There is a wonderful image out of this year’s Kentucky Derby that deserves to serve the sport well for years to come. As the eventual winner Mage came with his run under Javier Castellano to collar long-time leader Two Phil’s, cameras followed the reaction of his connections as they were caught in the moment, the intensity of emotion proving once again that horse racing can indeed provide memories that money can’t buy.
Within the throng of people was agent Ramiro Restrepo, a well known face on the European sales circuit who had worked with trainer Gustavo Delgado to pluck Mage out of last year’s Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale in Timonium, Maryland. Restrepo had backed his judgement by staying in on the colt alongside co-owners OMGA Investments LLC, Sterling Racing and CMNWLTH, and in return has been taken on a ride that went from maiden win to Kentucky Derby victory within the space of 14 weeks.
Such a rapid rise to Classic stardom is a rarity in American racing to the extent that Mage is only the third Kentucky Derby winner in history to have been unraced at two. Another is the Triple Crown hero Justify, whose Derby success in 2018 bridged a lengthy gap that stretched all the way back to Apollo in 1882.
Restrepo chuckles at the memory of cheering on Mage that Saturday afternoon in Louisville. “You know, I remember seeing Charles O’Brien cheer on his dad’s horse, [the Vincent O’Brien-trained] Royal Academy, at Belmont Park when he won the Breeders’ Cup Mile,” he recalls. “I’ve always identified with that video. Horses bring out such emotion. Passion is what it’s about.
“Between them, my grandfather and uncle were in the industry for over 70 years and their dream was to lead one over for the Kentucky Derby. So for myself, I had already won by having Mage in here. I did my grandfather’s wish. My uncles were able to be there and they came down with me when we led him over. So for him to be able to win, that was surreal.”
At $290,000, Mage may not fall into the bargain category but the figure pales into comparison with some of the sums shelled out by people in search of a potential Kentucky Derby candidate.
“When you’re shopping at my level – generally between $75,000 to $200,000 – you’re shopping for value”
Bred by Grandview Equine, a partnership headed by Robert Clay, he is from the first crop of champion American two-year-old Good Magic, who ran second to Justify in the 2018 Kentucky Derby, and out of Puca, a Grade 2-placed daughter of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown. They’re quality connections but even so, when it comes to first-season sires, there is often a market ceiling in value. Following the progeny of unproven stallions isn’t for everyone but for Restrepo and his connections, it’s an opportunity – and on occasions, a golden one at that.
“When you’re shopping at my level – generally between $75,000 to $200,000 – you’re shopping for value,” he says. “You’re looking for angles. And for me, going after the progeny of freshman stallions has probably given me my top six purchases. I’d rather fall on my sword over a talented freshman sire than take what’s left by the high-profile sires.
“Gustavo and I work the sale in tandem, and we both agreed on Mage. He had a phenomenal breeze. His time was spectacular, the way he did it was great and if you look at his gallop out, he looks like he could do it all again. For such a young horse, it was a phenomenal thing to do.
“And then back at the barn, he was the clone of his sire – the markings, his colour, his action, just everything about him was like Good Magic.”
As it has turned out, Good Magic has gone on to become one of North America’s most exciting young sires. The son of Curlin, another success story for Hill ’n’ Dale Farm, gained an early top-flight representative in Blazing Sevens, winner of last year’s Grade 1 Champagne Stakes, and currently has nine first-crop stakes winners to his credit.
“We stretched a little more than we intended to get Mage and no sooner had the hammer come down, then I was immediately on the phone trying to put together a partnership,” says Restrepo.
“One call was to Sam Herzberg of Sterling Racing. Sam had a Derby colt ten years ago called Black Onyx who had to be scratched the day before the race. So he’s been Derby dreaming ever since. He saw the marketing video I put together on the colt and jumped in. And my second call was to CMNWLTH and they took a share as well.”
With the Venezuelan father-son training team of Gustavo Delgado and Gustavo Delgado Jr. also staying in, the end result is a real melting pot owners, particularly so given that CMNWLTH represents the interests of over 300 micro-shareholders. The brainchild of Chase Chamberlin and Brian Doxtator, the fledgling syndicate is also a shareholder in $14.9 million earner Country Grammer, winner of last year’s Dubai World Cup.
“We give all our horses four to six weeks off after the two-year-old sales,” recalls Restrepo. “Mage was actually ready to go at Keeneland in October but the weather wasn’t great and we said we were better bringing him home to Miami and starting him there. Gustavo circled the maiden at Gulfstream Park on Pegasus World Cup day, so we targeted that and he won.”
That debut came only on January 28 and from there Mage went to the Grade 2 Fountain Of Youth Stakes, where he emerged with credit to run fourth to champion two-year-old Forte. Although that colt again had his measure in the Grade 1 Florida Derby next time out, it wasn’t nearly so authoritative, with Mage narrowing the deficit to a length. So while there’s no doubt that Forte deserved his place as the popular Kentucky Derby favourite prior to his withdrawal at the eleventh hour, Mage was also improving rapidly, a notion that was confirmed by his victory at Churchill Downs.
All the good ones have a smartness about them
“He’s a push button horse, he listens to cues and he takes care of himself,” says Restrepo. “He’s very intelligent. All the good ones have a smartness about them.”
Restrepo launched Marquee Bloodstock in early 2014 following time in the nightclub and beverage industries, latterly with the Boston Beer Company.
Horse racing had always been in the background, however, making a sidestep into the industry a natural step. Restrepo took the jump and not long after was named Fasig-Tipton’s South Florida representative.
“My family was in racing for a long time,” he says “We had racehorses up until around 2000 and I picked it up again in 2008. I worked summers at Saratoga in the barn and never stopped attending the races. It was just that professionally racing wasn’t what I was doing.
“I started by sourcing my own claimers, just really to learn a lot more about the ownership experience and what constitutes a winner. And from that, I was able to start buying a better type of horse and some of those did well. When that happens, it gives you the confidence to say ‘I can do this’ and keep going.”
One of those early horses was Structor, a $160,000 yearling purchase who resold for $850,000 as a two-year-old, a price tag he later justified when successful in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. In keeping with Mage, he was the son of a then unproven stallion, in his case Three Chimneys Farm’s Palace Malice. More recently, the agent reconnected with Structor when given the opportunity to broker the deal to sell him as a stallion prospect to Japanese interests.
At the same time, Restrepo has also done what he can to develop his European reach.
“I was probably in seventh grade, so around 12-years-old, when I was given a book called a ‘A Jockey’s Life’, by Dick Francis on Lester Piggott,” he says. “Chapter by chapter it goes through some of Lester’s greats – horses like Crepello, Nijinsky, Roberto and The Minstrel – and some of the relationships that he had with trainers. All that stuck with me and gave me a huge respect for European racing. I love going over there.”
Turf racing is undoubtedly gaining more appeal over here now
He adds: “The horses are so expensive to buy now out of Europe when they break their maiden. So there’s an argument to say that you’re better off buying them there as yearlings. The US dollar, with it being stronger recently, has helped.
“Turf racing is undoubtedly gaining more appeal over here now. The races are run a little more evenly, the horses run more frequently and they last a little longer. And the racetracks are starting to put on more series for turf horses – New York has their series [the Caesars Turf Triple Series] and Kentucky Downs also has a very good programme. There’s been a steady climb in popularity.”
Restrepo has built on that increasing popularity himself by regularly attending European sales with an eye on sourcing horses for his own interests alongside others.
“One of the first European purchases I was involved with was a No Nay Never filly bought at the Arqana December Sale [for €130,000],” he recalls. “She went on to sell at the two-year-old sales in Florida for $430,000.
“Right now I have an Expert Eye filly named Isabel Alexandra with Gustavo. We bought her at the Goffs Orby Sale [for €70,000], she won a maiden last October at Indiana and then ran second in an allowance at Keeneland. She has talent and we’re looking forward to the summer with her.
“Have A Good Day was a Group 3 winner for Con Marnane in France. We bought her to race last year. She’s also with Gustavo. We also have a lovely Too Darn Hot filly currently training at WinStar Farm. She was bought at Goffs last year as well. And we also have a Hello Youmzain yearling colt in France that we have in partnership with Haras d’Etreham.
“I really do love going to Europe. I started going in 2018 and apart from when Covid stopped us, I’ve tried to visit every year since. The sale companies treat us like gold. Jimmy George, Henry Beeby, Tom Taaffe, Freddy Powell and all their teams are so helpful when we visit, they are all so welcoming.”
You can be certain that Restrepo will be back hunting in Europe this year, but in the meantime there is Mage to enjoy. A slow pace didn’t play to his strengths in the Preakness Stakes, where he
wound up third behind by National Treasure and Blazing Sevens. But there will be other top races to be won with this likeable colt.
“We’re just going to live in the here and now and enjoy it,” says Restrepo. “That’s what it’s all about. To be able to win the Kentucky Derby was amazing. We know we have a top colt, there will be other days and we’re just going to enjoy the ride.”