‘Whale’ of a Start for Miller, Elser & Partners With NZ Venture

Joe Miller | kernlillingston.com

Courtesy of the TDN
By Alan Carasso

Joe Miller and Kip Elser are no strangers to success in the American bloodstock business. In a 15-year stint with Kern Thoroughbreds, Miller has helped manage the racing and breeding operations of Tracy Farmer and Len Riggio’s My Meadowview Farm, while Elser’s Kirkwood Stables’ graduates include GI Kentucky Oaks winners Plum Pretty (Medaglia d’Oro), Keeper Hill (Deputy Minister) and Gal In a Ruckus (Bold Ruckus); the top-level winning half-siblings Sharp Cat (Storm Cat) and Royal Anthem (Theatrical {Ire}); and GI Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Alphabet Soup (Cozzene).

Always ready to embrace a new challenge, Elser jumped at the opportunity to attend the 2018 New Zealand Bloodstock Yearling Sales at Karaka. The South Carolina-based horseman, along with Miller–the North American representative for NZB–Justin Casse and consignor Sam Beatson of the New Zealand-based Riversley Park agency teamed up to purchase a pinhooking prospect by the since-departed Tavistock (NZ) (Montjeu {Ire}). The team’s efforts bore fruit when the 3-year-old gelding, now named Beluga (NZ) graduated at second asking at Sha Tin in Hong Kong Mar. 14.

“I wanted to figure out a way to get more involved in New Zealand,” Miller said, just after getting Frozen 2 set up for his daughter to give her a break from distance learning. “I met [NZB Bloodstock Services Manager Danny Rolston and I know that the trade is very good from New Zealand to Hong Kong and he was looking to figure out if there was a way to get more Americans involved in New Zealand. There are obviously plenty of Americans involved in Australia and he asked if I’d help him out with that project.

“Kip loves doing stuff all over the world–he’s been involved in South Africa–and this was sort of a natural fit for him,” he continued. “His wife, Helen, has been to New Zealand several times, has friends there. They came, we decided to raise a little bit of money and put up some of our own money and go buy a couple of horses, with the ultimate goal of playing at the top of the market and pinhook a couple of horses on to Hong Kong.”

Miller explained that he got hooked up with Beatson through fellow bloodstock agent Andrew Williams, who launched his own agency in March 2017.

Hip 491 was consigned to the Book 1 of the 2018 Karaka Sales on the account of Curraghmore and hailed from the sixth crop of Tavistock, whose early successes included 2016 Hong Kong Derby hero Werther (NZ). The Oct. 30 foal is out of a multiple group-placed dam who was a half-sister to Group 3 winner Cassini (Aus) (Reset {Aus}).

“We decided that we wanted to buy something in our first year that was by a proven stallion that could be at the higher end of the market,” Miller explained. “We found a lot of horses we liked, but we weren’t really ready to take a shot with a first-year stallion. We thought that bringing something a little more proven was what we wanted, with some black-type under the first dam.”

The team gave NZ$150,000 for the colt, who Miller categorized as “very straight-forward.”

“Beluga was an October foal and he maybe wasn’t as mature as some of the others, but that was going to be OK, because we had 10 months to the 2-year-old sale,” he said, referring to NZB’s Ready To Run Sale which takes place fully 10 months hence in late November. “We had a lot of things we were looking for, but really, we just wanted to find a horse we thought would make a really good racehorse. A horse that would be sound, vet very clean. Size is kind of a factor when you’re selling to Hong Kong–they don’t really buy small horses–so we knew we wanted to buy a horse that was going to be about 16 hands.

He continued, “He just had a great frame to him, though he was still a little bit immature. But he had a great walk to him and he had a great brain. He just hadn’t quite filled in or muscled up yet into that frame, he was just a baby. We thought he had a ton of improvement in him. Tavistock had done well in Hong Kong–at the time, Werther was one of the best horses in Hong Kong. Physically, he was not the finished product, he was something we thought could develop into a really nice horse.”

Whereas there is often a preference for speed and horses that will be “early” at American juvenile auctions, Miller and partners were taking a longer view when they signed the ticket at Karaka.

“Kip and I really want to buy milers, we’re really not trying to buy a precocious horse,” he said. “We’re actually trying to stay away from things that look like they’re going to be 2-year-olds. That does us no good. We want a horse that’s going to breeze well, but when people go and look at it, they think it’s going to make a good 3-year-old and 4-year-old.

“We’re not looking for the sharp 2-year-old and that’s sort of the same thing Kip and I are doing with our gallop-only consignment,” he added. “We’re not looking for a 2-year-old that’s going to win in May or June or a horse that’s going to breeze in :10 flat. We’re looking for a late-year 2-year-old or 3-year-old sort of horse.”

The gap between the yearling and 2-year-old sales in New Zealands affords horsemen the opportunity to bring their horses along at a more leisurely pace that ultimately does the animals a world of good, Miller opines.

“They have a bit of a different way of training their horses,” he said. “What Sam does is break the horse and then turn it out for 30 days. Get back on it, get it up to a good gallop and then give it another 30 days off. And then once you get into June, you go on from there, but the horse gets two or three breaks from the time it starts. If he feels he needs 10 days in the paddock at some point, there’s really no pressure.”

The team’s purchase went his 200 meters in :10.45 ahead of the Ready To Run Sale and caught the eye of noted judge John Foote, who gave NZ$400,000 for the athletic bay.

“We were very happy with that for sure,” Miller affirmed. “For our first venture down there, to even make a profit was great. Kip and I were both pretty green when you go down to the Southern Hemisphere–you don’t know the pedigrees and you’re not familiar with the farms you’re buying off of. It’s a really different landscape. But it is the least-intimidating landscape. People are so helpful and friendly and now after doing it once or twice, it’s second nature now.

Miller continued, “Sam liked him all along. He thought he was one of his top two or three horses and I thought he breezed really well. He had his head down, breezed really easy. The goal isn’t to get him to go :10 flat, the goal is to try to get him to go just fast enough doing everything the right way. The horse kind of did that on his own.”

Beluga is off to a promising start, having built on a debut second Mar. 1 to graduate by a measured half-length Mar. 14 for G1 Melbourne Cup-winning trainer David Hall (video). This season, the Ready 2 Run Sale has tossed up the likes of 2019 G1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint winner Beat the Clock (Aus) (Hinchinbrook {Aus}) and Golden Sixty (Aus) (Medaglia d’Oro), who landed the BMW Hong Kong Derby Mar. 22. Miller hopes Beluga can be the next good thing in Hong Kong.

“I am hoping that this is just the beginning of a successful career over there,” said Miller. “He couldn’t have won more easily, he’s got tactical speed and I’d have to think he wants to go significantly farther than six furlongs. Any time that they’re successful this early in their career, you have a lot to look forward to. Things don’t really get going for another six or eight months for a horse like him.”

This past January, Miller and Elser teamed with Kilgravin Lodge’s Eion Kemp to purchase a colt by Ocean Park (NZ) for NZ$50,000 at this year’s Book 1 and, in partnership with Beatson, gave NZ$75,000 for a Per Incanto colt during Book 2. In partnership with Kilgravin, they also purchased a No Nay Never colt for A$80,000 at Inglis Melbourne Premier Sale in February. All three are headed to the RTR sale in eight months’ time.

Kirkwood Keeps Gallop-Only Program at Gulfstream Sale


Anne M. Eberhardt

Four previous sale horses asked only to gallop have become black-type performers.

Kip Elser’s Kirkwood Stables will continue to only gallop its entrants during the under tack show for The Gulfstream Sale as the stable has done for the past two years, rather than push the juveniles through a timed workout.

Elser launched this experiment in 2018 at Fasig-Tipton’s select 2-year-olds in training sale at Gulfstream Park following a conversation during the Saratoga Race Course meet with a friend who proposed pinhooking yearlings at the 2-year-olds in training sale without pushing the young horses during the under tack show.

Previous “gallop-only” prospects, offered only at The Gulfstream Sale, had been cataloged as part of the Kirkwood Stables consignment but also under the names Midway Gallop or Gulfstream Gallop so buyers knew what to expect. This year the Gulfstream entrants have been cataloged only under Kirkwood Stables, so Elser wants to be sure buyers know the gallop-only program is still in place.

“We have had very positive results at the sales and on the racetrack,” Elser said. “Maybe we leave a little money on the table, but we are selling every horse and reducing the injury rate.”

During the first two years of the program, Kirkwood offered 14 juveniles, of which eight were sold in the ring for an average of $121,250. The others that did not meet their reserve prices all found new homes through private sales.

Out of these 14 horses, 11 went on to start in a race, and six became winners. Four of the horses became black-type performers, led by winner Splashy Kisses, a daughter of Blame  who was second in the Pocahontas Stakes (G2) and third in the Sweet Life Stakes (G3), and Defense Wins, a son of Flatter  who was third in last year’s Runhappy Del Mar Futurity (G1). Both of these graded stakes horses are trained by Doug O’Neill. Kirkwood also sold stakes-placed winners Irish Hustle, a daughter of Data Link, and Wicked Slider, a gelding by Wicked Strong .

“The better our results on the racetrack, the better our sales results will continue to be,” Elser said.

At the upcoming April 1 auction at Gulfstream, Kirkwood will offer the following horses as part of its gallop-only program:

Mucho Gusto Works Toward Saudi Cup

Mucho Gusto was a $625,000 two-year-old purchase at Timonium prepared and  consigned by Kirkwood
Mucho Gusto, who debuted for his new owner, Prince Faisal Bin Khaled, in the Pegasus, worked six furlongs on a fast track for trainer Bob Baffert. The 4-year-old Mucho Macho Man  colt was timed in 1:11 4/5, the fastest time of seven at the distance.

Campaigned by Michael Lund Petersen through his 3-year-old season, Mucho Gusto also placed in the TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) and the Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1).

The Saudi Cup will be run at 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) at King Abdulaziz Racetrack. Both horses have won at the grade 1 level at the distance

NYRA Manager of Racing Operations Bruce Johnstone Dies

We here at Kirkwood will miss him,
Bruce Johnstone
Bruce Johnstone

Coglianese Photos

California native moved from training career to work for New York Racing Association.

At NYRA, Johnstone served as the bridge between management, horsemen, and riders, working with everyone from the stewards to jockeys, the gate crew, outriders, and anyone else connected to racing. Imposing at 6’4″ and with a deep, baritone voice, Johnstone stood out for his commanding presence at the track—and for his knowledge, wise counsel, experience, and diplomacy in times of stress.

“Bruce was a true horseman who used the lessons of a lifetime to make all of us better in so many big and small ways,” said NYRA CEO and president Dave O’Rourke. “He was a man of impeccable integrity who was a beloved member of the Thoroughbred racing community here in New York and around the country. Bruce was universally admired for all the right reasons and we will miss him every day.”

NYRA created Johnstone’s position when he joined the organization in 2007. “If I’m talking to a trainer, I know what they’re saying,” he said of his duties in a 2018 interview. “I’ll know how to address a concern or an issue. I have an office, but that’s not where I live.”

Instead, Johnstone could often be found in the paddock, on the edge of the track, the backstretch or the barn area, navigating between groups and attending to any and all issues. Those issues could range from something as basic as a sauna without hot water to pop-up decisions on whether to postpone or cancel racing in poor weather conditions and ensuring the horses were adequately hydrated and sponged down in hot weather.

In 1974, Johnstone went to work at the Phipps Stable with accomplished trainer John Russell and Hall of Famer Angel Penna. Johnstone took out his own training license in 1980. Among his career highlights were wins with Secrettame in the 1983 Shirley Jones Stakes at Gulfstream Park and Buck Aly in the 1986 Bay Shore Stakes (G2). Secrettame, a daughter of Triple Crown winner Secretariat, was owned by Venezuelan owner Jose “Pepe” Sahagun and his Villa Blanca Farms.

While at NYRA, Johnstone also served from 2018-19 as chairman of the famed Aiken Training Center in Aiken, S.C.

Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., Johnstone attended the University of California at Berkeley on an athletic scholarship as a swimmer and a water polo player, and also played rugby. After earning a degree in International Relations and Diplomacy, Johnstone was recruited by the U.S. Coast Guard for the Special Coastal Forces Program, an elite group of college graduates who had been Division 1 athletes.

Johnstone then ran a successful steakhouse, Chuck’s of Hawaii, in his native Santa Barbara, a job in which he worked his way into an ownership stake. The restaurant celebrated 50 years in business in 2017 and remains open.

It was through time spent with his biological father, Charles “Sandy” Johnstone, a New York-based veterinarian, that he turned to horse racing. Visiting his father in both New York and Kentucky, Johnstone, in his mid-20s, became smitten with Thoroughbreds to the point where he made it his career change.

“I got the bug with horses,” Johnstone said in the 2018 interview. “It must have been the pedigree. So I packed up my orange VW van and my two dogs and headed to Kentucky.”

In 1972, he joined trainer Victor J. “Lefty” Nickerson at Elmendorf Stable, where he was a part of one of racing’s biggest upsets, Big Spruce’s victory over Forego in the 1974 Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park.

“I live racing seven days a week,” Johnstone said in 2018. “And when I go to the neighborhood bar to get away from it, I find that people want to talk about what I do—not their jobs, but mine. That’s always fun—and it makes me realize how much I enjoy this life.”

Johnstone is survived by his daughter, Kelly Johnstone.

Details on a memorial service will be announced when available.