Gavin O’Connor, then working with the young Thoroughbreds at WinStar Farm, just had a feeling about a bay son of 2012 Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister. He decided that after spending years working to identify diamonds in the rough for his bosses’ clients, maybe it was time he took a gamble on such a horse for himself.
That horse is Actuator, the 7-2 second choice in Saturday’s $300,000, Grade 3 Indiana Derby at Horseshoe Indianapolis. The 5-2 favorite is Rattle N Roll, a Grade 1 winner last year who in his last start won Churchill Downs’ off-the-turf American Derby a week ago.
The 1 1/16-mile Indiana Derby will be Actuator’s first start for Jake Ballis’ Black Type Thoroughbreds, which bought 75-percent interest after Actuator’s 7 1/4-length maiden victory June 8 at Churchill Downs off an eight-month layoff. It was a “wow” performance, made more jaw-dropping by Actuator’s original purchase price: $2,200 by O’Connor and his partners.
“We did the weaning process at WinStar, and I got a bunch of babies into my barn. Actuator was one of them,” said O’Connor, a sixth-generation horseman from Ireland who now manages Grantley Acres farm. “There was something about Actuator that really caught my eye from the get-go. I followed him along and he just kept popping out at me time and time again. I felt I had to do something about this, because I loved the horse so much. I was tired of being the person who had made multiple calls before on really good horses, and I wanted to have the opportunity to put my name to a good horse that I believed in.”
When WinStar put the year-old youngster in Fasig-Tipton Kentucky’s 2020 winter mixed sale, O’Connor called up his friend Rick Howard, saying, “Look, Rick. I think we’ve got something special here. I’m not sure what we’ll have to pay for him.”
Howard allocated $20,000 to try to buy the colt. O’Connor couldn’t make it to the sale and got another friend, Margaux Farm’s farm trainer Dermot Littlefield, to bid. It proved short work: for the bargain-basement price of $2,200, the partnership of Howard, Joe Ragsdale’s Rags Racing and O’Connor had the colt O’Connor so loved.
“Gavin had the inside scoop,” Howard said. “He always thought the horse was something special. He was out there talking to him every day when (Actuator) was at the farm. This is his baby… He just blossomed from a gangling 2-year-old into a beautiful, strapping 3-year-old.”
Out of the Indian Charlie mare Indian Rocket, Actuator’s name is the result of a Google search by Littlefield’s wife, Danielle, for words interfacing with rocket. An actuator is one of the components that makes a rocket work.
With a pair of thirds on grass in Indiana last year, Actuator made the rocket analogy salient in his first start for trainer Michael McCarthy a month ago.
“I’d say half of Louisville heard me roaring,” O’Connor said of watching the race with McCarthy’s Churchill Downs assistant, Justin Curran. “It was an emotional rollercoaster, unbelievable.”
Chris Pipito, watching the race on television from Lexington, also thought it was unbelievable. He immediately called Ballis, the former University of Houston basketball player now in horse racing full-time, including his Black Type Thoroughbreds.
“I was sitting at home at my desk working,” Ballis recalled. “I had the races on, but I wasn’t paying attention. My buddy Chris Pipito, who is a jockey agent, he’s very sharp and knows every horse in the country. He called me and said, ‘Hey, did you just see this horse McCarthy ran?’ I went back and watched the replay immediately.
“We have a 2-year-old with Michael, and I’ve had a relationship with him for a long time, going back to when he worked for Todd Pletcher. I sent him a text congratulating him and said, ‘Hey, do you think something can get done with this horse?’ He said he’d let the owners know, and I made him an offer the night of the race. The deal was done within 24-36 hours.”
While undisclosed, the purchase price was well over a hundred times what the original owners paid in February 2020.
“They hit a home run,” Ballis said. “They did a heck of a job purchasing the horse. He’s a big, beautiful horse. When people buy privately, the first thing they do is go back to see what somebody paid. They think they can put a valuation on a horse that way. I don’t, because the market two years ago, three years ago is different than it is today. Just because somebody paid $2,000, $5,000, to me it doesn’t reflect what their value is today. It’s the same as if they paid $500,000. The market changes, and the way he performed, to me demanded a substantial increase in what they paid.
“Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round, and he is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Same thing with Michael Jordan. He got cut from his freshmen team when he was 15 years old, and he ends up being the greatest basketball player of all time. There are so many horses people miss, they don’t like. This and that problem. I don’t know if he had any problems as a yearling. But he didn’t have any when we purchased him. I feel very, very lucky to buy the horse.”
If Black Type had to dig deep in its pockets, consider that Ballis’ partnership didn’t have to weed through a lot of slower horses to get to him.
“Our program is geared toward stakes races,” he said. “When you buy the 2-year-olds and yearlings, you don’t know how they’re going to be. But when you buy off the track, yeah, we think this horse is a Saturday horse. And our partners, that’s what they want. And you don’t have to wait very long to get the partners action. So there’s a value in buying privately, where you only have to wait three, four, five weeks to run.
“This has been so much, even though we haven’t run in a race yet.”