You can purchase a race horse privately and then turn it over to a trainer. You can have a trainer purchase a horse out of claiming race and get started in the business that way.
You can do it yourself by breeding a mare and stallion, then watch your horse grow up, and then hopefully get it to the race track for its maiden race.
Or you can purchase a horse, most often a yearling or two-year-old, at a sale.
Trainer Kevin Eikleberry has done all of the above, but the one he’s most adept at is, selecting and purchasing a yearling at a horse sale and developing it into a talent for its owner. Eikleberry’s skills with horses purchased at sales and his stable of 36 horses will again be on display as Turf Paradise opens its 131-day meet, October 13.
“I’ve been doing this for over 35 years,” said Eikleberry, referring to scouting, evaluating and purchasing talent at horse sales. “I go to the Keeneland yearling sales and the Arizona Breeders’ sale each year. I enjoy it, but it’s also hard work.”
Eikleberry may have an advantage over most of those hoping to find the next Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup winner at a horse sale. In as much as each horse has a breeding line, Eikleberry has a lineage that precedes him in the horse business. Eikleberry’s grandfather, Guy, and his dad, Calvin, were horse trainers.
“Both my dad and grandad trained and raced horses at Centennial,” said Eikleberry of the now closed Colorado track. “They would race at Oaklawn (Arkansas) and then make the meet at Centennial. Then they would go back to being ranchers.”
Growing up on a spacious three-sections of lush farmland near Springfield, Colorado, Eikleberry developed an affinity for horses.
“I loved the horses more than the steers and hogs,” said Eikleberry, who sat on his first horse at age two and who once had thoughts of being a jockey. “I liked to eat too much,” he admitted. “So being a jockey was not really an option.” No matter. Eikleberry’s son, Ry, who is approaching his 2,000th career win as a jockey, fulfilled that dream.
Eikleberry’s first victory came in 1979 with a filly named Bronco Mania. The 2-year-old miss went on to win four races in a row, including Centennial’s Molly Brown Stakes and the prestigious $100,000 Gold Rush Futurity against the boys.
“You always remember your first winner,” said Eikleberry, who is just 21 wins shy of his own milestone: 1,000 wins as a trainer. “Racing was now in my blood.”
Married, raising a family and with Centennial about to close, Eikleberry first came to Turf Paradise in 1980. Settling near the race track, the Eikleberry clan then moved to Cave Creek, a small equestrian community about 18 miles north of the Phoenix-based track, where the family has maintained an active horse raising and training ranch for the past 26 years.
“Training and developing each horse’s talent is something I enjoy and take pride in, not only for myself but for my owners as well,” said Eikleberry. “That’s why I continue to go to the sales.”
Eikleberry employs three standards when evaluating a horse at auction.
“Confirmation is number one,” said Eikleberry. “I’m looking for balance in the horse’s physique. Secondly I want to see the horse’s athletic talents: does he walk, run and stride out well. And third, I examine the pedigree. Who were his parents and what did they accomplish on the race track? I rate each category 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest.”
There’s another factor Eikleberry weighs before making a bid.
“What is the owner willing to pay?” said Eikleberry. “My three points of evaluation have to matchup with what the owner‘s willing to pay. I’m evaluating the horse on whether or not it can win enough races to reach its purchase price.”
At the 1993 Keeneland sale, a yearling up for auction by rising sire Gone West, was not catching any buyers’ attentions except for Eikleberry.
“He may not have hit the 10 on my three rating scales, but there was something about this horse that held my interest,” said Eikleberry, who made the winning bid of $6,000.
The horse would be called Da Hoss and it would go onto to win 12 of 20 starts, including two $1,000,000 Breeders’ Cup Mile Turf races and earn $1.9 million.
After Da Hoss won the Arizona Sales Stakes in 1994 as a 2-year-old in an eye-catching 1:07.1 for 6 furlongs, Eikleberry’s phone rang off the hook.
“I got over 30 calls from interested parties,” said Eikleberry. “It was amazing.
Eventually Da Hoss was sold to Prestonwood Farm (for considerably more than his $6,000 purchase price) for an 85% interest, while original owners Wallstreet Racing Stable and Eikleberry retained a 15% interest. Da Hoss left Eikleberry’s care and was turned over to trainer Michael Dickinson.
Da Hoss’ most memorable feat was when after being away from the races for two years, he had one prep race and then came back to win his second Breeders’ Cup Mile Turf in 1998. The BC race was so dramatic that announcer Tom Durkin was given to exclaim as Da Hoss stormed to victory in deep stretch, “Oh, my, this is the greatest comeback since Lazarus!”
“Every year I go to the Keeneland sales I stop by Kentucky Horse Retirement Park and say hello to Da Hoss,” said Eikleberry.
Eikleberry’s recent stars-on-the-rise are Keeneland yearling purchases that are showing promise.
“Prince Pierce broke his maiden at first asking then finished second in a stakes at Prairie Meadows,” said Eikleberry. “And Sammy’s Dream just broke his maiden at Canterbury.”
Eikleberry’s good fortune at the horse sales is not confined to just Keeneland. His sharp eye for talent has also found success at the annual Arizona Breeders’ Sale.
The recently completed 2017-2018 Turf Paradise race meet saw his locally purchased Yo Y Me and Fortified Effort win out their auction prices.
“We purchased Yo Y Me for $17,000 and Fortified Effort for $35,000,” said Eikleberry. “Both went on to win over $200,000.”
Ever on the lookout for the next Diamond in the Rough, Eikleberry made three purchases at the recent Keeneland sales: a Constitutional colt for $90,000; a Tapazar colt for $40,000 and a Bodiemeister filly for $30,000.
“Before I got Da Hoss I was looking for one like him,” said Eikleberry. “Then I got him and it was better than I thought. Now I’m looking for the next Da Hoss.”