Written by: Jennifer Morrison

Toronto-based breeders Sean and Dorothy Fitzhenry have struck gold.

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Dave Landry Photo

Sean and Dorothy Fitzhenry are still pinching themselves after what can only be described as a dream season, easily the best in their short time being involved in breeding and racing.

The Toronto couple have bred some very nice horses for other owners since their first broodmare purchases at the outset of the millennium. In 2017, it was their turn.

The Fitzhenrys’ yellow silks with a black horseshoe were carried to victory in five stakes races, their first stakes wins as sole owners, and they raced in the Queen’s Plate, Breeders’ Cup and at famed Saratoga.

“We had a blast,” said the personable Sean Fitzhenry. “It was a dream, no question.”

Sean and Dorothy seem to have found that cozy place between running their breeding and racing operation as a business (they don’t have a farm so have avoided that overhead) and keeping it enjoyable. A fun couple with Sean more of the steady hand to Dorothy’s nervous excitement, the Fitzhenrys enjoy talking about their horses and attending the races with fellow owners and breeders.

“IT NEVER CROSSED MY MIND TO OWN A HORSE”

The Fitzhenrys’ introduction to owning thoroughbreds came about purely by chance. While Dorothy was a horse lover from a young age, the closest Sean got to anything from the track as a kid was delivering the local paper to a neighbour, none other than champion jockey Avelino Gomez.

“I was into baseball and hockey, I was not a horsey kid,” Sean said. He did, however, attend the races on occasion as an adult through a friend, Dennis Brown.

“It never crossed my mind to own a horse,” Sean said. “Dennis (owner of Clarity Stables) had this really nice horse, No Comprende, and we lived vicariously through watching him.”

No Comprende, an Ontario sired son of Compadre, raced at major tracks throughout North America in the early 2000s and the Fitzhenrys often followed the big bay. The gelding won over $590,000 on the track and that began the horse racing itch for the couple.

“Dennis called me one day and said he was going to a sale in Kentucky,” said Sean. “I told him to buy me one. He ended up buying two and telling me to decide which one I wanted, but I couldn’t, so we split both.”

Those first two runners, Bob Loblaw and More Cold Drinks, did not do much at the track but the hook was in place and Sean Fitzhenry began to study.

He became intrigued with pedigrees and what crosses worked between stallions and mares and made his first filly purchases. Minnie’s Meadow, a daughter of American Triple crown winner Affirmed, was one of the first to produce foals for the Fitzhenrys.

The mare not only was an instant favourite of the Fitzhenrys, but she has become a foundation broodmare for the couple’s operation.

“She’s a sweetheart, our favourite horse,” said Sean. “I just love her.”

GUY CABALLERO, DIXIE MOON AND MR HAVERCAMP

A winner on the track, Minnie’s Meadow’s first foal was Dixie Chicken, a daughter of Rahy born in 2007 and trained by the Fitzhenrys’ new stable trainer Catherine Day Phillips. Dixie Chicken was a hard-trying mare who was stakes placed in her career through age five and retired with earnings of just over $200,000. Dixie Chicken’s first two foals, Guy Caballero and Dixie Moon, became the Fitzhenrys’ first stakes winners.

Guy Caballero almost didn’t race for the couple as he was offered for sale as a weanling in 2014 (bought back for $85,000) and a yearling in 2015 (bought back for $65,000).

“If they don’t bring what I want I keep them and Dorothy and I will race them,” said Sean. “I will ask Catherine, bloodstock agent Marette Farrell and Keith Lancaster, who raises our young horses in Kentucky what they believe the value of the horses are.”

Keeping Guy Caballero (one of several names used by Fitzhenry from the Canadian comedy show SCTV) proved to be a fortuitous move as he was stakes placed as a 2-year-old and then an upset winner in the Plate Trial in 2017, earning him a trip to the Plate.

“We didn’t see that effort coming at all,” said Sean. “Oh yeah, Dorothy was so excited, it was incredible.” Guy Caballero peaked one race too soon as he finished 10th in the Plate, but he ended the season with a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Ontario Derby.

By that time, the gelding’s young 2-year-old half sister, Dixie Moon, by Curlin, was making a name for herself.

Bought back for $150,000, in part because of a nasty scar on one side of her neck, Dixie Moon won her debut and then was second in the Grade 1 Natalma Stakes before she beat the boys in the Cup & Saucer Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. The filly took the Fitzhenrys and Day Philips to California for the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar and finished a respectable sixth. She ended the season with a win in the Ontario Lassie Stakes back at Woodbine and was a finalist for Champion Two-Year-Old Filly at the Sovereign awards.

If that brother and sister team weren’t already excitement enough in ‘17, then the brilliant Mr. Havercamp certainly added to the magic. The Court Vision gelding, the last foal from the homebred mare Tennessee Lamb, was bought back for just $19,000. Named for a character in the golf comedy Caddyshack, Mr Havercamp won four of his six starts as a 3-year-old including the Bunty Lawless Stakes. He got a chance to race at Saratoga in the summer but had a troubled trip and finished fifth in the Grade Saranac Stakes.

Mr. Havercamp’s granddam, Trishyde Slew, and her daughter Virginia Plain were two of Fitzhenrys’ early broodmare purchases. Trishyde Slew, by Seattle Slew, is also the dam of Mendocino Beano, who was stakes placed for the Fitzhenrys and is also off to a good start as a momma.

Mendocino Beano, by Smart Strike, is the dam of the 2017 stakes-winning filly Stallion Heiress, who was sold to American Rick Kanter for $100,000.

$2 MILLION-WINNING MARKETING MIX

While Minnie’s Meadow had a lot to do with getting the Fitzhenrys success in racing, it was the sale of the 2008 filly Marketing Mix that really put them on the breeding map.

Sold for $150,000 at the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale to Glen Hill Farm, Marketing Mix, a daughter of Medaglia D’oro from the one-time Fitzhenry mare Instant Thought raced her way to $2 million in earnings and became a multiple Grade 1 winner.

Marketing Mix was the “the best foal that her mare produced for me,” said Sean, who tries to keep their broodmare numbers between eight and 10.

“I like to look at the physical match up of mares and stallions,” he explained. “By spending a lot of time at sales and watching friends, I studied what seemed to work and it’s sort of taken off.”

The one thing that fellow Canadian owners and breeders will note about the Fitzhenrys is that they do not sell their horses in Canada. They breed to American stallions and sell their Canadian breds in the big sales in Kentucky.

“That’s the market I am in,” said Fitzhenry. “I use the U.S. dollars I get to pay for stallion fees. We have to look at it as a business and in Ontario, it’s a smaller market with the same 10 people buying the horses.”

The Fitzhenry mares currently reside at Joey Gee’s Winview Farm, the former Gardiner Farm in Caledon East, ON.

They have eight yearlings to sell this year, but Sean admitted after such a thrilling year racing some of their homebreds, the lure of racing action is strong.

“It will be hard to sell all of them,” said Sean, who does not take for granted all the success the couple has had in a short amount of time.

“We totally get how hard this business is. I have some buddies who think it is easy when they watch how we’re doing, but it costs a lot of money.”

As for the coming season and the prospects of Woodbine Oaks hopeful Dixie Moon, the Fitzhenrys are having fun and keeping their fingers crossed.