Bret Calhoun looked back at his notes for Hip 1336 at Keeneland September 2012.
"Fine-boned, small. OK."
Clients Larry Hirsch and Wayne Sanders took Calhoun's stamp of approval and bought the Elusive Quality filly for $62,000. Out of a stakes-winning daughter of Glitterman, she looked fast in September and stayed fast, at least through July. Bahnah won her debut by 6 lengths in a 4 ½-furlong sprint at Churchill Downs in June and clawed out a dead heat in the Schuylerville Friday. She notched the first Saratoga win for Hirsch, Sanders, Calhoun and jockey Corey Lanerie.
If Calhoun were making notes now, they'd still say, "Fine-boned, small. OK." The Dallas native would also add three intangibles nobody could see in September, "game, fast, tough."
Hirsch and Sanders own about 35 horses in training, relying on a computer program they've developed to produce a short list each September. After they go through the list, look at all the horses, they ask Calhoun for his approval. He usually looks at 10 to 15 horses a day during Keeneland September, approves some, scratches some. They don't want his opinion on anything more than if he thinks one can withstand training from a conformation standpoint. They figure he's the one who's going to train them.
"They have some kind of system that spits out horses who meet their criteria, I basically approve them or don't approve them," Calhoun said. "They would prefer me to just to give them an opinion on if they're correct enough to withstand training, they don't really want my opinion on athleticism or ability."
Bahnah was small, but athletic, well-balanced, a race car if you had to picture one.
"And she still is today. She's grown up quite a bit but she's still a smallish filly," Calhoun said after winning the Schuylerville. "She gets a lot of out of her body, she gets a lot of length from it. She's an athletic filly, everything's in the right spot, she's just a miniature version."
Judging by their filly's pedigree and conformation, Hirsch and Sanders figured she would be quick and precocious.
"I think we really knew what we were buying here, she was small, by Elusive Quality over a Glitterman mare, speed over speed, we thought she could be very quick. She's very athletic, very proportionate, very balanced," Hirsch said. "We spend a lot of time with the yearlings looking at them, evaluating them, we call Bret over for a final yay or nay."
Calhoun, 49, developed Bahnah at Churchill Downs, unleashed her to dominate maidens in early June and then set his sights on Saratoga. She and Strike The Note (who aims at the Quick Call Thursday) came early. Churchill Downs Debutante winner Fiftyshadesofgold will come later for the Adirondack Aug. 11. About three years ago, Calhoun began running a horse or two at Saratoga each summer, but hadn't won a race at here until Friday. For now, he'll stick to picking his spots at the Spa.
"I run a lot of strings all over the place, I'm not opposed to going any place if I can compete and win races, but it's tough here," Calhoun said, when asked if he thought about bringing a bigger fleet to Saratoga. "I do this because I love it, but it's also a business, I can't come up here to lose a lot of money, it's expensive to be here. I want to come up here and be competitive. Look, I love the place and I'd like to think I have a string good enough to come up here but this is Saratoga. I've never had any fun losing."
Indeed, it's more fun to win. When Saratoga rolls around, owners and trainers engage in conversations about hitting the Northway or retreating somewhere farther down the highway, and undoubtedly, an owner or a trainer utters, "Wouldn't it be fun to run at Saratoga...?" And it's fun, right up until the three-eighths pole when the horses who belong at Saratoga excel and the ones who were here for the fun retreat. Like turning on the lights at a sixth-grade dance.
Bahnah proved she belonged.
"That's really a thrill, to come up here and see a horse run that well, that gutty, second time out, a dead heat in a stakes race," said Hirsch, who flew from Dallas to Saratoga Friday morning and headed home Saturday morning. "Just exciting, a small horse to run that tough. We'll take the dead heat."
On the way out of the clubhouse, Calhoun turned to Hirsch and anybody who was listening, and summed up the experience.
"We really like this place."