The Happy Blend Behind Litigate

In an era when it appears that no horse can run twice under the same moon, once again we’re going to have plenty of relatively unexposed animals converging on the GI Kentucky Derby. That requires us to fall back on some secondary evidence, in pedigree and upbringing, to estimate what latent resources may be summoned to deal with the startling novelty of a 20-horse stampede.

That’s why the handicapping jury should heed the defense attorney for Litigate (Blame), despite a pedestrian 77 Beyer in the GIII Sam F. Davis S. last Saturday. Because everything about this horse tells me that the more he gets tested, the more exemplary he can become.

Before we get to his pedigree, which is copper-bottomed for the job, we need to emphasize that Litigate benefitted from as good a grounding as any Thoroughbred in the crop. All who know and admire John Mayer of Nursery Place are aware of his resolutely self-effacing nature. So let’s just put it front and center that this colt was prepared for his vocation at a farm where absolutely no corners are cut, by one of the most respected horsemen in the Bluegrass.

It was typically astute to unearth Litigate’s dam, Salsa Diavola (Mineshaft), for just $12,500 down the field in her second (and final) start in maiden claimer at Woodbine in 2016. Her family is saturated with the quality you would expect when Numbered Account (Buckpasser) surfaces as fourth dam; while mating her with Blame, whose third dam is none other than Special (Forli {Arg}), makes Litigate a top-to-bottom aristocrat. He always had a physique to match, too, judging from the $370,000 paid by Centennial Farms as a Keeneland September yearling.

Fortunately, Mayer’s unyielding modesty will not prevent a due testimonial to his work–and that of his sons Griffin and Walke–from Happy Broadbent, vice-president of Brisnet. He has had a ringside seat to the rise of Litigate, both as Mayer’s brother-in-law and as a partner in Salsa Diavola.

“John Mayer is the hardest-working guy I know,” Broadbent says. “Now that the foaling season has started, he won’t come off that farm until June, literally until the last mare has foaled. If that means mucking out a 12-stall barn by himself, he’ll be doing it to this day. I’m fortunate enough, one, to be his brother-in-law; but also to see first-hand the way he raises these horses. He always does what’s best for the horse.”

After a lifetime in the business, Broadbent sets three horsemen apart. All happen to share the same first name; and two of them, to Broadbent’s immense gratification, are partners in Salsa Diavola (among several other mares) at Nursery Place.

“The three people top of my list, as far as hardboot horsemen, are my brother-in-law John Mayer, my other partner John Donaldson, and John Williams,” Broadbent explains. “I was fortunate enough to work for him [at Spendthrift] back in 1980, when the first crop of Seattle Slew was going through as yearlings. And with the other two, believe it or not, I have now been partners for 30 years: we bought our first mare in 1993, and we’ve bought and sold and traded horses together ever since.

“John Donaldson moved here [to Kentucky] from Arizona in ’79. He told me recently that the best thing that ever happened to him in this business was walking through the door of my dad’s office and getting hired to do bloodstock research. That’s how he got started on his career, and how I got started with him too–because I always recognized his great eye for a horse, his knowledge of conformation and pedigree. He does a lot of consulting for Stonestreet, he’s heavily involved in the matings of all those mares. So along with all the information that comes through Brisnet, the three of us have all been able to add something different.”

Between them they certainly spotted a bargain in Salsa Diavola, a half-sister to dual graded stakes-winning sprinter Pacific Ocean (Ghostzapper) and the stakes-placed dam of Blamed, a dual Grade III winner by Litigate’s sire. Their dam is an Unbridled half-sister to Mutakddim (Seeking The Gold), a prolific stallion in Argentina, out of a Seattle Slew half-sister to the Mr. Prospector siblings Rhythm, a champion juvenile, and Not For Love, the lesser racehorse but superior sire of the pair. The next dam is Grade I winner Dance Number (Northern Dancer), a half-sister to Private Account (Damascus) out of the elite runner/producer Numbered Account.

“At the time we bought Salsa Diavola out of Canada, we felt that Mineshaft was going to be a good broodmare sire,” Broadbent recalls. “And with the deep, blue-hen family she had, we thought we’d take a shot with her. When we claim a filly, or buy one privately, typically we’d look to sell them on. But at the time we’d started to keep a few mares ourselves and this one, with her background and looks, was one we decided to be patient with.”

Admittedly they tested the water with her, offering her with a maiden cover by Ghostzapper at the Keeneland November Sale of 2017, but fortunately she failed to meet her reserve at $130,000.

“And this colt, Litigate, when he went through the ring was just an outstanding individual,” Broadbent recalls. “We’ve been watching him since; weren’t quite sure at first, but then all of a sudden he started firing bullet works. We knew he was in great hands, with Centennial and Todd Pletcher, so we were hoping that something like this was going to happen. Because it’s the kind of pedigree we liked to see in the olden days, blue blood all the way. And it just screams distance. He should run all day long.”

Which is just what excited many of us about Litigate: the fact that he was able to win a sprint maiden on debut at Aqueduct in November, despite a pedigree tailor made for the first Saturday in May (not to mention Belmont in early June). He did, admittedly, get outgunned by a flashy talent next time out, but Pletcher relied on him from eight nominations to extend his race record when introduced to a second turn at Tampa Bay. Sure enough, Litigate was able to break clear of a wide draw before dropping inside, then sweeping round rivals while still green in delaying a switch of leads. He will need to keep learning new tricks against more potent competition, but he certainly has the pedigree to keep building.

Salsa Diavola’s first four dams are by Unbridled, Seattle Slew, Northern Dancer and Buckpasser; and Seattle Slew recurs along her top line, of course, behind Mineshaft‘s sire A.P. Indy. But it’s the sheer, undiluted quality of the families entwined by the mating with Blame that already makes you hope that Litigate can progress sufficiently to earn a chance at stud. Salsa Diavola’s own maternal line we have already sketched out (and it’s intriguing that the genes have worked even better in the stallion shed than on the track, in the case of Mutakddim and Not For Love). Her sire’s granddam is Up The Flagpole (Hoist The Flag). Blame, as mentioned, goes back through Special to Thong (Nantallah) and the associated dynasty; and his sire Arch is a grandson of Courtly Dee’s daughter Althea (Alydar). Find me the weak link in that chain.

Broadbent says that no decision has yet been made on Salsa Diavola’s next date, but the team are certainly pleased that they sent her back to Blame after his first cover proved so productive.

“John [Mayer] told me Saturday night that the mare’s starting to bag up now and probably about 10 days away from foaling a full-brother or sister to Litigate, so fingers crossed,” he says. “John has always loved Blame, since day one, and we’ve had some luck with his babies before. He was a hard-knocking racehorse, and an underrated stallion in my opinion.”

No dissent to that view here, the Claiborne stallion having featured as high as the top step of our “Value Podium” among established sires. Even before the rise of Litigate he had already made a game-changing step forward with this sophomore crop, in the role of a highly precocious broodmare sire. Both Forte (Violence) and Loggins (Ghostzapper), who ran the champion so close in the fall, are respectively first foals of daughters of Blame.

So this esteem from breeders who can think for themselves is unsurprising. Only the previous weekend, we had seen how Nursery Place can prosper against the tide. Hot Spell (Salt Lake) was already 11 when added to the broodmare band for $85,000 at Keeneland January in 2015. She’d shown stakes talent in a brief career, but little as a producer and was being culled with a cheap cover. Nursery Place sent her to the upwardly mobile Quality Road, then still standing at $35,000, and the resulting colt made $900,000 as a Keeneland September yearling to a partnership of Bob Baffert’s patrons. They called him Hopkins and, while he has made them wait, he’s putting it all together now and ran out a decisive winner of the GIII Palos Verdes S.

“So that’s two weekends in a row the program has produced a graded stakes winner,” Broadbent says. “Hopkins was an absolute beast when we sold him. We never imagined he might bring what he did, but they’ve handled him the right way. I give credit to Bob, and to Tom Ryan, for being so patient. He’s shown along the way in the mornings that he was going be a nice horse and they have given him the time he needed to do that.”

Actually Broadbent himself is on a particular roll. Because if you go back another weekend, there he was in Palm Beach among the First Row partners collecting an Eclipse Award for their mare Goodnight Olive (Ghostzapper).

“Her winning at the Breeders’ Cup was a huge pinnacle for me,” he explains. “I always tell people my blood’s not red, but Keeneland green: my mother’s grandfather was Hal Price Headley, [co-]founder of Keeneland; and my grandfather Louis Lee Haggin II was president there for many years. So to win a Breeders’ Cup race in front of a home crowd, with mom and whole family all there, was very special.”

Broadbent’s 87-year-old father-in-law Bill Robbins (along with brothers-in-law Will and Earl Robbins) has also shared the ride with First Row Partner–who had similarly hit the jackpot as co-owners of dual graded stakes winner Nay Lady Nay (Ire) (No Nay Never {Ire}). She was sold to Juddmonte for $1.7 million at Fasig-Tipton in November 2021, having cost $210,000 as an OBS March juvenile.

“She was the only No Nay Never from his first crop to be sold over here as a 2-year-old,” Broadbent remembers. “I was saying we must be crazy, buying a horse by some no-name sire out of a no-name mare! Next thing you know, he’s the hottest young sire in Europe and her full-brother Arizona was winning at Royal Ascot.”

But Broadbent, whose late father Dick founded Bloodstock Research Information Services, knows that such dividends are typically won only by playing the long game.

“My dad revolutionized the horse industry with computerized pedigrees,” he reflects. “It’s amazing to think back to what he was doing back in the ’70s and ’80s, and everything the internet evolved into since. I was fortunate to work for him 23 years, and I’m still with Brisnet after 37 years, doing what I love every day, working in same building, with so many great people.

“When I was young, Dad had me going round every summer learning every aspect of this business, from yearlings to broodmares to stallions to foaling. It’s been my passion all the way through, the one thing I really know is to surround myself with good people–which is just what this horse has been all about.

“We’ve got probably the best group of yearlings we’ve had in a long time. Salsa Diavola has a Twirling Candy filly that’s one of the best on the farm, we think she’s going to be a star come September at Keeneland. So let’s hope Litigate stays healthy and carries on from here.”

On Monday morning Broadbent telephoned Don Little Jr. of Centennial to offer gratitude and congratulations. He also mentioned how Little’s sister Andy, lost to cancer a few years ago, had been at school in Virginia with Broadbent’s wife Pattie.

“I told him of that connection, and all the fun the girls had together through college,” Broadbent says. “And Don said, ‘Well, we’ve got an angel looking over the gate, going forward.’

“There’s no bigger thrill than to have a horse on the Derby trail. We were fortunate enough, back in 2006, to have a horse we bred, Steppenwolfer (Aptitude), run third. That was just an unbelievable ride he gave us, one of the thrills of my life. The difference in the number of texts and messages you get, between Hopkins and Litigate, is night and day. It just shows you how the Derby captures the imagination. And I know the people around him couldn’t be more excited about this horse as he stretches out.”

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