SARATOGA SPRINGS – “Improbable” would be a generous way to describe Robin Sparkles’ route to the winner’s circle for a graded stakes race at Saratoga Race Course.
Her dam, My Sparky, was modestly successful, winning five races from 17 starts and earning $147,000. In 2014, My Sparky was sold at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga fall mixed sale, a sale that, while useful, carries none of the prestige of the company’s August yearling sales. Her sale price was $5,700.
My Sparky’s first two foals didn’t bring a lot of money at auction, and they didn’t do much on the racetrack, either. In 2016, she was supposed to be bred to Girolamo, but two cover attempts failed, and she ended up being bred to Elusive Quality—a stallion upgrade for sure, but one that happened wholly by accident.
Still, the resulting bay filly was a beautiful baby, and she was accepted to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of preferred New York-breds, a sign of confidence that she’d be attractive to buyers.
But her time on the sales ground was tough on the filly. She got tired of being shown and walked, and she developed some stiffness in her legs. One of the biggest selling points for young horses is their walk, and potential buyers crossed her off their lists.
“If she had walked like a cat, she could have brought $100,000,” said Sean Feld, who had advised Hibiscus Stables on the purchase and breeding of My Sparky. “She was great the first day. The next day, something was wrong. We did all these diagnostics, and there was nothing physically wrong with her. We couldn’t figure it out.”
She sold for $30,000, and it looked like she might follow in her older siblings’ unremarkable hoofprints.
She was sent to Michael Schrader’s In Front Training Center in Ghent, and apparently had not been all that impressive in her early training — so unimpressive, in fact, that Schrader kind of inherited her by default.
“She was a two-year-old and had some issues, and her owners were deciding which horses to go on with and which to weed out,” he said. “They hadn’t paid a lot of money for her, so she was going to go to Kentucky and be a broodmare as a 3-year-old.”
But the people who were supposed to pick her up never showed up, so he offered to keep her in lieu of payment of their farm bill.
“Michael was hoping she would break her maiden at Finger Lakes,” said trainer Bruce Brown, “so he sent her to me and said, ‘See what you can do.’”
It didn’t take long for Brown to get back to Schrader to say, “She’s better than Finger Lakes.”
Sixteen races, nine wins, and $531,000 later, he was right.
One of those wins came on Saturday in the $200,000, Grade III Caress Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. Third in the race last year, Robin Sparkles went to the gate as the second-longest shot on the board at 21-1. Breaking from post 6 under jockey Javier Castellano, the 5-year-old mare went to the front and stayed there, opening up a three-length lead and just holding on at the wire to win by a head.
Schrader wasn’t there to see it, even though his farm is only about an hour’s drive to Saratoga.
“I’ve been in horse racing since I was 14 years old, and I’m wicked superstitious,” he said. “The first time she won, I wasn’t there, so [now] I stay home and watch. I hung out on the farm and watched the race on my phone.”
So he missed not only his mare’s first graded stakes win; he also missed his own, and his trainer’s.
Brown trains mostly New York-breds and has had a number of popular, successful runners, like Spring to the Sky and Compliance Officer. But none of them had won a graded stakes race. Neither had Hibiscus Stables, her breeder.
“It would have been great to get a graded stakes win anywhere,” said Brown, standing outside his barn at Saratoga. “But everything is magic here. The fans are so in tune with the sport, and everything is better up here.”
The mare’s graded stakes win is a mixed blessing for Schrader. He, his family and his farm staff adore her; she goes home to the farm between races, and he describes her as “super-smart, with a personality like no other.” He’d love to keep her on his farm and breed her, but her value as a broodmare, especially with the win in the Caress, may well be too much for him to do that.
“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” he said. “It’s a big-time, long-term gamble to breed on my own. I have to think about ensuring my kids’ futures.”
Robin Sparkles’ immediate future includes a likely start at Saratoga next month, with perhaps a race or two in the fall. For Schrader, Brown and Hibiscus, the bay mare is an unexpected gift that has taken both of them to a most coveted spot: the winner’s circle at Saratoga Race Course.
“This is a milestone for us,” said Michael Oliveto, Hibiscus’ co-founder and CEO. “We’re over the moon. This game is so hard, and there are so many disappointments. Bruce and Mike are just terrific guys, and we’re basking in the success of this horse. We don’t take experiences like this for granted.”
“Horses like her are the reason we get up every day and keep doing this,” said Brown, who’s been training since 2008. “You never know when a horse like her will come along. It gives you that ‘sky’s the limit’ kind of feeling.”