by Terry Conway
Thirty seconds after Hard Spun demolished a field of seven in a stakes race at Philadelphia Park last December, Rick Porter's phone rang. His answer tone is the opening notes of the Rocky movie music.
Porter flipped open his phone. "No. Not interested," responded Porter.
On the other end of the conversation was Dan Pride, the Chief Operating Officer of Darley Stud. It's the breeding farm near Lexington, Ky., owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. The sheik has serious oil money. The sheik usually gets what he wants.
Many observers felt Hard Spun ran a winning racer in the Derby, but finished runner-up. Two weeks later in the Preakness the Chester County-bred colt took the lead going into the far turn before being passed by Curlin and Street Sense.
A few days later Hard Spun's owner was fielding a flurry of phone calls regarding the purchase of breeding rights. Three offers were close in numbers, but eventually Porter sided with Darley. Last year Porter sold the breeding rights to his talented but injury-plagued Rockport Harbor to Darley for a reported $6 million.
"I've known Jimmy Bell (who sold his Jonabell farm to the Sheik) since I got into the racing game," said Porter, who lives in Wilmington, Del. "We go back a long way and they are good people to be dealing with.
"Honestly, it's a pretty cut and dried process. I own it, and you want it. Still, there are items like bonuses if the horse wins a Grade 1 race."
Due to a confidential agreement, Porter could not comment on specifics, but it was estimated by industry observers that the deal was in the $15-$20 million range. Porter will keep some of the breeding rights after the horse is retired. Hard Spun, who ran fourth in the Belmont, has won five of nine career starts and pushed his earnings over the $1 million mark.
"He's a special kind of horse, and hopefully he's going to be a special kind of stallion," said Porter. "He'll be bred to some terrific mares. Hard Spun has the whole package. He's got great speed. He's got endurance. He's the longest-legged Danzig I've ever seen."
Porter took over the family auto business in the late 1960s and was largely responsible for the expansion that eventually included multiple franchises in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida. He entered the thoroughbred business in 1994, buying a pair of claimers, then in 1995 he bought seven yearlings for $1.3 million. Porter has been a major player ever since.
The breeding rights price is often based on what the colt's stud fee would be, he explained. The stud fee for Derby winner Street Sense is projected to be $100,000, while Hard Spun's could be close to $70,000.
Street Sense will also stand at the Skeikh's 4,000-acre farm near Lexington. Both colts likely will be retired at the end of their three-year old racing seasons.
"If you have a stallion prospect, your hands are tied as far as how long you can run him," Porter said. "The higher the numbers get, the more that tends to be true. The buyers have to protect their interests."
Porter, who will retain some breeding shares in Hard Spun at stud, said a big part of the negotiations with potential buyers involved the fact the horse has tremendous appeal to Southern Hemisphere breeders. Darley owns a farm in Australia and among its stallions traveling south this summer from the Lexington farm are last year's champion 3-year-old male Bernardini.
Future racing possibilities for Hard Spun include the Haskell at Monmouth Park (site of this year's Breeders' Cup), the King's Bishop and Travers in Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup Classic, said Porter.
Darley stallions have sired three of the past four Derby winners, including Smarty Jones. In 2004 the Chester County-bred colt's breeding rights were purchased for $39 million. Fifty percent went to owners, the late Roy Chapman and his wife Pat.
In April Porter decided to retire his filly Round Pond after she suffered a knee injury. Five year-old Round Pond won a $2 million Breeders Cup race last fall and had lifetime earnings of $1,998,700. She will be booked to Storm Cat early next year and could also be sold.
"After 14 years I've finally made into the black which I thought I'd never be able to do," he said. "This is not a business you get into to make money."