Even for two of Thoroughbred racing's most successful operations, farms that have made their mark dancing cheek-to-cheek with risk, what transpired when the gavel fell on hip No. 343 at the 2014 OBS March 2-year-olds in training sale amounted to a huge gamble.
The reality of the public auction arena is that a majority of the seven- and eight-figure darlings never live up to their final bid, a byproduct of an eternally optimistic marketplace colliding with the inherently tough odds every would-be racehorse must overcome.
So when the connections of WinStar Farm and Stonestreet Stables teamed up to purchase a handsome son of Giant's Causeway for $1.6 million at the OBS auction, the co-sale topper theoretically had one more albatross fixed upon his chestnut neck.
Already a Grade I winner and near-millionaire four starts into his career, Carpe Diem has become that rare high-dollar prospect who is threatening to make his final price a bargain. With a spot in the Kentucky Derby field already solidified by qualifying points, Carpe Diem is again tabbed a clear standout. He was deemed the even-money morning-line favorite after drawing post five over seven others for Saturday's Grade I, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
This year's 11⁄8-mile Blue Grass Stakes is being held one week earlier than its usual spot three weeks out from the first Saturday in May.
In going head-to-head against the Santa Anita Derby in California and the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct this year, the Blue Grass lost a couple contenders to those circuits. Carpe Diem's return to Keeneland, however, was pretty much locked in after he won the Grade I Breeders' Futurity by 61/4 lengths last October, a freakish effort that came in just his second career outing.
In his season debut and first start since running second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Carpe Diem added himself to the list of good 2-year-olds who have carried their form over when he won the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 7 by 5 lengths.
As the only Grade I winner in the Blue Grass field and Ocho Ocho Ocho the only other contender with a graded stakes win to his credit, Carpe Diem stands one solid, healthy outing away from becoming the first seven-figure auction purchase to make the Kentucky Derby field since Cowtown Cat ($1.5 million purchase at 2006 Barretts 2-year-old sale) and Any Given Saturday ($1.1 million 2005 Keeneland September purchase) both started in 2007.
"We knew the horse from the OBS March sale ... and he would have been a high, first-round draft pick at that point," said Todd Pletcher, trainer of Carpe Diem. "We were well aware of his capabilities early on ... but what surprised me more than anything was the amount of speed he had.
"Normally a horse with his pedigree, you wouldn't think to start them off (going) 51/2 furlongs their first start. When a horse like him is able to win in that type of situation, and then be able to stretch out to 11⁄16 miles in his next start, you don't see that very often. It's pretty exceptional. And he's done all the things physically from 2 to 3 you would want him to do."
WinStar Farm had Carpe Diem pegged as such from the start as they were the underbidders on him when he sold for $550,000 as a yearling at the 2013 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
Though WinStar doesn't make it a habit to buy in the seven-figure range, farm president Elliott Walden was given the go-ahead by owner Kenny Troutt to do what it took to land the colt when he reappeared as a 2-year-old. Knowing the level of what it would take to own him, Walden and Stonestreet bloodstock adviser John Moynihan paired up in the first partnership between the two operations.
"Most horses that bring that kind of money ... not all of them work out so it was definitely out of character for what we do," Walden said. "We basically kind of have a formula we follow as far as trying to get Derby-type colts and we try to do that at a much lower cost basis.
"But every now and then (Kenny) said you have to go with your gut. He allowed us to step out of what we normally do and go ahead and purchase him. And it's certainly worked out well."
Classy Class, third last time out in the Grade III Gotham Stakes, drew post No. 7 in the eight-horse field and was made the co-second choice on the morning line with Ocho Ocho Ocho at 6-1 odds.
"This will be a true test for him, a two-turn race for him at 11⁄8-miles," said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Classy Class. "(Carpe Diem) is definitely the horse to beat, maybe something happens and he has a bad day. But even him having an off day, we need to have our best day to be competitive. We just hope we run really well."
Peace and War made Ashland favorite
Peace and War, winner of the Grade I Darley Alcibiades last October, was installed as the slight 3-1 morning-line favorite for the Grade I Ashland Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on Saturday.
Trained by Olly Stevens for Qatar Racing, Peace and War will break from post No. 3 in a field of seven entered. The daughter of War Front has not started since winning the Alcibiades as she was sidelined shortly after due to a slight tear of the XYZ ligament at the base of her fetlock.
"She's really training great," Stevens said. "Now it's a case of she's either good enough or she's not."