By Steve Andersen
The Auerbach family, trainer Barry Abrams, and their partners bought California racing history for $80,000 in 1996.
In June of that year at Hollywood Park, the partnership claimed Unusual Heat on a day the then 6-year-old won a one-mile turf race. Within two years, Unusual Heat began his stud career at a small farm in Hemet, Calif.
Nearly two decades later, Unusual Heat is no longer standing at stud; he was pensioned in October. Unusual Heat retired as the undisputed leading stallion in the state over the last 15 years.
“I couldn’t imagine all he’d accomplish,” said Harris Auerbach, who managed Unusual Heat’s stallion career for his mother, Madeline.
By Nureyev, Unusual Heat was the leading stallion in the state in progeny earnings six times, from 2008 to 2013, and is en route to being the leading sire by progeny earnings in turf races for the 16th consecutive season this year.
The success comes at a time of change. In recent years, Unusual Heat, 26, was bred to smaller books of mares as his influence grew as a broodmare sire and several of his colts entered stud, particularly in California.
In 2014 and 2015, Unusual Heat ranked fourth in the state in progeny earnings and was third in the standings for 2016 as of Dec. 15.
Earlier this year, in his final season at stud, Unusual Heat was bred to 30 mares at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., where he has been based in recent years. Approximately 25 of the mares have been pronounced in foal, Harris Auerbach said. The stallion has struggled with an arthritic knee that limited his mobility, particularly when breeding.
“It got to be where we were concerned,” he said.
“The people at Harris Farms have taken remarkable care of him. He’s stood two or three seasons longer than we thought.”
The decision to pension Unusual Heat was made in October. His impact on California racing will take several more years to measure.
“It’s not complete,” Auerbach said. “His last crop will be foaled out this coming year. Hopefully, he’ll have horses on the Derby trail in 2020.”
Unusual Heat cracked the top 10 among California stallions in progeny earnings for the first time in 2005 and slipped to 13th the following year. He has been in the top four every year since.
“He wasn’t always bred to the best mares,” Harris Auerbach said. “Usually, we look for mares to move up the stallion. He moved up the mares.”
Unusual Heat’s progeny had earned more than $53 million through Dec. 15. This year, Unusual Heat’s leading runner has been Cheekaboo, who has won 3 of 12 starts and earned $298,810 in her career. Cheekaboo won two stakes earlier this year – the Campanile Stakes for California-bred 3-year-old fillies on turf at Golden Gate Fields, and the Grade 2 Honeymoon Stakes at Santa Anita in June. She is in training for a 2017 campaign.
Unusual Heat’s most successful runner has been Acclamation, the champion older male of 2011. Now a stallion at Old English Rancho in Sanger, Calif., Acclamation won 11 of 30 starts and earned $1,958,048. He won six Grade 1 races, including the 2011 Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
The Usual Q.T., a gelding, won 8 of 23 starts and earned $1,531,240, including the Grade 1 Eddie Read Stakes at Del Mar in 2010. The mare Lethal Heat won 6 of 17 starts and earned $655,988. She was second and third behind Zenyatta in Grade 1 races in California in 2009.
Unusual Suspect had a prolific career, winning 10 of 72 starts, including the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup in 2010, beating Temple City by a head. Unusual Suspect earned $1,361,522 and was unplaced twice in the Melbourne Cup. He ended his career in Australia, where he stands at stud.
“I’ve seen pictures of his babies, and they look good,” Auerbach said.
Auerbach said there are five horses by Unusual Heat standing at stud in California – Acclamation, Gervinho, He Be Fire N Ice, Lakerville, and Unusual Heatwave.
Unusual Heat could have a significant influence as a broodmare sire. This year, he is the broodmare sire of three graded stakes winners – Frank Conversation, winner of the Grade 2 Twilight Derby at Santa Anita last month; Albert Doc, a Grade 3 winner in Japan; and Masochistic, a multiple stakes-winning sprinter.
Harris Auerbach and his mother, a member of the California Horse Racing Board, have banked heavily on Unusual Heat’s success in that capacity.
“As a broodmare sire, he’s going beyond the charts,” Harris Auerbach said. “We’ve double-downed on that. We have 15 Unusual Heat broodmares between California and Kentucky.”
Harris Auerbach, 47, was 26 when his family was part of the partnership that claimed Unusual Heat. The stallion made only two starts for them before his career was cut short by injury. At the time, Auerbach’s father, Jim, was the racing person in the family. Jim Auerbach died in 2000, when Unusual Heat’s oldest foals were yearlings.
Harris and his mother took a more active role in the stallion and the family’s racing stable in ensuing years and are a fixture on the Southern California circuit. Harris Auerbach is a member of the board of directors of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. Madeline Auerbach was a member of the board of directors of the Thoroughbred Owners of California and founded the California Retirement Management Account, which works to find homes for retired Thoroughbreds.
The involvement is a far cry from their days of having claiming runners in the 1990s.
Back then, Harris Auerbach worked at a furniture company his family owned, a business he sold in 2004 as he became more involved in racing.
“You look back to that, and I was 26 at the time,” Harris Auerbach said, reflecting on the mid-1990s. “It’s amazing how he changed my life.
“I came out to the races on Friday nights at Hollywood Park and Saturdays at Santa Anita. It changed my mom’s life more than anything. We ran a claiming stable. We’d never bred horses.
“It opened up the industry to us.”
After his father’s death, Harris Auerbach slowly moved away from the furniture business and into racing.
“I was going to the farms and going to the racetrack every day,” he said. “We went from having an interest in 15 to 20 horses to at one point we had 125. It was a big thing.
“We don’t have a herd quite like that. Including the retired horses and the couple that we sponsor, we’re at about 45 horses. Our primary interest is the grandsons and granddaughters.”
Those second-generation progeny of Unusual Heat are prominent on California’s racetracks as are Unusual Heats final crops. The stallion’s place in California racing is secure.