Horse traders

Trainer Derek Ryan made one of the best claims in racing history last fall at Philadelphia Park. Unfortunately for him, he had no way of knowing it at the time.

Updated: June 11, 2004, 2:58 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Trainer Derek Ryan made one of the best claims in racing history when plunking down $5,000 on behalf of Bella Brook Stable last fall at Philadelphia Park for a 3-year-old filly named Be Happy My Love. Unfortunately for him, he had no way of knowing it at the time.

Be Happy My Love, who is by Formal Gold, never could run very fast. One start after the claim, she was beaten 34 lengths in a $6,250 claimer at Philly Nov. 15 and was promptly retired due to a broken sesamoid. Ryan struggled to find someone to take the filly off his hands and said some people turned her down when he offered to give her away for free. Finally, he found someone who not only would take her but paid $4,000 for her. Ryan, also a part owner of the filly, considered himself lucky. He couldn't have been more wrong.

Just six days before Be Happy My Love's last career start, her half brother, a then 2-year-old colt by Elusive Quality, broke his maiden at Philadelphia Park. Ryan knew what had happened, but didn't think the development was that significant. After all, it's hard to get too excited about a maiden sprint winner at a minor league track. Had he only known.

That maiden sprint winner at the minor league track was Smarty Jones. Today, Be Happy My Love is worth a small fortune. Breeding expert Bill Oppenheim estimates her value is $350,000, what someone would likely pay to have a broodmare with some of the same blood in her as Smarty Jones.

"It's a tough game," Ryan said. "Things like this happen all the time. I only had her for a month, for one race. Sure, I wish I had her back. We knew that Smarty Jones could run, but it was hard to figure he'd ever turn out to be as good as he has. Even after he won his first stakes, you couldn't imagine this. It was still just a little stakes race for Pennsylvania breds."

When Ryan claimed the filly off Smarty Jones' owners Roy and Patricia Chapman, he didn't give any thought to her pedigree or what she might be worth as a broodmare. Rather, he thought he had found a cheap horse who appeared to be in good form and could make some decent money at Philly Park because she was eligible for bonuses paid to Pennsylvania breds. But his plan quickly went amiss. The filly was a mess physically.

"She was pretty much broken down," he said. "What was wrong with her? Everything."

After she ran so poorly in her lone start for Ryan and suffered still another injury, he figured the only thing to do was to try and find the filly a good home. When he mentioned the situation to another of his owners, Dennis Barbierri, who runs the Winged Foot Stables racing syndicate, Barbierri was intrigued. He figured that since she was pretty well bred herself, she had to be worth something.

"He told me he was getting rid of the filly," Barbierri said. "I pulled up her pedigree and saw that she was out of a stakes winner. I told him not to give her away, that he ought to keep her for himself. He said no way. I figured it was worth taking a shot."

Barbierri, who is not a breeder, didn't want to hold on to her, either. But in the short time that he had the filly, Smarty Jones started showing more and more promise. The vagaries of race horse genetics were never more evident. One horse out of the dam I'll Get Along didn't have an ounce of ability. Another horse out of the dam I'll Get Along would blossom into a superstar.

He got in touch with Carrie Brogden, who, along with her husband Craig, runs Machmer Hall, a commercial breeding operation in Paris, Kentucky, and asked her if she wanted to buy the filly. Brogden was interested.

Eventually, Barbierri would sell Be Happy My Love to Machmer Hall and Brereton Jones, the former governor of Kentucky, in a complicated deal that involved the Brogden's trading to him a yearling filly by Meadowlake. But Barbierri's timing wasn't the best, either. He didn't wait to see how the Smarty Jones story turned out and estimates the value of the transaction was worth about $55,000 to him.

"We syndicate race horses," he said. "Breeding is something we just don't do. It was the first broodmare I ever had. After three months, I made more than a thousand percent return on my investment and I wound up feeling like an idiot. I wanted to throw up,. There was only one person who wanted to throw up more than me and that was Derek. When I sold her, my wife said, 'You just sold a half-sister to a horse that is going to win the Kentucky Derby. Sure enough. It just goes to show you you should always listen to your wife."

The winners in this game of horse trading were the Brogdens and Jones. As Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and Smarty mania swept across the country, the value of Be Happy My Love, the same horse who, a few months earlier, couldn't win a $6,250 claimer at Philadelphia Park, skyrocketed.

"It's been like hitting the lottery," Carrie Brogden said. "We had no idea Smarty Jones would turn out the way he did. He hadn't even won a graded stakes until the Arkansas Derby. Now we have people coming by our farm who want their picture taken with her. The whole thing is surreal."

Be Happy My Love is in foal to Proud Citizen, like Elusive Quality, a son of Gone West. The Brogdens plan to sell the mare in foal at the Keeneland November sale. It will be time to cash in on their good fortune.

As for Derek Ryan, there's nothing he can do but curse his bad luck and timing. Like he said, this is indeed a tough game.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com