Michael Slezak may have been watching the Kentucky Derby alongside his 11-year-old twins from his living room in Jersey City, but he was celebrating as if he was about to receive the trophy himself when Rich Strike (Keen Ice) marked the second biggest upset in the race’s 148-year history.
A former TVLine and Entertainment Weekly reporter, Slezak is now a full-time blood agent who also dabbles in writing TV pilot scripts. A month and a day before Rich Strike made Derby history, Slezak claimed the colt’s half-sister My Blonde Mary (Oxbow) for $5,000.
“I’m not a silent race watcher,” Slezak admitted as he relived his Derby day experience. “My kids will be like, ‘He’s screaming again.’ I will also scream in a race to claim $4000 but in this case I lost my mind I was like crazy I felt like I won the Derby.
The purchase of My Blonde Mary for client Mary Jane Nuckols was a Michael Slezak special. The agent focuses on finding value with fillies and mares competing in the contenders ranks by meticulously studying each contender entered in the race while paying scrupulous attention to pedigree activity and family members which might have a breakout race performance or auction result. An array – or perhaps a mess – of notes covers the surface of his desk, and on his computer, full spreadsheets would make little sense to anyone but Slezak himself.
“I watch every claiming race for fillies and mares in North America every day,” Slezak said. “It’s a lot of work, but I compare it to Roger Federer or Serena Williams. They go out on the court and hit thousands of forehands every day, it’s like second nature. For me, watching the races to claim everyday becomes almost a muscle memory. Sometimes you feel like things seem to merge into a family. It’s like puzzle pieces fitting together.
Slezak first scouted My Blonde Mary long before Rich Strike came on the scene or even made his first start. In her 4-year-old debut last February, she had one win out of 10 starts, but Slezak noted that she had gone from a Canadian champion and a half to a Category II winner. The pedigree was enough for him to keep an eye on, but he was still waiting for recent activity in the family. When Rich Strike finished third in the GIII Jeff Ruby S., it was enough for Slezak to chase her as she competed in the ranks of contenders in Tampa Bay this spring.
“It would be a shameless lie to tell you that I thought Rich Strike could win the Derby when we bought the mare, but it’s always cool to have a brother on the Derby trail,” Slezak said. “She was a terrific mare that we didn’t spend an arm and a leg on, plus you have the added cachet of saying you own that horse’s half-sister when you’re at your Derby party.”
Slezak had additional interest in Derby Day. Last June, he bought Time Sensitive (Nyquist), the half-sister of Derby contender Tawny Port (Pioneerof the Nile), after seeing Tawny Port’s six-figure purchase price and noting that the colt went to Brad Cox. When Tawny Port was two for two earlier this year, Slezak decided to run Time Sensitive in the January Keeneland sale.
“She only brought in $15,000, so my timing wasn’t stellar,” he admitted. “Luckily it was for me and not for a client so I had no one to yell at me but myself.”
Even still, to pick two half-sisters to Derby runners in low-level claiming races, Slezak was delighted.
“I hope to repeat this every year,” he said with a laugh. “Of course it won’t be so easy, but you can dream and research. With many of my clients, they seek commercial success to make money, but if you have that extra boost of having a connection with someone who races in the Derby, Oaks or Breeders’ Cup, This is the icing on the cake. ”
Growing up in upstate New York, Slezak’s earliest memories are of his parents taking him to races in Saratoga. He learned to read by studying racing form and has always been fascinated by pedigrees. He worked as an entertainment reporter for several decades, but the race always called him. Seven years ago, he decided to change careers and get into the thoroughbred business.
When Slezak started, only a quarter of his purchases were for customers and he invested the rest himself. As he gained experience and celebrated his early successes, he began to take on more customers where nowadays the majority of his purchases are for other people.
Slezak said most of his directors have remained the same from the start of his company until now, but he added that his search system has become even more comprehensive.
“I think I have a better understanding of what the market wants,” he explained. “I will find a mare that hits hard and has placed multiple stakes, but if she is by a super obscure stallion that is harder to sell. I am also diversifying a little more by buying inbred mares at auction and selling their weanlings or yearlings. I try to diversify and find other areas where I can identify horses that are selling for less than they are worth.
Slezak has already racked up an impressive list of accomplishments.
In 2018 he bought You Laughin (Sharp Humor) for $2,000 when she was the last mare to cross the ring in one of the final sessions of Keeneland’s November sale. He sold her at a profit a few weeks later after his colt Zenden (Fed Biz) won a showing at Gulfstream Park.
Last January he bought the mare I Dazzle (Hold That Tiger) in foal to Catalina Cruiser for $13,000. In November, he sold the resulting filly for $100,000.
Of course, not every purchase is a home run. While Slezak isn’t afraid to follow his instincts when buying a lead, he must also be ready to sell when a family update doesn’t happen after a while. Several years ago he claimed the filly Tizn’tshebeautiful (Uncle Mo) in her early days and later sold her as a broodmare for $45,000 at the January 2017 Keeneland sale. Two months later, his half-brother Tiz the law (Constitution) was foaled.
“If I had kept her until Tiz the law was a winner of the Classic, we could have done better,” he lamented. “I can’t keep them all. But now, Tiz the law won the Belmont and My Blonde Mary’s brother won the Kentucky Derby so I just need a Preakness winner to complete my own Triple Crown.
Slezak emphasized that his program is built on more than just studying the horses he might claim. Another big piece of the puzzle is to follow stake horses, impressive early winners, and auction results to find updates on racing mares he already has tabs on. As was the case with My Blonde Mary, a strong sibling result could tip the scales and make a mare worth beating. He also noted that his network of connections on the track is essential in drawing attention to a mare before claiming her.
“There’s so much potential to find value and it’s really fun,” he said. “There’s something crazy about these hard-hitting mares running for a young girl down there crying out for a tag when somewhere on a bigger racetrack in a different time zone there’s a horse heading to the Kentucky Derby.”
Slezak hopes to continue to grow his business while maintaining the same conservative approach with the mares he buys. He said he appreciates the flexibility this career offers. Currently working on his third television pilot script, he can also make time to attend his sons’ soccer games and help them study for math tests.
“It’s been a fun career change, although my previous career was watching TV for a living, which was also a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s never boring and everything about it completely fascinates me. It’s something I’ve been interested in and read all my life and I feel like there’s so much more to learn. There is always new information and things to improve.
Slezak knows it will be difficult to replicate his results from this year’s Kentucky Derby, but he can’t wait to give it a try.
“It was a great weekend, but now that these horses are claimed and the race is over, the question is who is the next horse we are going to claim? How can I try to duplicate this? I was looking forward to watching last week’s claiming races to see what was going on.
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