After years of stocking shelves all night at Giant supermarkets, Pat Konka and his wife, Maureen Johnson, decided to turn a dream into reality. They scraped together every dollar and bought a 50-acre horse farm in Westminster.
"We'd work at Giant at night and the farm during the day," Konka said. "We were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. We did it all ourselves. We couldn't afford any help.
"We were so poor for so long, the only entertainment we could afford was sitting at the kitchen table at night reading the Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times or stud books. I guess it paid off in the long run."
On the first day of last week's three-day yearling auction at Timonium, a horse Konka and Johnson bred and owned sold for $180,000. That was the highest price paid for a Maryland-bred at the record-breaking sale.
For Konka and Johnson, selling the yearling named Withoutreservation was the latest in a string of breeding successes. The first mare they bought (for $1,700), Brilliant Lady, immediately produced a stakes winner.
At the Keeneland sale in September 1999, a yearling they had bred, Much Too Tough, sold for $220,000. They had sold him as a weanling for $50,000. In training at Keeneland, he is a full brother to Withoutreservation.
Both colts came from the mating of the Konka-Johnson mare Tough to Touch and the unproven Kentucky stallion Pioneering.
They purchased Tough to Touch in 1994 at Keeneland for a mere $9,200. Their thinking in breeding her to Pioneering illustrates their formula for success.
Pioneering is a half brother to the top sire Storm Cat. Well, they couldn't afford Storm Cat. And Pioneering shares the same bloodlines as another top sire, Gone West (by Mr. Prospector out of a Secretariat mare). Well, they couldn't afford Gone West, either.
So they paid $3,500 for matings with Pioneering, now 7, a regal-looking chestnut whose racing career was brief and undistinguished: six starts at 2, two wins and earnings of $39,426.
"When we started, it was a poor market," Konka said. "We thought we could breed a horse or two and make a little fun money so we could take a vacation or something.
"We just got lucky. We worked hard at it, and we did our homework. But that's not always enough."
Konka, 51, and his wife, 42, finally left Giant this year after feeling secure enough with their breeding operation. Konka took a part-time job as stable manager for Fasig-Tipton at its sales.
He credited one man for help and sage advice about horses: Mason Grasty, executive vice president of Fasig-Tipton Midlantic, the company that conducts the auctions at Timonium.
"He's forgotten more about horses than other people know," Konka said.
Grasty orchestrated last week's auction, which set records for horses sold (566), gross sales ($11,289,300) and average price ($19,946). This was his 11th yearling sale at Timonium.
Said Mike Pons, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association: "I can remember maybe a dozen years ago when it was a struggle getting 65 or 75 horses for a two- or three-hour sale on a Sunday afternoon. It's the Maryland miracle what Mason has done with this sale."
You can book it
If you've begun looking for a Christmas gift for your racing-loving mate, you won't do better than shelling out $75 for "Champions: The Lives, Times and Past Performances of the 20th Century's Greatest Thoroughbreds."
An extraordinary 432-page book published by the Daily Racing Form, it features decade-by-decade narrative histories of the sport written by staff writers. The histories are interesting and invaluable - as are the rare old photographs - but what sets "Champions" apart is its listing of lifetime past performances of 487 horses, including every champion since 1936.
Pino way in front
Mario Pino is running away with the jockeys' title at Colonial Downs, winning 32 races through Tuesday. Mario Verge is next with 17 wins. With nine wins through Tuesday, A. Ferris Allen III is locked into a tight race for the trainers' crown with H. Graham Motion and W. Robert Bailes (eight wins each) and Tom Voss (seven wins). ...
Pre-entry deadline for Maryland Million races is Wednesday. Maryland racing's fall highlight, the Maryland Million will take place Oct. 21 at Laurel Park. ... The Tony Dutrow-trained Burning Roma competes today in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity Stakes at Keeneland, hoping to earn a berth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. ...
Charles Town Races surpassed its $95,000 daily average by awarding $418,000 in purses during four racing days the last week in September. The West Virginia track will run a 10-race Columbus Day card beginning at 4 p.m tomorrow. ...
Churchill Downs officials are considering expanding the maximum number of betting interests in the Kentucky Derby from 14 to 20. That would eliminate the mutuel field and allow every starter to be an individual betting interest.