The big guns from Hong Kong may have lifted the Cox Plate with Romantic Warrior on Saturday, but a couple of hours earlier it was the little guys who reigned supreme when Skybird (Exosphere) made it three from three in Moonee Valley’s Group 2 Fillies’ Classic.
The three-year-old hails from the Ballarat stable of Mitch Freedman, who has around 65 horses on his books.
She was sold from the Highway Session of the Inglis Classic sale, as Lot 709, fetching $110,000.
She’s by a sire, Exosphere (Lonhro), of whom enough was initially expected that he shuttled to France, but who now stands at Queensland’s Oaklands Stud for $6,600, and who, incidentally, had stakes winners in Melbourne and over in the US in Los Angeles on Saturday.
And she was bred by the boutique HP Thoroughbreds operation of Anthony and Kristen Evans who, for a couple with just three mares of their own on their 236-acre farm on the edge of the Hunter Valley, are starting to punch above their weight.
It was an action-packed weekend for the little farm, where daughter Imogen, 11, and ten-year-old son Brax are also keen helpers. Not only did Skybird stamp her ticket for the Group 1 Thousand Guineas on November 18 with her third win from as many starts, 15 minutes earlier General Salute (Russian Revolution) – a colt bred by Ross McMillan and born at the same farm a couple of weeks after Skybird – ran second in the Listed Brian Crowley Stakes at Randwick.
“It was a big day for us,” Anthony tells It’s In The Blood. “It was great to see General Salute become a stakes horse, and for Skybird to win a Group 2 was terrific. We’re only a small farm – Kristen and I do everything ourselves – so to breed a horse like her, it’s very exciting. It gives us a lot of confidence that what we’re doing here is right.”
Many success stories stem from pairings that happened at Gerry Harvey’s Baramul Stud, and the Evanses are one of them, of the human variety. Anthony was a yearling manager there, and Kristen ran broodmares, and they eventually coupled up and decided to branch out on their own.
They bought the former spelling farm of Newcastle training byword Max Lees, near Dungog on the eastern fringe of the Hunter. Newcastle is only an hour’s drive away, which has a few advantages.
“We get a lot of the coastal rain that they don’t get further inland in the Hunter, so we’re quite lucky in that respect,” Evans says. “And before Max set up the horse farm, it was an old poultry and dairy farm, so the land has been heavily fertilised for a long time.”
The nearest township is Hilldale, and as the name suggests it’s good up-and-down land for strengthening a young horse.
“We started out as Hilldale Park, got our brand made and various other things,” says Evans, 46. “But when we started going to sales we’d notice there were other places called things like Hillside and Hillview Park or whatever. So we went for HP instead to try to distinguish ourselves a bit.”
That aim is being achieved more through the performances of the farm’s stock these days. In large part, that’s attributable to a shrewd bit of buying on Evans’ part.
Some five years ago he parted with $18,000 in an online sale to buy a mare by Newmarket Handicap winner Wanted (Fastnet Rock) called Real Desire. A $160,000 yearling buy for Mick Price in 2013, she only won one of 15, at Kyneton, but Evans saw a very rich vein of colonial blood.
Her second dam was the Irish-import Snow Finch (Storm Bird) who, aside from throwing Real Desire, had dropped two sibling stakes winners by Snippets: Captain Bax and Snippets’ Lass. The latter didn’t win at Group level, claiming her black type victories in two Listed races, but built quite the CV at stud, throwing three stakes winners in Viennese (Redoute’s Choice), Hinchinbrook (Fastnet Rock) and none other than the breed-shaping Snitzel (Redoute’s Choice), winner of a Group 1 Oakleigh Plate among six stakes victories, and later a four-time Australian champion sire.
“Real Desire, being out of a half-sister to the mother of Snitzel, and Hinchinbrook, I just thought that for a little farm like us to have a mare from the family of the best stallion in Australia would be pretty good,” says Evans.
Kristen had long been a huge fan of Lonhro but, budgets being what they are, it was decided to send Real Desire to a next best thing – his son Exosphere, the ATC Golden Rose winner then standing his second season at Darley, for $27,500.
“I loved Exosphere as a racehorse, and liked him as a stallion as well, and physically she was great for the mare. She’s not all that big, and he’s such a big stallion,” Evans says.
The result was a colt, sold for $280,000 through the Torryburn Stud draft at Magic Millions Book 2, who became the Team Hawkes-trained city winner Forged.
“With him having been such a nice colt, we sent the mare back to Exosphere, and that’s how we ended up with Skybird,” Evans says.
The mating twists together several Australian sprinting lines. Star Kingdom comes through twice – via two flying sons in Kaoru Star and Biscay – in the recent pedigree of Exosphere’s dam Altitude (Danzero), with Exosphere’s second dam being by Golden Slipper winner Marscay.
And Snippets – shown to work with that Snow Finch family – is put over it again in the pedigree of Real Desire, since he’s the damsire of Wanted.
“A lot of those European sires can be a bit tricky for buyers to get a handle on,” Evans says, “but everyone knows those fast Australian sires, so it’s good to have a few of those in there.
“And Wanted is from a Danehill sireline, and we’re keen on Lonhro over a Danehill line mare,” he says of a nick that ranks as Lonhro’s third-best, with 53 winners and five stakes winners from 72 runners.
Skybird, working just fine with a double-male 4 x 4 duplication of Danehill via Danzero and Fastnet Rock, is now a $4 equal favourite with Coeur Volante (Proisir) for the Thousand Guineas, thanks to her breathtaking last-to-first win last Saturday. She’ll next be striving to give her trainer Freedman his second Group 1 after his breakthrough, only last month, with four-year-old colt Attrition’s (Churchill) Toorak Handicap.
And Skybird’s breeders have high hopes for more success through the progeny of their beloved 12-year-old Real Desire. They have what Evans says is her exceptional yearling colt from the small, 64-live foal second-last crop of Deep Field, who’ll be going to HP’s favoured Inglis Classic sale next year. And Real Desire is now in-foal to another son of Lonhro in Pierro.
Not only that, the relative success of Real Desire’s $280,000 and $110,000 yearlings has helped the Evanses enhance their broodmare cluster by buying multiple city winner Lashes (I Am Invincible) for $60,000 last year. And she now has a first-foal colt who’s one of only 28 from the final crop of Deep Field, who’s been pensioned off owing to worsening fertility issues.
“Real Desire is such a lovely mare, and she’s been part of the family for a long time, and has really helped us get on our feet,” Evans says. “The colt we sold out of her for $280,000, he helped us secure the farm and give us a platform to work off – to upgrade our mares and put them to better stallions. We’ve been able to buy Lashes, who has a Deep Field colt, and one of his last colts, so hopefully he’ll do well.
“So, Real Desire has been a very special mare to our family, and hopefully Skybird can kick on. At the start of the season we were crossing our fingers about what Skybird could do. The stable were saying she had really good ability, so we were kind of hoping she might win a city race for us. So to win a Group 2 is fantastic.
“And we thought by breeding Real Desire to Pierro, we’d make a three-quarter relation. She went in-foal to him and now Skybird’s gone so well, so now that looks like hopefully a smart move.”
Exosphere, meanwhile, is likely to cover a good few more mares than his 58 of the past two years since heading north, according to Oaklands’ Neville Stewart, who was delighted to acquire him from Darley.
“We’d sent mares to him at Darley every year, and I wanted a son of Lonhro, so when he became available that was perfect for us,” Stewart tells It’s In The Blood.
“He’s been going well. His winners-to-runners lately has been fantastic. He had a stakes winner in America the other day. He’s always threatened to get a really good horse, but a couple that have looked good have gone amiss. But if you see one or two doing it, and another couple doing it, you’re hopeful there’s another one coming along, and I thought what Skybird did on Saturday was pretty impressive.”
In Australia, Exosphere has sired 87 winners from 159 runners, with Skybird having become his sixth stakes winner when scoring last weekend. Team Snowden’s 2021 Group 3 Hawkesbury Guineas victor Exoboom was one of those progeny cited by Stewart who had promised much, with four wins and a further six placings in 17 starts, before a fatal injury last year.
The slight quirk is Exosphere’s sole crop sired from a short-lived shuttling venture to Darley’s Haras du Logis in France has done very well. It’s had 14 winners from 23 runners, including two Group scorers.
His best performers have been Ocean, a five-year-old gelding who’s won a G3 at Deauville and four other races, including at Longchamp and Chantilly, and Easter, who was stakes placed in France before going to the US where he won the Listed Lure Stakes at Santa Anita last Saturday, having come fourth in the Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont.
Skybird is Exosphere’s second Australian Group 2 winner after Thermosphere, who took the Edward Manifold Stakes at that level and also landed the Group 3 Magic Night Stakes.
“Every sire will get a good one at some point,” Evans says. “We hope Skybird is it for Exosphere.”
Still just 11 years old, Exosphere stands at Oaklands – the Darling Downs establishment which stood the prolific Lion Hunter and Written Tycoon’s sire Iglesia – alongside Power (Oasis Dream), Prince Fawaz (Fastnet Rock), and, this season on lease from Arrowfield, Pariah (Redoute’s Choice).