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Road to the Derby Kickoff Week Feature: Seans Silverdancer's Owner 'The Luckiest Guy in Horse Racing'

“That Dan Sullivan,” an enthusiastic Terril Corman said on the Thursday before the $100,000 Silverbulletday Stakes, “has been the luckiest guy in horse racing!”

It was morning on the backside of Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, and Sullivan’s 3-year-old filly was about to emerge from a stall in Barn 30. Corman, the assistant for trainer Lisa Merritt, tracked down the exercise rider and hopped aboard the pony, and Seans Silverdancer – a rangy gray runner with a long, purposeful stride – made her way out to the Louisiana oval.   

Lucky Dan, yes, because his wife decided to buy him a racehorse as a Father’s Day present in 2009. Luckier still that she wound up picking three in a package deal – a Thunder Gulch yearling now named Basilio’s Thunder, Seans Silverdancer (a $5,000 foal), and the three-month-old foal’s dam, Slamdancer, who the seller threw in for free. Luckiest, perhaps, that the filly Lisa Sullivan picked from a photograph has developed into quite the lively competitor, with her maiden score and a 9 ½-length victory in the $100,000 Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante last December coming for the couple’s Slapshot Racing LLC.

“I thought, ‘What do you get the man who has everything?’” Sullivan remembered. “He’s always had a passion for racehorses, so when a friend of ours called and said, ‘I know of a couple racehorses someone is trying to sell, I know Dan loves horses, would you be interested in buying one?’ I figured, ‘Sure, he’s such a great guy, I’ll get him something really special.”

It was hardly a scientific selection process.

“I had to choose between three horses and had no clue what I was doing,” Sullivan said. “I saw pictures of the Thunder Gulch yearling, then I saw this tiny little foal and I said, ‘Oh, she’s so cute, we have to get the baby!’ But I was vacillating between her and the yearling and I finally decided to get the yearling, because who knew what this little foal was going to turn out to be? Then my friend called me back and said, ‘This guy will throw in the foal for $5,000 if you really want her,’ and being completely ignorant I said, ‘Well, gosh, I just bought a puppy for $1,200, so $5,000 sounds like a really great deal for a whole horse!’ and then he informed me, ‘You also get the mother for free.’ So then I had three horses.”

It didn’t stop there. The Chicago-based couple wound up buying another filly, Sweet Lemon Chello, when they saw her at the farm where their new purchases were kept. And in 2009 Sweet Lemon Cello won the Debutante as well, setting a perfect precedent for the 2010 win by Seans Silverdancer, an Illinois-bred daughter of the Runaway Groom stallion Najran.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the fact that ‘Sean’ has now turned out to be an absolutely wonderful filly, knock on wood, with a promising career ahead of her,” said Sullivan. “We’re such a tiny little stable and we’ve had such a great record for this boutique string, and we owe a lot of that to Lisa Merritt.”

Merritt, a Kentucky native who has trained on the Midwest circuit for several years, conditions all of Slapshot Racing’s runners and claimed their first horse, Glenbriar’s Cutie, who won their first start as a stable on June 12, 2009. The daughter of longtime Kentucky conditioner John Oder, Merritt keeps a small string of about 10 horses at Keeneland and at Arlington Park in the summer. She said Seans Silverdancer has developed into quite the runner since the days of that first foal photo.

“I saw her several times as a yearling – she’s a big filly and has a lot of substance to her – and once she was broke in the fall and I went to see her then, there was just something about her,” Merritt said. “She’s big, bold, pretty, put together nice; I told them, ‘You’ve got a racehorse here! You think Lemon Chello was good to you, I promise you this horse has an even better future.’”

Merritt took her time with the filly and didn’t start her until November of her 2-year-old year. That’s when everything started coming together and the filly’s first race, going six furlongs at Hawthorne Race Course, proved her game nature. She broke flat-footed, got bumped around, split horses at the quarter pole, won by a head, then galloped out three or four in front.

“It was a better race to the eye than it was on paper, and then in the Debutante I knew I had her ready to go,” Merrit said. “She’s been training great and if she runs one, two, three in this race I’d feel very proud. She’s handled everything I’ve thrown at her and the race looks very competitive but I really believe this filly can hold her own, just watching her and knowing her. She’s probably the best horse I’ve ever had.”

Going up against a tough crowd that includes Delta Downs Princess Stakes winner Bouquet Booth and the highly-regarded Al Stall Jr. trainee Aide, this young runner has her work cut out for her. But she’s come a long way, and so have her connections.

“With a lot of coaching, I’ve gone from thinking a breeze is just a cold day in Chicago to understanding a little about the horse races,” Lisa Sullivan said. “We just happened to be very fortunate that we fell into some really great horses without great pedigrees and it’s been a great opportunity for us with this filly. It seems like she’s off to a good start; we hope it’s the beginning of more good times ahead.”