Dennis Bontrager realized a childhood dream selling a yearling in Lexington

by James Platz

As Premier First Star entered the sale ring more than five hours into Lexington Selected Yearling Sale’s Wednesday session, Dennis Bontrager saw a childhood dream realized. Consigned as Hip 555, the Stay Hungry colt, first foal from Western Terror mare Royal Terror, brought $37,000. Bontrager sat in the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion to take in the experience of selling his first yearling at “the mecca” of fall auctions.

“I love it, absolutely love it,” he said. “My heart was pumping. Adrenaline was high.”

The dream of selling began at an early age while reading magazine coverage of the annual event.

“As a boy I always read Hoof Beats and saw the pictures. It fascinated me, just the facilities. It was always a dream to sometime find a mare of that caliber. And that happened. We finally made it,” he said.

Despite his knowledge of harness racing, Bontrager is relatively new in standardbred breeding. The 40-year-old has made a living with warmbloods, particularly Morgan horses. He owns and operates Premier Acres in Middlebury, IN. The 70-acre facility serves as a stallion station, focusing on breeding and boarding.

“I would still say my heart is in the Morgan world. I’ve been involved in the Morgan breed for about 22 years. The way I got connected with that is through my stallion facilities. I stood 15 or 20 stallions at one time,” Bontrager said. “I was asked to stand a couple of commercial Standardbred stallions, got hooked up with Tony Alagna, and I fell in love with harness horses.”

Over the last five seasons, Premier Acres has slowly increased its presence in Indiana’s standardbred breeding industry, adding stallions each season. The farm now stands six studs with a balanced offering for both gaits.

“On the trotting side we have You Know You Do, who is having a good season, and we have Pastor Stephen, and he is getting a good group of mares. He didn’t breed a full book of mares, but we bred a lot of good mares. Pilot Discretion is selling his first crop at the Hoosier Classic this year and the hype is pretty high on those. I’ve talked to trainers and consignors and they like those, so we’re excited to see that first crop come to the sale ring.” he said.

You Know You Do’s 2-year-old crop is led by Bourbon Courage, who has reached the winner’s circle in Indiana and Kentucky, earning $139,290 to date with a mark of 1:53.1.

“On the pacing side we have Odds On Equuleus. He has a small crop out there, but a very high success rate. His first crop produced Indiana Sire Stakes Super Final winner Trick Of The Light last season. We have Capt Midnight, who is going into his third year, but we had two full books of mares. We were full within six weeks after opening up. The demand is high on him,” continued Bontrager. “We have a new horse that came in late last year that didn’t make the stallion book, so we missed out on some advertising opportunities. His name is Best In Show. He’s a Bettor’s Delight that won the Meadowlands Pace. He’s a very nice horse, put together well. We bred a little over 100 mares to him in his first year. We’ve very excited to have him as new blood in Indiana, a little outcross with Bettor’s Delight.”

As he dipped his toe into standing commercial stallions, Bontrager also purchased a few broodmares for the farm. He found Royal Terror on the sale platform, acquiring her out of Canada in 2019. From the Matt’s Scooter mare Her Mattjesty, the broodmare is a sister to 12 different winners, herself race timed in 1:56.2.

“When Tony came up a couple years ago for my open house with Pilot Discretion and Capt Midnight, I showed him the pedigree, and he said, ‘You need to breed her to Stay Hungry. You know what, you’re a good friend of mine, you can have one of my breedings. She’ll work for Lexington.’ That’s what we did,” Bontrager said.

Luck is a big part of the business, and Bontrager has had the good fortune of seeing significant updates on the pedigree of Premier First Star. The dam is a full sister to Dismissal, dam of sophomore pacer Bythemissal. As he has excelled in the Buckeye State, recently winning the Little Brown Jug, Bontrager’s yearling has benefitted.

“I was fortunate because she’s a full sister to the dam of Bythemissal, the Jug winner that is almost over a million dollars now,” Bontrager commented. “That definitely helps my colt. He’s got a deep pedigree, the second, third and fourth dams are deep. I was fortunate to find a mare like this.”

Premier First Star was consigned as agent by Anvil And Lace Farm. Bontrager made the connection with Beth Yontz through the farm’s breeding facilities. He arrived in time to witness the fireworks Monday night, his first time on the Fasig-Tipton grounds. Wednesday afternoon he met and talked with Jimmy Takter at the Anvil And Lace consignment, chatting with the Hall of Fame trainer about the latter’s former pupil, Pastor Stephen.

“The most enjoyable part was day one. It was just awesome sitting in there. Seeing them in person, going out and looking at them individually, it’s priceless to me. Usually I just read about it. Being here in person, being a part of it, is just huge,” he said.

The first 15 progeny from Stay Hungry that passed through the ring during the first three sessions averaged $80,400, including a colt that brought $240,000 Monday evening.

Anthony Beaton signed the ticket on Premier First Star. The colt’s selling price didn’t come near Stay Hungry’s average, but that did not discourage his breeder.

“Beth wanted a little bit more, but I said, ‘It’s alright. I’ll be back,’” he said. “I was hoping for a little bit more. I’m not disappointed at all. The Stay Hungrys are doing well, I thought he might bring a little bit more. I’ve been in the horse business, I know the ups and downs. He’s in good hands and he’ll have a shot, that’s the main thing.”