Sam Britt and Mike House’s grade 1 winner Gabriel Charles was retired late last year after re-injuring a tendon that previously kept him sidelined for more than a year and is now standing his first season at stud at Dave and Sommer Smith’s Nexstar Ranch near Temecula, CA, for a fee of $1,400, live foal. The now 7-year-old son of Street Hero and the Atticus mare Star of Atticus was trained by Jeff Mullins throughout his career and finished up with a four wins, five seconds and a third in 12 starts and $604,400 in earnings, which included money from two graded stakes wins and placings in several others.
While it’s become the norm for most graded stakes winners who are retired and sent to stud duty to be syndicated and turned over to agents and managers and farms, Gabriel Charles may be representing a new approach to stallion ownership and management. The reality is that Gabriel Charles means too much to his owners to turn him over and, though they received some respectable offers and even suggestions to send the handsome bay horse overseas, they decided that was in the best interests everyone, especially the horse, to retain ownership and stand him at stud themselves.
Some may call it a leap of faith. His people prefer to think of it as an act of love.
When Britt and House purchased Gabriel Charles as a promising 2-year-old in training in early 2012, House was searching for the perfect horse for a name he had already reserved. The previous September, House’s youngest daughter, Maggie Sauque, had given birth to her first child — House’s 18th grandchild — a 2.8-pound preemie whose survival at birth was precarious at best. The tiny infant, named Gabriel Charles after a beloved family member and World War II war hero, fought for his life for weeks in a San Diego hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and survived, so finding the perfect horse to carry the infant’s name was no small decision in the House house.
“It was a really tough time for us,” Sauque explained. “He was so tiny and he had all these tubes everywhere and we had to go visit him every day. Going from wondering if he’d make it to the day we brought him home was the hardest thing we’d ever had to do, so when (the horse was bought) and named Gabriel Charles, it was so exciting, so watching him race was something we were really looking forward to.”
In the spring of 2012 the young horse was sent to trainer Jeff Mullins in Southern California and before long was entered in his first race, which he won at the family’s home track of Del Mar. Everyone was in the winner’s circle that day, including the baby who inspired the colt’s name. A new tradition was born. For every start Gabriel Charles would make thereafter, the little boy now called “Gabe” would be there. While at first Gabe was too young to understand the connection, before long he knew that “his” horse was running and that after a fun day at the track with his grandfather, he’d get to go see his favorite horse in Mullins’ shedrow.
“When Gabe was a baby, he had no idea what was happening,” Sauque explained. “But once he got a little older he put it all together. And for his last couple of races, Gabe knew. And the best part was going to the barn to visit and feed carrots and mints. As much as Gabe loved the races, visiting and spending time with Gabriel Charles was the best part for my son. It was the best part for all of us.”
Gabriel Charles’ career was not without its ups and downs. A bowed tendon as a 4-year-old and a life-threatening bout with colic at five sent the horse to the sidelines for extended periods of time, and soon after he finished second in the San Francisco Mile (GIIT) nearly a year ago, it was discovered that he had reinjured the tendon that had previously forced time off. The setback brought a stark realization that a third comeback was not in the cards.
“He won from 6 ½ furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. I mean, pedigree aside, he was super competitive at the top level over his entire career. And he has a huge heart, he’s a fighter. Like my son. And he has a great mind. And he was amazing when Gabe was a baby, sweet and gentle. And ever since then he was always so happy to see Gabe. They bonded, they really are friends.”
The end to a career that brought them all so much joy also brought them anxiety. What would be the right decision for Gabriel Charles in his post-race career? Though some offers came in and opportunities to send him away were made, it soon became clear to everyone that a typical stallion deal wasn’t likely.
“We were heartbroken,” Sauque said through tears. “I had to explain to my child that his horse was done being a racehorse and would probably go live with new people. But as upset as Gabe was, I realized I was more upset. What would happen? Where would he go? I couldn’t bear to think of him going to another country and never coming back.
“I think he earned his right to be a stallion, but where and how was the hard part. When he colicked I realized just how fragile they are and how quickly they can die. I was so afraid because I knew that if he didn’t make it I had to explain it to a little boy who loved a horse more than anything. And now I had to consider sending him away? At that point I knew I’d take care of him forever. I knew he earned the right to pass on the best of himself, in talent and intelligence and heart.
“He had to leave [Mullins’ barn] to make room for the runners,” Sauque said. “Jeff asked me if I could find a place, so I called my friend [Sommer Smith] and she told me to send him to her. At the time we had no idea what we were going to do with him, but we knew he’d be safe there and, after some long conversations, Sommer and I decided the best place for him was with her.”
While interest in breeding to Gabriel Charles isn’t as high as, say, California Chrome, that’s not to say there hasn’t been any interest from people wanting to send their mares to him. The reality for Sauque is that all she wants is for him to have the opportunity to pass on his best qualities to some offspring. And make just enough money to pay his rent at Nexstar, which Sauque hopes will be his forever home.
“[Sommer] does such a great job,” Sauque said. “There’s a breeding shed and she’s as good as anyone at breeding mares. She knows how to care for stallions and their special needs. I don’t ever worry about Gabriel Charles. And he’s close to our home in San Diego, so I can take Gabe to visit him a lot. It’s still a treat for us all to visit an spend time with Gabriel Charles.”
Now all Sauque wants is to spread the word.
“We want to be a bit selective about the mares he breeds to. We’d like them to arrive in a trailer and not ridden into the farm,” Sauque joked. “In all seriousness, we’re open to anyone who believes their mare and Gabriel Charles will produce a real racehorse. It isn’t rocket science and we believe it’s possible — we know it’s possible. Any foal that has half of the heart and mind he has should make a pretty good racehorse. I’m excited for our next chapter and I know Gabe can’t wait for the babies, too.”