Upstart Breeders Eyeing Big NYSS Night

Published: September 20, 2012 10:18 am EDT

Breeding a star racehorse is rewarding. Getting to the $1.8-million New York Night of Champions at Yonkers Raceway is thrilling. But doing it all with a group of owners you have known since childhood, that might be priceless.

This is exactly what co-owner and breeder Joseph Balkunas is thinking this week as he and his partners prepare to send out three-year-old pacing filly Major Look from the rail on Saturday night in her $225,000 New York Sire Stakes Championship in the fifth race.

“It’s very rewarding, much more than [winning with] one we bought in the sale,” said Balkunas of campaigning a homebred. “It was like a dream come true this year and I told my partners, we may never have one like this again.”

In addition to scoring in four sire stakes legs, the filly has earned stakes victories in the Mistletoe Shalee, Tompkins Geers and Adio Volo this year. The daughter of Art Major, who has earned $381,047 lifetime and a 1.49 mark, was bred by the Band of Brothers Stable, which is still relatively new to the breeding industry.

The group formed after purchasing a $40,000 Jate Lobell yearling named Band Of Emeralds back in 2002. That filly’s name, and the fact that most of the five partners had known each other for decades, inspired the Band of Brothers stable moniker. In addition to Balkunas, the group includes Mark Giordano and Anthony Pancella, who still own the filly, and Andrew Boccio and Mark Perlmutter who were part of the breeding team.

“We all grew up in Lindenhurst, Long Island, and then one is my business partner. One of the partners, I’ve been friends with since third grade,” recounted Balkunas.

The group selected their now foundation broodmare Band Of Emeralds at Harrisburg with the help of friend Rich DiMezza, even though she didn’t originally stand out in the catalogue.

“We had a list of stallions we were looking at and Jate Lobell wasn’t on the list because he was pretty much past his peak at that point, but he was still a good sire and we liked her conformation so we decided to go with her,” explained the owner.

Band Of Emeralds turned out to be a good purchase, and in her two-year-old season won nearly $100,000 and scored in the Kentucky Sire Stakes final and the Champlain, but didn’t come back well as the following year. She was retired to broodmare duties and her first foal, gelding Emerald Express (by The Panderosa), has now earned $164,504 and is still racing. Her second foal, a colt, didn’t make the races, but the cross with Art Major to produce her third foal, Major Look, has proven wildly successful.

“I wanted to try a different line. The mare is from the No Nukes line and her first two matings were with stallions from the No Nukes line as well. I wanted to cross her with a Cam Fella or Abercrombie line and we ended up selecting Art Major, who is from the Abercrombie line,” he explained. “She is now back in foal to Art Major.”

Balkunas admits he may be more into the pedigrees and long-term investment of breeding than his friends.

“My partners always laugh at me because they know I don’t want to give up the fillies. They hope for colts from our mare,” he said with a laugh. “The breeding business is tough because you have to stick it out a long time before you see the fruits of your labour.”

Major Look is staked to the Breeders Crown and Lady Maud after the New York Sire Stakes final and the partners plan to continue racing her, but when it comes times to retire, she is slated to become the second member of the Band of Brothers broodmare band.

“Breeding and the trainers have been key for this horse,” explained Balkunas of Major Look’s success. “Bob Riddle, her trainer, I give a lot of credit to him.”

Riddle’s leg and knee was injured by the filly two months ago and he has been recovering since, so Kevin McDermott has taken over training duties during the latter part of the season. But Riddle won’t miss his filly’s sire stakes finale this weekend.

“He’s going to be there Saturday night. It will be the first race that he’s been to since it happened. He’s been at the track and watched her train, but he’s getting antsy. He is out of the cast and walking with a cane. I’m excited he will be with us,” said the owner. “We will have a group of about 30 to watch her and we are looking forward to it.”

New York Sire Stakes finals are featured as races two through nine on Yonkers’ Saturday night card. First-race post time is 7:10 p.m.

(Harness Horse Breeders of New York State)