When Paul and Suzanne Hanifl talk about their ambitions, they don’t sound any different from dozens of others who breed and race horses in Minnesota. The couple from North Oaks wants to produce thoroughbreds that can win at Canterbury Park, adding an extra dollop of fun to the summer days they spend with their family at the Shakopee track.
Chances are they didn’t need to breed to a Triple Crown winner to make that happen. But when the opportunity arose for the Hanifls to send a mare to American Pharoah — who broke a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015 with victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — they didn’t hesitate.
“Why not?” Paul Hanifl said. “We’re not getting any younger. We have the means, and we’re upgrading our mares and sires all the time.”
What Hanifl described as an “upgrade,” however, represents an unprecedented leap forward for a Minnesota breeder. The sturdy bay colt born May 6 at Wood-Mere Farm near Webster is believed to be the first Minnesota-bred ever sired by a Triple Crown champion.
American Pharoah ended his 11-race career with nine victories and $8,650,300 in earnings, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic after becoming the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown. Justify, the favorite in the Belmont Stakes, could become the 13th on Saturday.
It’s still unknown how much of American Pharoah’s brilliance might be passed to his offspring. His first foals were born in 2017 and will not be old enough to race until next year, though two already have sold for $1 million each.
Paul Hanifl declined to disclose the stud fee, which is now private after starting out at $200,000. It’s safe to say it was significantly higher than most Minnesota breeders pay, even those who send mares to quality Kentucky stallions.
To the Hanifls, the dollars matter less than the dreams. It’s all about trying to produce that one life-changing horse, and in the process, prodding other Minnesota breeders to aim higher, too. Their bold move has captured plenty of attention in an industry eager to see how it plays out.
“When I heard the news, I thought, ‘Bully for them. They’re going to take a shot,’ ” said David Miller, a Minnesota-based bloodstock agent and pedigree expert. “All eyes are going to be on that colt, every step of the way.
“The bar has been raised from a spending standpoint. It’s really exciting to see someone in Minnesota make that level of investment.”
‘Oh, my goodness’
The Hanifls, who race at Canterbury under the name Suzanne Stables, have owned racehorses for more than 25 years and have been breeding them for about a decade. Two years ago, their mare One More Strike had a colt by the well-regarded sire Uncle Mo. They considered breeding to Uncle Mo again, but after his stud fee rose to $150,000, they made a deal to go to American Pharoah, who resides at the same Kentucky stallion farm.
One More Strike kept them in suspense before demonstrating an exquisite sense of timing. Two weeks overdue, she went into labor about eight hours after last month’s Kentucky Derby, delivering a whopper of a foal that weighed in at 150 pounds a few days after his birth.
“When those front feet came out, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ ” said Dean Benson, whose farm is home to the Hanifls’ broodmares. “He was so big, it took two of us to pull him out.”
Like millions of other racing fans, Benson, his wife, Teresa, and the Hanifls cheered on American Pharoah as he became the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The Bensons saw him in the flesh only a week after he arrived at the stallion farm and were dazzled. The Hanifls soon started talking about breeding to him some day, and Dean Benson was delighted when they pulled the trigger.
“I wasn’t surprised, because Paul and Suzanne have said they want to breed to the absolute best stallions they can get to,” Benson said. “They just want to have as much fun as they can with their horses.”
Racing helped bring the Hanifls together; married for more than 50 years, they went to a West Virginia track on one of their first dates. When they moved from Illinois to Minnesota after Paul’s retirement about a year ago, their racing and breeding operation came with them.
Suzanne Stables has career earnings of $997,267, topped by the graded stakes winner Barbados. The Hanifls are going all-in on Minnesota, planning to produce two or three well-bred foals in the state each year while also looking to buy state-breds with posh pedigrees.
“Right now, we only want Minnesota horses,” Paul Hanifl said. “We’d love to make money. I’m a businessman. But in general, we’re in it for the fun. We want to take pictures of our family in the winner’s circle.”
A born winner?
Though no other Minnesota breeders have made as big a statement as the Hanifls, the quality of Minnesota-bred horses has been improving as Canterbury Park’s purses have risen. Total purses have more than doubled since 2012, when the track signed a purse-enhancement deal with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and will reach a Canterbury Park-record $15 million this season.
Miller, the bloodstock agent, said that has fueled a “renaissance” in Minnesota breeding. With more money to be made, breeders are more willing to invest in higher quality mares and more expensive stud fees. In the past few months, two Minnesota-breds fetched unusually high prices at auction, with a yearling gelding selling for $200,000 and a 2-year-old colt going for $160,000.
In addition, some young Minnesota-breds ran competitively last winter at places such as Churchill Downs and Gulfstream, and star 3-year-old Mr. Jagermeister was second in a stakes race at Oaklawn Park. That has increased the value of state-bred horses, making higher investments worthwhile.
“What has driven what people were willing to spend on stallion (fees) was that no one would pay any money for a Minnesota-bred,” Miller said. “Now, if you bring a serious racehorse, you have the potential to sell one for six figures.
“People understand that to win here, you can’t just breed the same-old, same-old and expect a better result. I think we’re going to see continued levels of investment, and Canterbury horses going to other (tracks) are going to merit respect. This isn’t the cabbage patch anymore.”
In his first two years at stud, American Pharoah was bred to more than 400 U.S. mares. Industry experts have raved about his first foals, noting they have inherited his athleticism, physique and kind disposition.
With such a regal pedigree, Suzanne Hanifl said the goal for their yet-to-be-named colt is “to run in and win the (Kentucky) Derby.” If he doesn’t, they won’t be disappointed. The Hanifls already are envisioning how much fun it would be to watch him run at Canterbury Park, with their three children, nine grandchildren and racing fans eager to see the first native-born son of a Triple Crown winner.
“We haven’t produced a great horse yet,” Paul Hanifl said. “But maybe one day, we will. Maybe this is the one. And if it helps Minnesota racing, we’ll be happy.’’