One doesn't become the successful businessman B. Wayne Hughes is without being able to unearth the positive out of a dire situation. But in the summer of 1999, even the founder of Public Storage had a hard time making the best of the situation before him.
His promising homebred son of A.P. Indy had just suffered a career-ending injury after an impressive maiden win. As much as Hughes wanted to give him a second career, Kentucky breeders weren't exactly burning up the phone to see whether his newly retired colt with two starts would join their respective stallion rosters.
"We just didn't want to give up on him," Hughes recalled.
Tough as it was at the time, that scenario is one Hughes recounts with some fondness these days. Because, were it not for the chain of events that followed, Hughes might not be standing arguably the hottest stallion in the Thoroughbred industry.
Malibu Moon is proving success stories can still emerge even in a depressed marketplace.
Currently third on the general sire list by earnings, Malibu Moon has been on a tear with three of his daughters — including Kentucky Derby entrant Devil May Care — winning Grade I races since June 12. From his first eight crops of racing age, he has 45 stakes winners with progeny earnings that total more than $33 million. He stood the 2010 season at Hughes' Spendthrift Farm for a fee of $40,000.
After Malibu Moon suffered a career-ending slab fracture in his knee following his maiden win as a juvenile in May 1999, about the only farm interested in taking on Hughes' colt was Country Life Farm in Maryland, which purchased a half interest in him and stood him for $3,000 his initial season in 2000.
It wasn't a coveted spot in the Bluegrass. It was, however, the best thing that could have happened for the now 13-year-old sire's career.
"He would have been more than lost (in Kentucky). People would have said 'What's he doing here?' because he would have been here on his looks and his pedigree, and it's hard to make a stallion on looks and pedigree if they don't run," said Hughes, who purchased Spendthrift in 2004 and has re-established the historic property as a breeding operation. "His success really falls at the feet of (Country Life's) Josh Pons because he shepherded the horse through his first years, got him mares so that he would have a chance even though we were breeding him for a $3,000 fee in Maryland.
"And right away he started getting stakes winners."
Though Malibu Moon's pedigree and build were appreciated by regional breeders, the Pons family knew he needed big numbers.
In his first season, Malibu Moon was booked to more than 100 mares, and from that first crop came the gelding Perfect Moon, a winner of more than $511,000 and multiple graded stakes on the track.
Once his second crop got onto the track, Malibu Moon added a champion in his gelded son Declan's Moon, who claimed the 2004 Eclipse Award for top 2-year-old male after a 4-for-4 campaign that included a victory in the Grade I Hollywood Futurity.
"I wish I could say that we read the tea leaves (on the mares we got him), but it was literally any mane and tail we could find," said a laughing Michael Pons, who operates Country Life Farm along with his brother Josh. "Granted, some of the mares around here over the years were pretty good mares, but they maybe had some age on them or something.
"They were basically incubators for him, and that's how good a stallion he is, which is just so cool. He moves his mares up, and now it's fun to see him getting the better mares and move them up, as well, which is hard to do."
After four years at Country Life, Malibu Moon was able to break into Kentucky when the Pons family sold 25 percent of their interest in him to Castleton Lyons, and he was relocated to the picturesque facility in Lexington.
Malibu Moon continued to produce strong, precocious runners, and he proved his early success was not just the product of being a big fish in a regional pond.
"Some horses start off with a bang in regional markets, then they come to Kentucky and, as the quality of their book improves, the results don't always match up to that," said Spendthrift Farm General Manager Ned Toffey. "As the quality of mares have improved, the quality of his results have improved with it, and that's a wonderful thing to see because it's not always the case.
"The nice thing is, his most expensive crops are just now coming to the races, so knock wood; hopefully, we're just going to see more of the same."
By 2007, Malibu Moon's fee had risen to $40,000. After Castleton Lyons farm owner Dr. Tony Ryan died in October of that year, Hughes shifted the sire to his own facility for the 2008 season.
While a majority of his top runners, including Grade I winners Malibu Mint, Life At Ten, Funny Moon, Devil May Care and Malibu Prayer, have been female, one trait that appears consistent in his offspring is their ability to outfight the competition at all distances.
Malibu Moon even had a contender on the Triple Crown trail this season in Grade III winner Odysseus, who was euthanized on Aug. 9 because of complications from laminitis.
"They have great speed and the ability to carry it, and they seem to be very competitive," Toffey said. "And that's really what everyone is looking for in a racehorse. There are a lot of horses out there with a lot of talent but, if they don't have that fire, they'll just be an ordinary horse. I think that's a big part of what he passes on, that competitive fire that he has."
At a time when farms have slashed the fees of even the most proven stallions, the astute pricing of Malibu Moon over the years has allowed his owners to buck the trend. His $40,000 fee is slated to go up by an undetermined amount for 2011, but even a $10,000-$15,000 increase would keep him as one of the better values around.
Given the current climate of the market, there is always the danger that diamond-in-the-rough stallions such as Malibu Moon would never get the opportunity to ascend the way he has.
But as much as the teams around him helped ensure his good fortune along the way, Malibu Moon has been largely responsible for his own luck.
"He reminds me quite a bit of a horse like (WinStar Farm stallion) Distorted Humor, a horse who worked his way to the top on his own," Hughes said. "I think that is a sign that he will continue to do well because it's not like he got a lot of great mares and succeeded as a result of those mares.
"It's a big deal for us. It sort of validates what it is we're doing," Hughes continued. "We'll probably never get Spendthrift back to the glory days it used to have, but we're trying to improve things around here, and he's helping us a great deal."