the allure of the two special mares in the marketplace, Sikura has compounded his November presence by adding to his Keeneland consignment several spectacular weanlings that will tantalise buyers seeking to add foundation families to their holdings or secure exciting racing prospects.
“In that we’re offering Lady Eli and have a consignment that we think will be so well attended, we felt that there will be some synergy between the two groups if we have weanlings of that same quality to stand alongside the mares, and we felt the timing was right to do that,” he says.
His weanling stars are hip 28, a Tapit filly who is a half-sister to champion Arrogate, the all-time leading earner among North American and European-raced runners, and hip 188, a Curlin half-sister to Grade 1 winner and young stallion Honor Code and to the Tapit filly Sikura sold in 2014 for a North American weanling record price of $3m.
Consigning a superior group of weanlings, including a quartet of War Front fillies and a quintet of youngsters by Curlin, reflects Sikura’s intuition about the current market and is a follow-up to the bold approach he took when the Tapit-Serena’s Cat filly set the weanling record while purchased by Bridlewood Farm.
“Four years ago, we had a consignment of weanlings the like of which hadn’t been seen for many, many years. I think we set a new standard in the marketplace,” he reflects. “Our adjustment over the past few years has been that we felt like maybe it was hard for the market to absorb so many weanlings at the same time of that quality.
“We didn’t offer as many last year, and we’re sort of refreshing our approach to offering, again, a group that I don’t think is seen very often. It’s a bit of a feel. I just have a feel that the market is right, the market is excited and will be open to see those once-in-many-years offerings,” he says.
The champion mares and blueblooded weanlings are just the most brilliant highlights of Hill ‘n’ Dale’s 103-horse consignment at Keeneland and nine-horse Fasig-Tipton package, the latter of which also features Grade 1 winner American Gal and her unraced juvenile full sister America’s Starlet.
There are other intriguing horses in the consignments, including three weanlings from the first crop by American champion turf runner and international star Flintshire, who Sikura is standing due to his belief that America can benefit from more diversity in its sire ranks.
Known for launching the stud careers of Medaglia D’Oro and Candy Ride and for negotiating the moves of Curlin and Kitten’s Joy to Hill ‘n’ Dale, Sikura approaches the November sales with multi-dimensional interest.
While others might feel pressure with so many high-profile horses entrusted by clients as well as their own major investments on the line, Sikura relishes the opportunity. He has scaled these mountains before and is hoping to experience more euphoria at the top of the current strong market.
“You feel an obligation to clients for a spectacular result, but we’re not intimidated by that challenge,” he declares.
“The reason to be in the horse business, whether you race or sell, is to do so at the highest level. Pressure goes with the territory. There’s risk and reward in everything,” he says. “The higher the level, the more risk, the more reward. We find it challenging and exciting - it drives me, and I don’t feel intimated or apprehensive about presenting a potential sales topper. That’s why I’m in the business.”
Like any successful breeder, he relies on instinct regarding individual horses and the pulse of the market, and his shrewdness over the years has been key in developing a track record that few can match. From 2006 through 2017, Hill ‘n’ Dale has sold 1,184 horses at November sales for monumental total gross of $270.87m.
The alliances he has built over the years means he often consigns horses owned or connected with Coolmore, Stonestreet, trainer Bob Baffert, Dell Ridge Farm, Craig Bernick of Glen Hill Farm and others. Additionally, many of the horses he consigns are owned by Hill ‘n’ Dale Equine Holdings, solely or in partnerships such as the Elevage venture he created with Bernick.
“My goal each year is to have a consignment that is distinguished and distinctively different than other consignments. That’s what draws people, that’s what creates those big sale results,” Sikura says. “If you have an expectation of topping a sale or selling weanlings for yearling prices, you’d better bring something over that’s special, that you don’t find in other consignments and that are seldomly offered.
“I certainly have several of those special individuals again this year and that’s what we want to be known for having: horses that other people don’t have. We have to appeal to proven international breeders, that have great stock and still say, when they evaluate their own holdings, that this filly or this mare will help their cause or move them forward.
“The challenge in meeting that threshold, when people have these amazing portfolios, is very high and therefore the standard on us is very high when we have to present horses to auction. Obviously, with these types of horses, your target audience is pretty specific and small. Their standards are the highest in the business and therefore you have to be spot-on with what they demand.”
Before, during and after sales, Sikura is constantly evaluating, and he indicates not all the weanlings he has entered for this year’s auction may actually go through the ring. He also affirms that there is a possibility he may again be a high-level buyer.
“It’s a very fluid process. We always decide what we think is best for the horse and that will come first,” he says.
“I never have any foregone conclusions,” he adds about the possibility of buying. “We’ll look at the catalogues and make impressions, and we could be very active, buying and selling. I don’t have a preset plan; I try to be reactive to my emotions.”
Sikura is a co-owner of the two star weanlings in Hill ‘n’ Dale’s Keeneland consignment, having invested in Arrogate’s dam Bubbler with Clearsky Farms and in Serena’s Cat, a stakes-winning granddaughter of champion and successful producer Serena’s Song, with Dell Ridge.
The bay Tapit filly out of Bubbler, born on May 1, is a “leggy, wonderful, lovely filly. She has immense quality. I don’t think you’re going to see anything like her,” Sikura says.
Honor Code’s half-sister by Curlin, a dark bay foaled on April 24, is, he adds: “Great bodied. She’s more like the mare than some of her other offerings in that she looks very strong and very fast. The mare herself was kind of unique in that her preferred distance was five furlongs on the turf and then she produces milers and milers-plus. This filly looks very fast to me.
“These weanlings are special opportunities. You don’t get to see those quality pedigrees very often,” he adds.
Also intriguing among the Hill ‘n’ Dale weanlings is a pair produced by the mares from the family of outstanding sire Redoute’s Choice that Sikura ventured to Australia to acquire in 2014 for the Elevage portfolio.
Hip 58 is a War Front filly out of the Encosta De Lago mare Drifting Cube, who cost the equivalent of $1,018,600, and Hip 219 is a Medaglia D’Oro colt out of the Encosta De Lago mare Taste of Heaven, a $1,389,000 purchase.
Before these weanlings come into the ring, the mares have already repaid Elevage, with four offspring so far having reaped $2.885 million when sold at auction.
As to Elevage, Sikura says with a tinge of a chuckle that he and Bernick have “a very complicated goal: to make money in the horse business.
“We’re pursuing that goal; strategies are ever changing,” he continues. “I think the portfolio has performed very well. We’ve been active in the marketplace and we have differing strategies that will remain proprietary, and I don’t want to discuss why or what we do other than to say we try to buy quality bloodstock at prices we think provide long-term potential and return on investment. We have a lot of money in play.
“It’s a relatively new company. I think we’ve been active now for four seasons, so we have significant assets that are appreciating. Hopefully, we’ll breed a good horse and make an impact not only in the marketplace, but on the racetrack. That’s the goal.”
Sikura has been reaching or exceeding the high goals he sets, and Hill ‘n’ Dale comes into the November sales with the momentum of having sold the War Front colt that topped the Keeneland September yearling sale on a $2.4m bid from Coolmore’s MV Magnier.
That colt was bred by Hill ‘n’ Dale and the Stretch Run Ventures of Sikura’s father-in-law, Ed McGhee, and is from the family of Broodmare of the Year and world-record setter Better Than Honour. Seven daughters of Better Than Honour’s Storm Cat daughter, Teeming, are part of the farm’s broodmare band, including Grade 1 winner Streaming, dam of the War Front colt.
Sikura says those holdings, and his continued efforts to breed mares from his female families to outstanding sires, works to the advantage of buyers who purchase the weanlings and yearlings that Hill ‘n’ Dale opts to sell.
“We want to set standards, we want to set records. We want to offer special horses and we want the buyer, long-term, to benefit from buying horses out of our consignment,” he says.
“It’s really a long-term view, because if you buy a weanling and she costs a lot and something goes wrong and she doesn’t win a stakes but her first foal does, then the page you have not only remains but we’re breeding the mother, the sister, everything in the family to the best of our ability to horses like Curlin, Tapit, Medaglia D’Oro and War Front.
“We’re working on behalf of the customer even though we’ve sold the horse by supporting those pedigrees. That’s a benefit from buying into pedigrees that we own and that we’re trying not only to sustain, but to move forward.”
While Sikura says all sales throughout each year are significant, he notes that “certainly November is an exciting time. You get to see first-crop weanlings, you see these wonderful racemares retired and entering a new career, and fillies just off the racetrac. It’s really a time of renewal. You look towards the future. And I think everybody’s excited about that.
“What you see in November will produce the stars for the future - those first-crop sires that turn out to be brilliant, important sires, those famous racemares that are retired that will be the future producers of stars. It’s kind of like foaling season. I’s the start of a new cycle.
“It’s important for us to be a part of it, and for the entire business to gauge where things are moving. The November sales help set stud fee markets and a lot of things, so it’s really a reset on the marketplace. In November, you’re now into a new cycle,” he says.
“We’re excited to be over there. We’re fully prepared.”
This interview appeared in the Racing Post Bloodstock Kentucky Breeding Stock supplement
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