Everybody is sold on Voukefalas

In some cases, offers of money for your horse can suck a bit of the joy out of having the horse of a lifetime. Do you keep what you have, or do you take what’s behind the curtain of cash?

by David Mattia

Showcasing or training down a talented freshman colt or filly can prove to be a never-ending pain in the rear when suddenly everyone with deep pockets in the harness game starts to notice your baby and wants to buy it. When, if ever, do you cave?

In the harness world, there are people whose greatest talent in racing is simply being able to buy your horse. This doesn’t make them bad people. In fact, they keep the cash flowing for owners and trainers who buy yearlings or 2-year-olds for the sole purpose of flipping them. Other times, for many owners or trainers, selling is just worth the windfall.

In some cases, however, offers of money for your horse can suck a bit of the joy out of having the horse of a lifetime. Do you keep what you have, or do you take what’s behind the curtain of cash?

Sometimes the buzz about a baby starts off on the training farm months before he or she even races. More often, the offers start rolling 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 thoroughly enjoy owning and training a horse that attracts a whole lot of early attention.

What do you do when one of your juveniles in training is just too good? What happens when a horse is so noticeably gifted that what should be a rare pleasure turns into a continuous pressure? Such is the case with a colt by Lazarus N named Voukefalas.

Trainer Michael Russo was not at all daunted by the pressures that fell upon him soon after he and owner Michael Pagonas literally created, from scratch, a very gifted colt named Voukefalas who looked like the real deal on the very first day he was hitched to a cart.

“People noticed him right away,” Russo said. “When you have a good baby, there is always someone watching it. That’s the way it worked with Voukefalas. He kept going forward and each time he trained there was progress and improvement. More people started calling or coming around. It’s always like that when you have a horse who stands out from all the others when you train at a major training farm.

“From a professional angle, it’s a thing you have to work around. If you stay in the game long enough, you’re going to have a horse that someone else wants. That’s just the way it is. Sometimes, it can be annoying, especially when you get low-balled or hounded by someone who should know better, but it’s obviously better to have a young one who draws in interest than having an ordinary baby that nobody even notices.”

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

In the case of Voukefalas, it helps that the colt’s owner and breeder, Pagonas, shares Russo’s stoicism and nonplussed resolve. So far, he’s kept his colt and everything that happens in Voukefalas’ career is strictly between Russo and Pagonas. Apart from all the offers to buy or buy in, there has been no peripheral or tangential interference. The magic of owning this outstanding juvenile has remained intact.

Not to compare Voukefalas to Niatross, but it’s this writer’s opinion that Clint Galbraith, as a perfect example, probably had a few moments when he didn’t thoroughly enjoy Niatross. Other parties got involved with the greatest thing that happened to Clint and, well, some of the magic got lost. You know, sometimes it’s not about the money. It depends on who’s buying or who’s selling, or both.

Voukefalas isn’t Russo’s first rodeo by any means, but last year’s rumor mill spoke of some humongous offers of money that were promptly dismissed by Pagonas.

As early as May 2022, when most of the freshman trotters or pacers who hadn’t already fallen by the wayside were training in or around 2:15, one top driver quipped, “Mike Russo looks like he’s sitting on a world champion.”

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

Approaching the wire, Big M track announcer Ken Warkentin officially anointed the big colt with this final sentence: “Voukefalas was unleashed tonight at 2-1 with Jordan Stratton. Voukefalas toyed with them.”

“Unleashed” was the operative word. It was the best word any announcer could have chosen.

Now the offers were huge. Still, Pagonas never blinked about the money, whereas Russo was never in doubt about the horse.

“There was no doubt in my mind that he would win the sire stakes final,” Russo said. “Not a shred of doubt. None whatsoever. Even with all my normal trainer’s paranoia, I knew he would win that race. It’s hard to explain, but I knew he would win easily. He was third in the first two legs, but both times he got stuck behind a horse who was gapping and had to fly home to get those thirds. Ken Warkentin said he was unleashed and that was the truth.”

Voukefalas paced home in :26 and :25.1, respectively.

The Russo camp held steady throughout the colt’s freshman campaign. Now they’re bracing for a 3-year-old campaign that finds Voukefalas bigger, better and, most importantly, eligible for a lot of big money races. Maybe a stud career is in the cards, as well. With all that in mind, how many buyers will be asking, “How much is that horsey in the window,” this year?

“For his 3-year-old season, I’m pointing him towards the Meadowlands Pace, the Jug, 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 folks are watching him training back. I know they’re watching because everyone tells me how great he looks. He has been training alone and he feels good. People who watch talk about him and there’s a lot of eyes on him when he’s on the training track. I have yet to train him with any company.

“A lot of things have to go right. If he doesn’t come back good, he won’t be the first horse who didn’t.”

Russo trained Voukefalas’ dam, Inittowinafortune, who he thinks was a super mare, so there’s an additional attachment for him because Voukefalas is a homebred.

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

“It’s an awesome feeling to see my years of experience come to life in a horse that everyone wanted to buy last year. Now he’s coming back great, and I’ll appreciate the people who will want to buy him this year the same way I appreciated them last year because they’re people who matter in the business. If he goes on to race great for someone else, I’ll never look back with regret. I’ll always see him as a horse who will represent me and represent what I can do with a young horse. Like I said, people in racing, people who matter, will know that Voukefalas originated with me and the way I raised and conditioned him from the very start. That could pay dividends to me for years to come.”

Put yourself in Russo’s shoes or Pagonas’ pocket for that matter.

Monies exchanged notwithstanding, it’s probably natural for a trainer or owner to feel slighted when they simply have to take the money, but maybe it’s better to be left alone and let the chips fall where they may. It’s hard enough to pick out a champ from a yearling sale and it’s harder still to breed a colt the likes of Voukefalas.

Sometimes, however, you get that proverbial offer you can’t refuse.

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

Keep in mind that out there on some track somewhere a 2-year-old in training is catching the eye of someone who wants to own it. That’s just the way it is.