The agents who unearthed Justify reveal how they found the Triple Crown hero
James Thomas catches up with the China Horse Club buying team
Thousands of yearlings get sold each year, but only 13 horses have won the US Triple Crown in the history of the sport, so being tasked with trying to find a colt capable of achieving such a colossal feat at public auction makes looking for a needle in a haystack seem easy.
But at Keeneland back in September 2016, the combined might of the China Horse Club's Michael Wallace and Mick Flanagan, SF Bloodstock's Tom Ryan, Newgate Farm's Henry Field, and Elliott Walden and David Hanly from WinStar Farm unearthed the holy grail when they selected Justify from a mammoth catalogue of 4,479 yearlings.
Having been picked up for $500,000, the Bob Baffert-trained colt wrote his name into history books on Saturday when his Belmont Stakes romp saw him become just the second horse to land the Triple Crown with an undefeated record, equalling the achievement of Seattle Slew back in 1977.
"It's a sort of surreal feeling to be there and see that happen," says Wallace on his Belmont Stakes experience. "It was an amazing day and he's an amazing horse. You never dream of having a horse, or an opportunity, like this. It's something I'll remember forever."
Those sentiments were echoed by Wallace's China Horse Club colleague Flanagan, who said: "It's absolutely huge and like the other lads, I just feel very lucky to have had the experience.
"We're definitely in awe of the horse, he's something very, very special. I went out to Belmont on Sunday morning to look at him, and physically and mentally he's just a beast from a different planet."
The strapping son of Scat Daddy is owned in partnership between the China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners, and selecting him from the thousands of yearlings at the 2016 edition of Keeneland's September Sale was very much a collaborative effort too.
"The way it works is myself and Michael Wallace go off through the barns and do up our shortlists, as do Tom Ryan and Henry Field, and Elliott Walden and David Hanly do the same," explained Flanagan. "We meet up every evening and whatever is left on all three shortlists goes to the next phase, being vetted et cetera.
"We all have to agree on a horse though, so if two partners like a horse but the third doesn't we basically take it off the list. There's a budget for the yearling season between Saratoga and Keeneland and we aim to buy 36 or 37 every year."
Although there was plenty of choice at Keeneland that year, Wallace said that the team did not have to look too hard to come across the colt now known as Justify.
"He was fairly simple to find because physically he's an amazing horse to look at," he said. "He was basically exactly what we were looking for. He was a big yearling but moved very well and was very light on his feet for such a big horse."
Those thoughts were shared by Flanagan, who said of Justify: "He was a big, imposing horse. He was very tall and was quite a leggy yearling, but he had a very good action and you could've set a bomb off beside him and he wouldn't have flinched.
"Thankfully all three partners had the same opinion of him and luckily we were able to buy him."
Despite having found a generation-defining colt, Wallace also gave a nod to the perils of buying blue-chip bloodstock, saying: "A horse like Justify coming along makes up for plenty of the others. As we all know, not every horse can hit the highs that you'd like them to."
Seeing is believing
While Justify burst onto the Classic scene at the 11th hour, having failed to make the track at two, Flanagan said those connected to the horse had always maintained their optimism.
"Bob Baffert was always very positive on him and as he got closer to making his debut the feedback was very strong, though you never really believe it until you see it," he said.
"Then he won his maiden and went on and did the same second time up, then when he stepped up into the Santa Anita Derby, that's when we all turned around to each other and said 'yeh this is something special'."
And Justify's Triple Crown conquest was not the only result that had the China Horse Club celebrating at Belmont on Saturday, as Abel Tasman got her career back on track with a seven-and-a-half length victory in the Ogden Phipps Stakes, her fifth Grade 1 success.
"That was just unbelievable," said Flanagan. "We were so delighted with that win. She'd been training well before her seasonal reappearance [in the La Troienne Stakes] but things didn't pan out and we were desperately disappointed, so we went into Saturday's race a little bit nervous.
"We wanted to see her bounce back and thankfully she put in one hell of a show. She's an exciting one for the rest of the year - hopefully we'll finish up at the Breeders' Cup."
The next chapter
The China Horse Club's familiar red and yellow-starred silks have also graced the big stage in Australia in recent times thanks to Group 1-winning colts like Invader and Russian Revolution, and the next step towards global domination could come at Royal Ascot.
The powerful ownership operation, that bills itself as Asia’s premier lifestyle, business and thoroughbred racing club, is set to be represented by Yoshida, a Japanese-bred son of Heart's Cry who was last seen winning the Grade 1 Old Forester Turf Classic Stakes.
"He's been training well and on his day he's a very, very good horse," said Flanagan of the Queen Anne Stakes contender.
"He's a well-bred Japanese horse and we've seen them race all over the world before - they're very tough. He's a big hardy colt and I think people will be impressed when they see him. We're going to Royal Ascot with a fighting chance."
Yoshida was bought by the China Horse Club, WinStar Farm and SF Bloodstock at the 2015 Japanese Racing Horse Association Sale, where he was picked up from the draft of his breeder, Katsumi Yoshida's Northern Farm, for ¥94,000,000 (£639,805/€725,095).
"Myself, Elliott and Tom went to the JRHA Sale in 2015 and bought several yearlings," explained Flanagan. "It proved to be a very good exercise and it's something we might well do again in the future."
For now, though, the China Horse Club's buying team are entitled to press pause on future plans, bask in Justify's success and reflect on their involvement with a truly exceptional equine talent.
"We're delighted it's happened and it's great for the fans who watched from overseas, especially those who tuned in from China," concluded Flanagan.
"It's great for racing fans that the whole thing has happened. It's just been fantastic. It's monumental, to be honest, and I don't think it's really sunk in for any of us."
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