Each one is sold on Voukefalas

In some cases, offering money to your horse can take away a little of the joy of having the horse of your life. Do you keep what you have or do you take what’s behind the cash curtain?

by David Mattia

Showing or training a talented colt or filly can prove to be a never-ending pain in the butt when suddenly everyone with deep pockets in the harness game starts noticing your baby and wants to buy her. When, if ever, do you give in?

In the horse harness world there are people whose greatest racing talent is simply being able to buy your horse. That doesn’t make them bad people. In fact, they keep the money flowing for owners and trainers who buy yearlings or 2-year-olds just to flip them. In other cases, for many owners or trainers, the sale is simply worth the windfall.

In some cases, however, offering money for your horse can take away a little of the joy of owning the horse of your life. Do you keep what you have or do you take what’s behind the cash curtain?

Sometimes the excitement of having a baby starts months before the race at the training farm. More often, offers roll in after a start or two, and unless your bank account is bottomless and your ego is in a stable zone, it’s almost impossible to truly enjoy owning and training a horse that gets a lot of early attention.

What to do if one of your youngsters is just too good in training? What happens when a horse is so remarkably talented that a rare joy turns into constant pressure? This is the case with a colt by Lazarus N named Voukefalas.

Trainer Michael Russo was not at all discouraged by the pressure on him just after he and his owner Michael Pagonas literally created from the ground up a very gifted stallion named Voukefalas who on the very first day he was tied up looked like a real deal looked dare.

“People noticed him right away,” Russo said. “When you have a good baby, there is always someone to take care of it. This is how it worked with Voukefalas. He kept going and every time he trained there was progress and improvement. More and more people called or stopped by. That’s always the case when you have a horse that stands out from all the others when you train at a large training center.

“From a professional point of view, that’s a thing that has to be avoided. If you stay in the game long enough, you’ll have a horse that someone else will want. That’s the way it is. It can be annoying at times, especially when you’re being put down or being stalked by someone who should know better, but obviously having a young baby that sparks interest is better than having an ordinary baby that no one notices.”

True, in the world of baby training, it’s better to be overlooked than overlooked, but who needs the distraction?

In the case of Voukefalas, it helps that the foal’s owner and breeder, Pagonas, shares Russo’s stoicism and stunned determination. So far he has kept his foal and everything that happens in Voukefalas’ career is strictly between Russo and Pagonas. Apart from all the offers to buy or shop, there were no peripheral or tangential interventions. The magic of owning this outstanding cub has remained intact.

Not to compare Voukefalas to Niatross, but the author feels that as the perfect example, Clint Galbraith probably had a few moments when he didn’t really enjoy Niatross. Other parties got caught up in the biggest thing that happened to Clint and, well, some of the magic was lost. You know, sometimes it’s not about the money. It depends on who is buying or who is selling or both.

Voukefalas is by no means Russo’s first rodeo, but last year’s rumor mill spoke of some gigantic cash offers that Pagonas immediately rejected.

Back in May 2022, when most of the novice trotters or pacers who hadn’t fallen behind were training at or around 2:15 a.m., one top rider quipped, “Mike Russo looks like he’s sitting on a world champion. “

Not long after, Voukefalas easily won the New Jersey Sire Stakes final at The Meadowlands in 1:50.

Approaching the wire, Big M circuit announcer Ken Warkentin officially anointed the big stallion with this final phrase: “Voukefalas was unleashed at 2-1 with Jordan Stratton tonight. Voukefalas played with them.”

“Unleashed” was the keyword. It was the best word an announcer could have chosen.

Now the offers were huge. Still, Pagonas never blinked at the money, while Russo never had any doubts about the horse.

“I had no doubt that he was going to win the Sire Stakes final,” Russo said. “No doubt. None at all. Despite my normal coaching paranoia, I knew he was going to win this race. It’s hard to explain but I knew he would win easily. He was third in the first two heats, but both times he got caught behind a horse that was gaping and had to fly home to take that third place. Ken Warkentin said he was unleashed and that was the truth.”

Voukefalas ran home in :26 and :25.1 respectively.

The Russo stock remained stable throughout the stallion’s freshman campaign. Now they are preparing for a 3 year old campaign that will find Voukefalas bigger, better and most importantly qualified for many big money races. Maybe a stud career is in sight. With all that said, how many shoppers this year will be asking, “How much is that horse in the window?”

“For his 3-year season, I show him the Meadowlands Pace, the Jug, the Breeders Crown, the Sire Stakes and a few other things here and there and yeah, people still want to buy him,” Russo said.

“A lot of people watch him train. I know they’re watching because everyone tells me how great he looks. He’s been training alone and feels good. People watching are talking about him and there are a lot of eyes on him when he’s on the training track. I still have to train him at some company.

“A lot has to be right. If he doesn’t come back well, he won’t be the first horse to fail.”

Russo trained Voukefalas’ dam Inittowinafortune, who he thinks is a super mare, so there’s an extra bond for him as Voukefalas is a homebreeder.

“I was there from day one,” said Russo. “I was there when he was born, but I’m also a professional horse trainer and I would never let emotion cloud my judgment when it comes to making a sound and profitable business decision. Too many people make this mistake. The idea is to enjoy having a top colt, but sometimes it’s difficult because where do you draw the line with the money he could make this year?

“It’s a great feeling to see my years of experience come to life in a horse that everyone wanted to buy last year. Now it’s coming back great and I will appreciate the people who want to buy it this year as much as I appreciated them last year because they are people who matter in the business. If he keeps racing great for someone else, I will never look back with regret. I will always see him as a horse that represents me and represents what I can achieve with a young horse. Like I said, people in racing, people who matter, will know that Voukefalas came from me and how I raised and conditioned him from the start. That could pay off for me in the years to come.”

Put yourself in the shoes of Russo or Pagonas.

Currency exchange notwithstanding, it’s probably normal for a trainer or owner to feel offended when they have to take the money, but perhaps it’s better to be left alone and drop the chips where they please. It’s hard enough picking a champion from a yearling sale, and even harder breeding a colt like Voukefalas.

However, sometimes you get the proverbial offer you can’t refuse.

Again, it’s kind of annoying to have a horse that everyone wants to buy – perhaps a bizarre irony – but when those talent buyers stop buying talent, it’s game over.

Remember, somewhere out there at some track, a two-year-old in training will attract the attention of someone who wants to own him. That’s the way it is.


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