Con Lima Sweetens Spa Toasts

Con Lima Sweetens Spa Toasts

By Chris McGrath TDN

It’s the kind of tale that might prompt a listening barman to catch the eye of one of the regulars and give a wink. Sure you have, pal. A Texas-bred Commissioner filly? You hear that, folks? This guy has a $22,000 2-year-old RNA with a Hall of Fame trainer. And she’s the top turf sophomore filly in America. Well I guess it must be your round, buddy.

But nobody needs to tell Joseph F. Graffeo, himself the son of a bartender, the kind of odds being confounded by Con Lima, who has been beaten by a single American rival in eight starts on the turf and took her earnings to $884,865 when making all in the GIII Saratoga Oaks Invitational earlier this month. Graffeo has been in and around the game for four decades, hardened by all the usual ups and downs, and this filly’s rags-to-riches rise–with a lucrative expansion in her ownership group–has melted his sentimental armor.

“I used to be a pretty tough guy but now I’m just a mush,” Graffeo says with a chuckle. “I cried about ten times [at Saratoga]. I was like, ‘What the hell, Italian guys from New York are not supposed to do this.’ But we’ve been up and down in life, and as I get a little bit older–more than a little–you really appreciate a gift like this. I don’t mind telling you, having gone 20 years without something like this, it’s emotional.”

That previous glimpse of the summit, halfway through his Turf career, came with millionaire Two Item Limit (Twining), picked out for $50,000 at OBS March and sold for $525,000 after a career that encompassed success in the GII Black-Eyed Susan S. and a longshot podium behind Unbridled Elaine (Unbridled’s Song) and Spain (Thunder Gulch) in the GI Breeders’ Cup Distaff of 2001. That was particularly special, as the meeting was staged that year at Belmont Park: forever Graffeo’s “home” track, even though he has been resident in Florida since 1987.

“If I wanted to see Dad on his off days, every day he’d go to the track,” he explains. “If I wanted to spend time with him and my uncles, they liked to gamble, we’d go to Belmont, go to Aqueduct. I think I was five when he first took me to the racetrack, we lived four miles away from Belmont, and it was love at first sight: oh my God, seeing these majestic animals! And it was our mutual interest that kept me close to my father.”

At the level of the market where Graffeo and his partners tend to operate–typically in the range of $20,000 to $50,000–you obviously have to compromise on something. Two Item Limit, for instance, had major defects of conformation.

“She was crooked,” Graffeo says frankly. “But she floated over the ground. She winged out like crazy, but she was so athletic that when she hit the ground it was like she wasn’t even touching it. She was our best horse, up until now, but nothing compared to this filly. This filly is really special.”

Ear pricked at the finish, Con Lima takes the Saratoga Oaks | Sarah Andrew

She was drawn to his attention after falling through the cracks at the 2020 edition of the same sale that had once produced Two Item Limit. Bred by Lisa Kuhlmann, the second-crop daughter of Commissioner (who would be exported to Saudi Arabia soon afterward) had been sold to V.C. Corp as a $15,000 Keeneland November weanling before failing to meet her reserve at $19,000 back in the same ring the following September. With the market meanwhile petrified by a global pandemic, even the privilege of a Niall Brennan education could not prevent her again being led out unsold at OBS, at $22,000.

Graffeo checked out the video. “And I kind of liked her,” he recalls. “She looked very athletic, looked like she could fit the bill for us. When you buy at the price we do, and are as selective as we are, then you’re going to have to give something away. Probably they saw Texas-bred, they saw Commissioner, and that’s why they didn’t buy her. But I just watched her breeze, and she worked good.”

So he called his partner Charles Weston. “Do me a favor, check this baby out.”

He knew that Weston was by no means certain to give the green light. Graffeo has the miles on the clock for his judgement to be worth heeding–for many years he scouted talent for bloodstock agent Nick Sallusto–but ultimately when he sends Weston a video they both need to agree.

This time, Weston came back and said in his Texas drawl: “Pull the trigger, buddy, pull the trigger.”

Eight starts ago, Con Lima began 2021 with a first stakes win in the Jan. 2 Ginger Brew | Ryan Thompson

So some of Graffeo’s regular partners were brought in, and the filly was sent down to Carlos David at Palm Meadows. Two things quickly became clear. One was that Con Lima was decidedly quirky. You couldn’t train her to run with other horses. She viewed them all as competition, and wouldn’t be restrained. But the other trait was more auspicious: not only did she want to outrun them all; she could.

“It was tough to get her to pay attention and listen,” Graffeo recalls. “She was an absolute handful, but I think that competitive nature is what makes her what she is. And when I watched her with nice horses Carlos had in his barn and, well, I don’t want to use the word ‘demoralise’, but she’d just bury them.

“In her first race, at Gulfstream, the track couldn’t have been any sloppier and she was so green, she was all over the place. But she closed unbelievable, almost won the race, and then won easy next time out. That’s when I said to the partners that for what they invested, this was the time to take the money off the table.”

The most compelling approach to Graffeo and his team–also comprising Troy Johnson, Del Toro and Eric Nikolaus–was made by Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbreds.

“They had great credibility, and there was no argument,” Graffeo recalls. “I gave our valuation and said we’d like to stay in for 25%. And the deal was done in a day.”

There was, however, one stipulation from Eclipse: the filly would be moved to Todd Pletcher. Hard to argue with that: come Saratoga Oaks day, after all, her trainer had been admitted to the Hall of Fame 48 hours earlier. Admittedly even Pletcher needed a little time to figure out Con Lima’s quirks, but soon his team were directing her energies the right way. After a couple of stakes placings, they thought to try her on turf and, bar one last experiment on the main track in the GII Gulfstream Park Oaks, she hasn’t looked back since. Only Santa Barbara (Ire) (Camelot {GB}) could pass her in the GI Belmont Oaks, which looks some distinction after the Irish gem followed up at Arlington last weekend; and Con Lima’s subsequent success at Saratoga suggests her to be thriving on eight starts already this year.

Con Lima, rail, just a half-length shy of Santa Barbara in the Belmont Oaks | Coglianese

“She runs every month,” marvels Graffeo. “You say to yourself, ‘Okay, I guess we’re going to give her a couple of weeks now.’ But there’s no questioning a Hall of Fame trainer and I think Todd really felt she was thriving at Saratoga. I went to see her 5:30 the Monday morning after the race, she was eating up and looked like she could go back out that day and run again. This filly is just freaky. I said to the people there, ‘My baby’s grown up.’ Physically she looks just spectacular, she’s muscled up, she’s filled in the right places. Todd has done sensational, and so have Aron and the Eclipse group, too, they’re doing a great job managing her. I’m so pleased I chose them, they’re an outstanding group of people involved, we couldn’t be happier.”

True, Graffeo can’t celebrate like he once did, owing to a medical scare a couple of years ago. But who would need a barman to pour drinks, if you could bottle an atmosphere like Saratoga?

“You know, I don’t see the young people as involved in racing as I think they should be,” Graffeo remarks. “But if you did a video of Saratoga that weekend… It was just so vibrant, so exciting, so glamorous, it was how racing was meant to be. Somehow we need to figure out how we get that message out there, and rebuild a strong foundation for the future. They might not do it on a Wednesday afternoon at Parx, but on a weekend at Saratoga or Gulfstream, you can just see the place rocking. I guess after missing last year, people are going out and have a good old time. I’ve been around a long time, I’m getting older, but even I was caught up in it: it made me feel young.”

And Graffeo senses that Con Lima is herself helping to spread the word. His son’s social media has registered a tidal wave of enthusiasm for the underdog with a catchy name. Deep down, perhaps, to Graffeo himself it would have been still more precious had she managed to hold out in the Belmont Oaks–not so much for the Grade I rank as for the setting.

Con Lima heading into the Saratoga winner’s circle | Sarah Andrew

“Honestly, for all that unbelievable tradition and glamor at Saratoga, winning at Belmont would have been very special, with my dad’s memory,” he admits. “But you know what, we’re going to go back ‘home’ and try again, try to get that last leg [of the NYRA Turf Triple, in the Jockey Club Oaks Sept. 18]. The extra distance won’t faze her at all, I think she can run all day. You could see how those ears went back at Saratoga: they just weren’t going to catch her, she just dug in. And that’s the way she’s always been. Santa Barbara is top, top class, but Con Lima is probably the best U.S. turf filly at this point.”

To be fair, it’s not as though Graffeo is unfamiliar with this rarefied level. He has been involved in expensive horses with Sallusto, he has traded plenty of stakes winners, and will go prospecting for yearlings at the September Sale with the confidence of one who has made many different angles work over the years. Ultimately, however, Con Lima has vindicated his faith in the value available at a certain level of a certain market. And there’s no rule stating that this second elite “item” has to be the limit.

“I just came back from the sale at Saratoga, and the prices were great, there were some really nice horses and I’m sure they were worth it,” he says. “So I’m not saying it’s the same for other folks. But for us the risk-reward percentage, our main push, has been with the 2-year-olds. We got a Classic Empire at the April Sale, I just watched him breeze and it was outstanding. And we got more coming. So we’re looking forward to some of these babies. People that spend what I do, it feels like it can only be once-in-a-lifetime–but you never know.”

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