It’s often said that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. That’s the philosophy Mac Robertson followed in 2017, when the trainer went to a horse sale in Kentucky to bid on a Minnesota-bred yearling for client Joe Novogratz.
Novogratz, of Chanhassen, gave Robertson a limit on what he was willing to pay. When a bidding war sent the price well past that number, Robertson kept going — all the way to $200,000. Though Novogratz said he had “big-time hesitation” about shelling out far more money than he intended, he didn’t need to forgive Robertson for breaking the budget on Mister Banjoman.
The 3-year-old gelding already has recouped his purchase price, earning $201,621 with five victories in eight career starts. Sunday, he will run in the $100,000 Minnesota Sprint Championship at Canterbury Park, as Novogratz seeks his first-ever victory in the Minnesota Festival of Champions for state-bred horses. Though he has owned racehorses since the Shakopee track first opened in 1985, Novogratz only recently began buying Minnesota-breds, including the one that didn’t get away.
“Mac evaluated him before the sale and liked him,” Novogratz said. “A couple other people had as much interest in him as Mac did, and that’s what escalated the price. We could let somebody else buy him, or we buy him.
“For a Minnesota-bred gelding, to pay $200,000, I was scratching my head. I was hoping he was going to be very, very special. And to this point, he’s a pretty special horse.”
Novogratz has been Canterbury’s leading owner in each of the past three seasons, sharing the title last year and winning it outright in 2016 and 2017. An honorable-mention All-America linebacker at Pitt, he briefly played in the Vikings organization in the mid-1960s until a skiing accident ended his football career.
The founder of Chanhassen-based IDI, an insulation-distribution business, Novogratz said “having a Minnesota-bred did not really hit my fancy” until Mister Banjoman came along. Bred by Almar Farm Partners, his looks and pedigree already were turning heads before he was sent to Kentucky’s prestigious Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale.
When the bidding ended, Novogratz had unknowingly set a record. According to industry publication The Blood-Horse, the $200,000 price is the highest ever paid for any of the 101 yearling geldings sold at a public auction since 1980.
“Mac called me right after [buying the horse] and said, ‘Guess what?’ “ Novogratz recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, no.’
“But I’m sure everybody’s walked away from a horse before that turned out to be OK, and they wish they would have bought it. I’m supportive of what Mac did. He didn’t guarantee me, but he said, ‘This is a good horse, and you’re going to be happy with him.’ ”
Robertson was right. Mister Banjoman — who was named by Novogratz, a novice musician and banjo-picker — won two of three races at Canterbury last summer as a 2-year-old, including the $75,000 Shakopee Juvenile. He enters Sunday’s race off consecutive victories in the Minnesota Derby and the Victor S. Myers Stakes and is the No. 2 money-earner at Canterbury this season, with $115,650 in purses.
Since buying Mister Banjoman, Novogratz has invested even more in Minnesota-breds. His two purchases at last summer’s Minnesota Thoroughbred Association yearling sale included a gelding that sold for $100,000, the highest price in the sale’s history. He also bought the 2-year-old filly Rental Pool, who will run Sunday in the $100,000 Northern Lights Debutante.
The biggest star in the Novogratz stable is the Kentucky-bred Amy’s Challenge, who has career earnings of $468,156 and has finished in the money in two Grade 1 stakes this year. With Mister Banjoman’s career off to a strong start, Novogratz is looking forward to seeing how far his homegrown horses can go.
“Any good horse is fun to take anywhere if they have a chance to win,” he said. “But now, the caliber of Minnesota-bred horses is moving up. The quality has improved dramatically over the past three years.”