It is the most famous horse race in the world and for the majority of the world’s Thoroughbred horsepeople the Kentucky Derby (G1) is an event enjoyed vicariously through those who are lucky enough to have a connection to a Derby starter.
But a wonderful thing about the sport is that because a large part of the industry centres on pedigree and sales, a close relative of a star horse can suddenly become a bit more valuable.
Trainer Sylvain Pion and his wife Terri, who have a small stable of horses at Woodbine, have landed in just such a magical scenario. One of their favourite horses in the barn, 7-year-old Close Image, is the older half-sister to Derby starter Barber Road.
Not only that, but the Pions were at the Keeneland sale ring in November 2019 when Barber Road was brought in as a weanling, just eight months old, and had a long think about whether to bid. In the end, the youngster was bought by Bill and Tammy Simon from North Carolina.
Still, the Pions’ phones have been ringing and beeping with calls, texts and emails for over two months now from horsepeople inquiring about Close Image.
“It’s exciting, we have been thinking about the Derby a lot this week,” said Sylvain, who has been with Terri for more than 30 years. “It’s almost like watching one of your own horses.”
Born in Montreal, Quebec, Sylvain Pion has a deep horse racing pedigree. Grandfathers, uncles and cousins have worked in the sport and he credits his father Raymond for teaching him about training racehorses. The senior Pion saddled over 200 winners including multiple stakes winner Franssica d’Amour, a daughter of Geiger Counter.
Sylvain started his first horse in 2009, one of just three runners in that first season, and he has steadily improved his resumé each year with a stable of horses that usually numbers no more than a dozen. He particularly enjoys long distance horses and he had his first big season in 2016, winning races with $25,000 claim Niigon’s Glory. In 2017, a $40,000 claim, Artistico, went on to win over $250,000 and he collected bonuses for owner 4U Stable and Pion in 2018 as winner of the Turf Endurance Challenge. That same year, Pion dropped a claim slip for English Illusion for $45,000 on August 5 and 24 days later sent him out to win the $125,000 Halton Stakes.
The Pions are also involved with initiatives to share racehorse ownership with new fans, launching the Beat the Feet Syndicate. Terri, who runs the business side of the stable, is also syndicate manager and has a full time job at Canada Post.
The syndicate has shares in two horses for 2022: Mr. Commish, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred by Commissioner who showed promise in his debut outing last fall at Woodbine, and Shebatown, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred filly by Jersey Town – Seeking Sheba (Seeking the Gold), is available at $5,000 for five percent ownership. The promising filly was bred by Charles Fipke.
They are also co-owners of two recent purchases from the Keeneland April Horses of Racing Age sale, joining forces with new owner Katie Larsen, founder of Southern Belle Thoroughbreds, which helps place retired racehorses.
And there is Close Image, who turned 7 years old this year and was bought by Sylvain and Terri in 2016 for ‘about $1,500’ after the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling sale.
“I was looking for a yearling by Badge of Silver (a son of Silver Deputy),” said Sylvain. “He was in his first year as an Ontario sire and I felt like he was going to be good. Trainer Nathan Squires helped me find her.”
When seeking out a name for the filly, the Pions had the perfect moniker. “My dad trained a horse who ran against Secretariat in the Bay Shore Stakes named Close Image. It’s pretty neat even though he didn’t do very well,” said Sylvain.
Close Image, a light-framed dark bay, has been an honest runner for the couple with three wins (she was disqualified from one) and earnings of over $113,000. She is back at Woodbine this spring but unlikely to race again due to her famous half-brother.
Yes, the Pions did briefly ponder buying Barber Road when he was offered by Kentucky breeders Susan Forrester and Judy Curry, but ultimately did not pursue the grey son of Race Day.
“I don’t buy weanlings,” said Sylvain. “It’s a long process to get them to the races.”
The couple, along with one of their two sons, Kristofer, who works as a groom for his parents and was groom of the great Pink Lloyd earlier in his career, kept tabs on the colt who was named Barber Road. They saw he won his maiden for $30,000 claiming at Churchill Downs in October, 2021 and followed up with a starter allowance victory.
In February of this year, while relaxing at home, Pion received a call inquiring about Close Image. “It was out of the blue. She had raced for $5,000 in her last start of 2021 and this fellow on the phone wanted to buy her for $6,000. I quickly said I would call him back and said to Terri, something is going on. That is when we saw Barber Road had just finished a good third in the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn. I didn’t call the guy back.”
Barber Road then was an even better second in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby behind Cyberknife. A confirmed stretch runner, Barber Road will be a longshot in the Derby, but the John Ortiz-trained fellow will be there to pick up the fading speedsters. The Pions are excited about the possibility that Barber Road would run in the longer Belmont Stakes (G1) at 1 1/2 miles.
“This feels pretty amazing for us,” said Terri. “Horse racing is crazy, you just never know what can happen. We will just sit tight until the Derby and enjoy it.”