Tom McGreevy buys yearlings. It's what he does. Sometimes, they turn out to be Songbird. Other times, they turn out to be Barefoot Mailman and if you've never heard of Barefoot Mailman that's because he won one race and is now a show horse.
"The fact is, most of them don't turn out, and you have to accept that a little bit to do what we do," McGreevy said two weeks ago after Songbird won the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga Race Course July 24 to remain unbeaten in nine starts for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm.
Songbird, purchased at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga for $400,000 two years ago, turned out. She won the 2-year-old filly championship last year, has won five graded stakes and earned $2,402,000. She might try to win the Grade 1 Alabama here Aug. 20, but otherwise holds court as one of the five or so most well known Thoroughbreds on the grounds for the summer.
But she's one of nine yearlings McGreevy bought for Porter in 2014. The others are not Songbird, though Southern Girl is 2-for-3 for Larry Jones.
"Nobody can predict it," said McGreevy, holding a cold Corona bottle while most everyone else sipped champagne in the Saratoga Room after the Grade 1 win. "We try. We just try to fit the pattern we're looking for."
So does everyone else - at Saratoga tonight and tomorrow night, at Keeneland in September, at Timonium in October, at OBS, England, Ireland, California, Japan, wherever young horses are bought, sold and evaluated. Horsemen like McGreevy watch young horses stand, walk, step, stretch, adapt and try to turn whatever information comes forward into opinions. Buy? Pass? Go back and look again? Call a client?
Judging young future racehorses may be one of the world's most inexact sciences, which is what ensures the future of the sport. If one formula worked every time - spend the most money, breed X to Y and get Z, buy all gray horses, buy horses born in May, buy horses with fewer than three white feet, avoid the white-eyed ones - then there would be no challenge.
And the people with the formula would have all the good horses.
McGreevy, and others, frequently talk about a horse's walk. Terms like light, lively and springy get bandied about. Same with reach and scope. Of course, one man's reach is another's awkward.
"I'm so particular about the walk because that translates to how they move on the racetrack," McGreevy said. "The great walks are the toughest thing to find at the sale. You can have a horse that moves correctly, but that doesn't mean it has a great, athletic walk."
Got that? Get your catalogue, get to Fasig-Tipton and start watching horses walk. Then again, you should probably watch them stand, too. Good horses are supposed to be put together correctly. They're not supposed to toe in or out. They're supposed to have the right angle to their shoulders. Their hips are supposed to be big, but not too big. They're supposed to have strong gaskins (there's not enough space to explain what a gaskin is).
"I don't buy them if they don't have a great, athletic walk and to have that great, athletic walk they have to have all the parts fit together to be able to walk that way," McGreevy said, taking a pull on the Corona. "They don't have to be perfectly correct in front. I've seen horses turn in or turn out in front, but it's how they walk through it."
And then there's everything else. A racehorse must be able to handle the details associated with being a racehorse - attention from humans, noise, tight quarters, competition. Watch horses walk down the horsepath to the paddock at Saratoga. Some pay no attention to the picnickers hanging over the fence or shouting at televisions on poles under trees. Other horses observe, take it all in and decide that it's OK even if it doesn't appear to be. Still others look ready to make a break for it.
At the sale, buyers try to interpret that too.
"A lot of people think (the sale) is not much pressure on a young horse, but it is," said McGreevy, whose early career on the racetrack included a hot- walking job with Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley. "I see it like the first time in the big city for a person. They're showing all the time, they ship in, there's a lot going on. The good horses figure it out real quick. Every good horse I bought showed well."
So where did Songbird fit in all of this? Right at the top, of course.
"Oh yeah, absolutely," said McGreevy, whose yearling purchases for Porter also include 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. "Songbird is not that big. She's an average-sized horse, but she's one that if you study and see her walk and see her move and watch her attitude and all those things, it just fits together."
As McGreevy knows, however, none of that guarantees success.
"We may never come across another horse like her, really," he said. "You have to be very fortunate."