“When you do something well, and with passion, people are going to notice. That’s just the way it is.”
After Conquest Curlinate finished second in the Illinois Derby on April 18 at Hawthorne, the time has come for Chicago to take notice of Conquest Stables, based in Highland Park. Though they have only owned horses since 2012, they have become a horse racing force across the United States and Canada.
From Start to Stakes
Three years ago, Ernie Semersky and Dory Newell went to the Kentucky Derby. "Dory liked the idea of having a horse," said Semersky.
"We bought the horse in June, right after the Derby: Gunderman. We had him that year, he was the only horse we had. We got very involved, as simple as it sounds, for Dory to get a trophy, and then I thought I’d probably get out of it. For me to prove a point to my buddies, that this can be done.”
Racing for trainer Mark Casse under the banner of Conquest Stables, Gunderman raced seven times. He won twice, and finished in the money three more times, before he was retired.
Gunderman breaks his maiden on October 24, 2012: the first win for Conquest Stables.
Dory got her trophy, and then some. The bracelet she wore to the Illinois Derby, with one charm for each horse who had won for Conquest, jingled with thirty-seven charms, each with a horse and their winning race engraved upon it.
For a stable that started with one horse less than three years ago, "we’ve done it at a much higher level than I thought." Fifteen of Conquest's wins have come in stakes. My Conquestadory won the Grade I Darley Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland in 2013. Conquest Two Step came within a neck of beating Shared Belief in the Malibu Stakes (GI) last December, and followed that up with a win over Secret Circle in the Palos Verdes Stakes (GII). Conquest Typhoon won the Cecil B. DeMille Stakes (GIII) at Del Mar last fall, and then finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (GI).
Conquest Two Step outruns Secret Circle to upset the 2015 Palos Verdes Stakes (GII).
They dominated the juvenile divisions of the Sovereign Awards, Canada's end-of-year thoroughbred awards. Conquest Harlanate won the Two Year Old Filly division in a runaway, after sweeping both the Natalma Stakes (GII) and the Mazarine Stakes (GIII) at Woodbine last fall. The top two horses in the Two Year Old Male division, Conquest Typhoon and Conquest Tsunami, both bore the familiar orange and green silks.
Running Closer to Home: Conquest Curlinate
As Conquest Stables works exclusively with trainer Mark Casse, their horses run most often where Casse has his strings: Woodbine, Santa Anita, Keeneland. However, on April 18, they brought their stakes success home. Conquest Curlinate, a maiden winner at Oaklawn in January, made his fourth career start in the Illinois Derby (GIII) at Hawthorne. Far back early, he made a powerful move down the stretch and finished second -- beaten just a nose -- by Whiskey Ticket.
Semersky thinks the Illinois Derby was just the beginning for Conquest Curlinate. "Mentally, he’s like a big kid. I think he’s physically so gifted, that when his head gets together, if we keep him protected and healthy, I think he’s got a huge, huge future. In the Illinois Derby, very few horses can do what he did, accelerating around the corner and leaving everybody behind like that. Zenyatta was like that, but there weren’t many who could do it. He’s done this a couple times…mentally he’s not in it, physically he could be, but all of a sudden, at the weirdest places, he turns on and it’s effortless. Shaun [Bridgmohan, Conquest Curlinate's jockey] says when he starts moving, you better hold on. He is so deceptively fast. He’s so powerful."
A next race has not yet been determined for Conquest Curlinate, and that decision will rest with Casse. However, Semersky seems confident that Conquest Curlinate's future lies in route races. "A mile and a sixteenth is a short race for him. All you’ve got to do is look at his stride, look at the ground he covers. At a mile and a half, if he was mature, I’d say he could run against anybody."
The Conquest Team
Unlike many prominent horse owners, Conquest Stables has embraced social media wholeheartedly. Through their Twitter account and their Facebook page, Conquest shares information and whimsical Photoshops with fans, and fans share their thoughts and wishes for the horses. "I read all the stuff, I respond to as many as I can. I meet as many people as I can, and they all feel the same way. It’s not about me. It’s not about Dory. I look at our followers as part of the team. I’m fascinated by how much they care, and the things that they say. These aren’t professional horsepeople, but I’ve learned a lot. I’m really interested in hearing what they say. They all share one thing. I’m sure most of the people feel the same way: the safety of the horse. We’re the only people that can protect those animals."
The concern for the well-being of the horses extends past the fans and the owners to the rest of the team. "That’s what we appreciate with the jockeys, why I care so much about them, because they care about my horses. Mike Smith, Shaun [Bridgmohan], Joe Talamo, Corey [Nakatani], Patrick [Husbands] in Canada, all these guys are sensational, and they’re great people, and they love horses. You can never be too conservative, for me. I’d rather have a guy be wrong and pull a horse up than push him, and be wrong, and break him. They all understand that, and they feel the same way. "
An integral part of ensuring the horses' care is ensuring that the jockeys know the horse well, and communicate the specifics of how the horse is doing to the rest of the team. This outlook springs from another kind of racing in which Semersky was involved. "I used to race cars. The communication between the jockeys and the trainer and me is very similar to what the engineers wanted to know about the cars I drove. They wanted to know if the suspension was right, if it was tailing, if it was bouncing on, if it oversteered. You don’t just get in a car and race it. You have it prepared for that particular track. I think racing horses is very similar. You’ve got to get the feedback from the jockey. He’s the one on the horse.
"These guys go and they train our horses, breeze them, and analyze them for me. You don’t get guys of this caliber usually riding [during workouts], they get on the day of the race. Something that I want, I want their input before they race the horse, because if it’s not right, I’m not going to run them."
When Conquest horses are ready to run, they race and they win. However, they have shown no hesitation to scratch a horse from the biggest of races if the conditions did not suit the horse. Last year, My Conquestadory had been entered to run in the Grade I Belmont Oaks Invitational on July 5, 2014. Rain had fallen the three days preceding the race, which softened up the grass course beyond what My Conquestadory could run best on. "The turf just wasn’t right, and I wasn’t going to risk her."
Though Conquest Stables does not have a horse in the Kentucky Derby this year, they have several three-year-olds scheduled to race at Churchill Downs on the undercards. Conquest Superstep, who broke her maiden in her last start at Santa Anita, has entered an allowance optional claiming race on Kentucky Oaks day. Conquest Typhoon is probable for the American Turf (GII) on Derby Day, and Conquest Bigluck E is possible for the Pat Day Mile (GIII). Those decisions for Derby Day will rest with trainer Mark Casse: "It’s his job. He knows what the horse is doing.”
Conquest Typhoon, 2014 Canadian Champion Two Year Old Male, wins the 2014 Cecil B. DeMille Stakes (GIII) at Del Mar. He is probable for Saturday's American Turf (GII).
They aim to get the best horses, develop them properly, and race them where they can succeed. Semersky emphasized Conquest's focus on quality when selecting horses, and that their prominence at thoroughbred auctions in recent years springs from their determination to have only horses that meet their high standards. "It was a misconception: every sale you see, Conquest Stables, the highest-priced yearling, the highest-priced two-year-old, the largest spender. We’re not just out to spend money. There are huge amounts of research done on these horses. There are other people trying to buy them. It’s not like I went in there saying, ‘Okay, I’ll pay this.’ It’s just that we land on a lot of the same horses as other people who can pay the money. You just decide that, when I want a horse, and I think it’s good enough to be part of the Conquest A-Team, we buy it. We’d just as soon buy them less expensively, but we have such a strict process between Mark [Casse] and myself and Bob McMartin, our doc, everybody who looks at them. If they don’t pass 100%, we just don’t buy them. And, the ones who do pass 100% are vetted so stringently for conformation, the way they move."
Though Conquest has become well known for their two-year-olds, now turning three, that is more of a function of how young the stable is, than on any long-term exclusive focus on younger horses. "With the number of horses I have, they’ll run when they’re physically ready. I’m not going to run an undeveloped horse. They’re athletes. They develop differently." Semersky compared the development of his horses to human athletes, and his football playing days. "I have guys I played football with in college that in high school were 120 pounds, and they end up being 300 pound linebackers blocking for me. It was awesome. Everybody develops differently."
Conquest has campaigned some brilliant horses at varying distances, and has had some brilliantly fast sprinters like Conquest Two Step and Conquest Whiplash. They do not have just one profile of a great horse, but aim to develop them properly for their forte. "Right now, we’re fine-tuning...the Street Crys, the really big horses that we have, are not meant to be sprinters, so we’re going to play them accordingly. We have Tapits, we’ve got a lot of incredible horses, we’re just not going to push until they’re developed. We’re not going to take a chance getting them hurt. We don’t target any one horse, but if we are targeting something in the last year, we’ve been targeting route horses: a mile and a quarter, a mile and a half if possible."
In addition to finding promising horses at sales, Conquest now breeds their own. Their first homebred was born earlier this year. Conquestadory, an unraced mare from the female family of Take Charge Lady, had a colt by Candy Ride this year. "The bloodline just keeps getting better. I think Candy Ride was a good one to breed her to. The colt’s magnificent. He’s just gorgeous. It’ll be a long time before we see him run – that’s the problem. They come out big enough – you’d like them to come out groomed and ready to train!"
This year they have nine fillies and mares in foal, including their Grade I winner My Conquestadory. "We’re waiting to hear the sex, but she’s in foal to Tapit. I’m obviously praying for a filly, because I want her to have the heart of that little girl. I don’t know how you’re going to improve her, but he seems to improve every mare he does. If his improvement holds with her, it’s going to be a pretty special horse."
My Conquestadory overcomes chaotic traffic to win the 2013 Darley Alcibiades (GI) by daylight, becoming the first Grade I winner for Conquest Stables. She is now in foal to Tapit.
This year and beyond, as their younger horses develop, there look to be even brighter days ahead for Conquest Stables. "We’ve got a whole bunch of horses who haven’t even run yet who are just turning three. Mark’s training them incredibly. We’ve got a few horses who we believe are as good as anything in the world, they just haven’t been on the track yet. When they do, I think they’re going to be shockers."
After the Illinois Derby, the Chicago sports community should be anything but shocked when horses owned by Conquest Stables succeed against the best company.
A special thank you to Ernie Semersky of Conquest Stables, for taking the time to talk with me about his horses, his stable, and his outlook.
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Race Course and Arlington International Racecourse. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.