His blue eyes scanned Hip No. 2787, the large bay filly with the white splotch behind her left ear in Taylor Made Sales' 2009 Keeneland yearling consignment. And everything Phil Sims knew was telling him there was nothing really wrong with the daughter of Congaree.
She was going to need time to grow that frame — something those looking for a quick resell wouldn't tolerate. And her modest pedigree isn't what rattles the wallets or imaginations of Thoroughbred racing's one percent.
Didn't matter to Sims. What the Kentucky-based trainer sought were purchases who could stand out on the racetrack. When the filly departed the pavilion that day having elicited only the minimum $1,000 bid, her new owner declared a tiny bit of victory to his eldest son.
"I think he bought 14 out of that sale. And I remember after he bought her, we went and picked them up, he said 'The best horse I bought out of the whole sale was for $1,000,'" said 24-year-old Matt Sims, now his father's main assistant. "My dad didn't care. He was looking for a racehorse."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Now at the age of 6, the kindly bay mare is the apple of Sims' professional eye. She is closing in on $1 million in career earnings. She has never been as adept at wreaking havoc on those who still try to look past her in search of something better.
Her name is Don't Tell Sophia. On Oct. 5, she educated the Keeneland audience on how far a little patience and horsemanship will go when she captured the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster Stakes, earning herself a trip to Santa Anita Park for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 31.
Phil Sims is an unfailingly humble man. So while others may have fallen over themselves detailing why "Sophie's" 21/2-length Spinster triumph represented validation or why her upcoming run in the Distaff ranks as tribute to one's program, her trainer and co-owner doled a few understated emotional snippets before thanking the media for being kind to him.
In Sims' 34-year training career, Don't Tell Sophia ranks as the second Grade I winner he has conditioned. She is not his first home-run horse, but she is his best reminder of why he has stuck to his values even when it looked like returns might never come.
"It's exciting, and professionally it's important," the 53-year-old Sims said. "I own a lot of my own horses or part of my own horses so it makes your life a little easier. But it also gives you confidence of, hey, you can do this. Especially with a horse that as a yearling they said she wouldn't be able to do that."
'A lot of trial and error'
Most trainers can point to a fellow conditioner they did a stint under before making the leap out on their own.
Sims' education, however, was largely home- and self-grown. Raised on a horse and cattle farm just north of Lexington, Sims started dabbling by training a handful of horses for his father. Once he started, he jokes he "couldn't quit." In 1980, he saddled his first starter and began building a base of clients drawn to his straightforward ways.
"It was kind of a lot of trial and error," Sims said of his early training days. "One of the first owners I had horses for was a gentleman named Bill Davis and he helped me out a whole lot. I could pick his brain and I watched some people, got to know some people that I admired and asked questions.
"I always was a student of the game and I still am a student of the game."
Don't ask Nelson McMakin to recall how he and Sims first met because neither can quite remember. It is easier for the Lexington businessman to explain why he was among the first owners to put faith in Sims' skill, and maintained it even when getting to double-digit wins for the year seemed a massive achievement.
More than seeking out various precocious runners, McMakin wanted a fair partner in what he calls "the toughest business I've ever been in." The reward came in 2009 when McMakin's mare Hot Cha Cha became their first Grade I winner when she captured the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland. The daughter of Cactus Ridge would remain a high-profile showcase of what Sims was capable of, going on to earn $998,552 for her career.
"He's honest and above board and always been very fair with me ... and that's the main thing I ask about any individual I deal with," McMakin said of Sims. "If he had gone out and worked for a major trainer for 4-5-6 years ... he could have been around some top-class horses. He's dealt mainly with the other type of horse that isn't the million-dollar horse.
"I tried to talk him into trying it that way but ... I think he was happy doing what he was doing."
In the interest of making sure his hands-on approach remains just that, Sims likes to keep his numbers at around 30 head. He doesn't want to miss a telltale sign from his proteges — understandable since Don't Tell Sophia told him repeatedly not to give up on what he knew was there.
Mare is finally all right
The morning after Hot Cha Cha ran fifth in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf was an especially lousy one at Sims' barn. His big mare had been hindered by a troubled trip and the 2-year-old filly named for his grandmother, Sophie, was diagnosed with a condylar fracture.
It is fitting that Don't Tell Sophia's running style consists of a freight-like late kick because she has had to make her share of physical rallies. In addition to surgery for her fracture and, later, a breathing issue, she has also battled quarter cracks — including one that kept her out of this year's Grade I Apple Blossom.
"As a 2-year-old she was really training well. Then she got an injury ... came back as a 3-year-old and had some more issues," said Sims, who sold a portion of Don't Tell Sophia to Jerry Namy during the fall of her 3-year-old year. "I always thought in the back of my mind, this horse is special. You just hope it works out."
When right, Don't Tell Sophia rarely disappoints. In 22 career starts, she has 11 wins and has only missed hitting the board on four occasions. The last time she was worse than third came two years ago when she ran fourth in a 11⁄16-mile turf test at Keeneland.
Still, the 11⁄8-mile Spinster was not supposed to be her moment. Multiple Grade I winner Close Hatches came into the race unbeaten in four prior starts in 2014.
In a head-scratching outing for her connections, Close Hatches began backing out of the running around the final turn after setting the pace up front. While the filly regarded as the best in a deep distaff division labored home fourth, Don't Tell Sophia made a last-to-first statement.
"She's like a train. Once she gets going, she is not going to stop," said her jockey, Joe Rocco Jr. "She seems to get better with age."
In the days leading up to the Spinster, Matt Sims was ready to burst. Everything about Don't Tell Sophia was telling them she had never come into a race better. And if there is one thing his father has taught him, it is to read the horse and act accordingly.
"I remember being in elementary school and having to go with him to Turfway at 10 at night to saddle for maiden $5,000 or claiming," Matt Sims said. "It means a lot to be there every step of the way and to see the challenges he's had to take.
"To have the opportunity just to get (to the Breeders' Cup) ... that's an accomplishment in itself. A small-time trainer trains her but also a small-time guy owns her. And we can dance the dance with everybody else."