How Kentucky Derby contenders were raised - NBC Sports

How Kentucky Derby contenders were raised
Learn the history of the best horses in this year's Run for the Roses
May 3, 2013, 2:05 pm

We know the contenders for the 139th Kentucky Derby through their lives on the racetrack, with their past performances and workouts a matter of public record. But we don't know them as individuals. To gain insight into their character, it's helpful to learn about their early life as foals.

Itsmyluckyday made quite an impression on his breeders, Rob Whiteley of Liberation Farm and Jim and Pam Robinson of Brandywine Farm.

"Itsmyluckyday was full of personality and was inquisitive from the get-go," Whiteley said. "He was self-assured and thought he was pretty special. The first time I saw him in his stall, he came right up and stuck his face in mine and studied me. His intelligence was obvious.

"And his self-confidence has translated into the competitiveness we see today. If he is 100 percent on race day, any horse that beats him will have to bring their `A' game in spades."

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"Itsmyluckyday was always intelligent and willing to please," Robinson said. "From day one, he was the perfect little professional.

"As he entered our sales prep program (as a yearling), he thoroughly enjoyed working in our underwater treadmill. He would put his face underwater and blow bubbles like a little kid in a swimming pool.

"He liked the water so much that we were always careful not to get in front of him going down the ramp because he usually liked to jump the last several feet. I think he jumped purposefully to make a big splash and get us all wet!"

Itsmyluckyday, who sold for $47,000 as a Keeneland September yearling, brought $110,000 from trainer Eddie Plesa Jr., agent, as an OBS March 2-year-old.

Goldencents, another highly inquisitive baby, was bred by Charles and Lyra Miller's Rosecrest Farm and Karyn Pirrello.

Lyra Miller recounted that Goldencents made his grand arrival into the world a little differently, in that his dam, Golden Works, would not lie down to foal in the barn. Instead, she delivered standing, and, thankfully, a former Rosecrest manager was there to catch Goldencents as he dropped out from his dam.

Goldencents was always keenly interested in what was going on around him.

"He lived up to his sire's name, Into Mischief," Miller said, referring by way of example to a picture on the farm's Facebook page, "where my husband's trying to get the gate open.

Goldencents "got his little head right inside, trying to either unlock the gate for him or see what he was doing.

"He was just always doing that. If you were out there, he's right there looking to see -- if you're repairing the fence, are you using the right hammer -- very curious, very curious horse."

He also displayed a great zest for horseplay with the other foals, especially grabbing their halters.

Miller described the game as getting "close enough to grab the halter with their teeth and pull on it, and the other horse is shaking his head.

"He was always the one grabbing the halter of other horses. He just thought that was the best thing to do."

Goldencents was one of only six foals of 2010 raised at Rosecrest, a "small family farm" which also operates a bed-and-breakfast on the grounds.

"We're really busy from March through the end of October/first of November," Miller said. "There's always people there. Really, those babies, once they're out, have people looking at them, petting their noses, and they get lots of human contact. And I think it's all good.

"There are so many changes that these horses have to go through. From being weaned from their mother and the farrier working on them, shots here and there, just all of it. And once they get saddle-broken, it's always hands-on with people, so, hopefully, we're giving them a little leg up by having people around, and just loving on them, and just thinking they're so special.

"They get told that constantly, that they're a winner," Miller continued. "I make sure that all of our babies are told almost every day, 'You know you're a winner, and you're gonna make lots of money.' I just treat them like kids.

"They all get tender, loving care every single day. I spoil them rotten from day one.

"We rub their legs and their bellies, trying to do that every day when they're little. It helps a lot when they're older, their manageability."

Even with all of her encouragement and boosting of the foals' self-esteem, Miller could not have imagined that Goldencents would become such a high-profile racehorse.

"Had we known that, we probably would have kept him," Miller said.

Goldencents was sold for the bargain price of $5,500 as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October. Trainer Doug O'Neill's brother Dennis later bought him for $62,000 as a 2-year-old in training at OBS June. The most famous member of his ownership group is Rick Pitino. The coach of the newly minted NCAA champion University of Louisville men's basketball team owns a 5 percent interest in the colt.

Verrazano, an imposing type who has bossed his rivals in all four career starts, early on had a natural flair for leadership.

Bred by Emory Hamilton, he was first raised at her sister Helen Alexander's Middlebrook Farm.

"Verrazano was a very healthy foal and was very tall and leggy," Middlebrook Manager Noel Murphy said.

"He was always the 'alpha' or leader of his foal group."

After weaning, Verrazano was transferred to Spring Station Farm, a Middlebrook subsidiary in nearby Midway, Ky., where he continued to show his quality.

"Verrazano was a very classy yearling and an easy keeper," Spring Station Manager Kevin Alexander recalled. "He was eager to learn new routines and met all challenges head on."

As a yearling, Verrazano was sold to Let's Go Stable for $250,000 at Keeneland September. Earlier this year, Coolmore principals Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith purchased an interest in the unbeaten colt.

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Vyjack, on the other hand, has a more colorful history.

For starters, he is the product of a match that only came about as a last-minute substitution, according to Carrie Brogden, who bred him in the name of Machmer Hall.

His dam, Life Happened, had been booked to noted sire Bernstein. But that stallion ended up being unavailable when Life Happened was ready for breeding.

"The day came for her to get bred and we could not get on the books," Brogden said. "Bernstein was full and had mares in every one of his slots that had already confirmed they were coming. We did not want to miss the mare's cycle.

"So I called two hours before Life Happened needed to be bred and said, hey, Ken (Wilkins), what stallions do you have there at Spendthrift that have openings this afternoon?

"He told me that Into Mischief did not have a mare on that day and I was like ... well, Grade 1 2-year-old stakes-winning son of Harlan's Holiday -- it is fine to go there.

"(Vyjack) was always a very uncomplicated horse. Big and strong. He was in the ads for Spendthrift and is still on their website with foal photos."

But when Vyjack was offered as a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July Sale, he became a handful.

"The only major thing that changed with him is that when we got to the July Sale, he discovered fillies," Brogden recalled. "He had to have Vicks in his nose 24/7 and lived in a lip chain at the sale for showing because he was more interested in them than anything else."

Vyjack was purchased at that sale for $45,000 by Al Pike, who later resold him to David Wilkenfeld's Pick Six Racing for $100,000 at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic the following May.

Pike remarked that "the horse loved the ladies and was a bit 'studdy,'" Brogden recalled.

"I called Al (after the May Sale)," she added, "and he said that Vyjack came in the back ring trying to breed any filly near him! And that he felt some buyers might have been scared off by that."

When Vyjack's aggressiveness spiraled out of control for his new owner, the only logical option was to geld him.

"They made the great and professional choice," Brogden said. "They gelded him and then he focused on racing and not the ladies! He would never have been what he is intact."

In stark contrast, Normandy Invasion was the type to win a good citizenship award.

"He was always easy to get along with," said Bill Betz, who bred the colt in partnership with Kidder, Gainesway, Graves, D.J. Stable and Cole.

"He had a very amiable personality. He wasn't hard to deal with -- he wasn't mean, rowdy or difficult. He pretty much did what we asked him to do.

"I kind of like to evaluate when foals see different things for the first time -- whether it's the first time the blacksmith trims them, or the first time they're asked to do something, when we wean them, what kind of attitude they have when they're weaned, do they get upset or not.

"He seemed to handle all those bumps in the road that young horses do without any real difficulty, and I think he's taken his lessons as a racehorse the same way.

"He was just a horse that seemed to be sort of at peace with himself and at peace with his environment.

"He always had a lot of quality, he was always athletic. A little immature relative to some of the others as a young horse, partially due to his age (being younger than most as a May 2 foal), partly because that's the kind of foal he was."

But the colt "matured really nicely" by the time he toured the sales ring as a two-year-old at Keeneland April, when he went to Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm for $230,000.

Normandy Invasion was a "healthy, straightforward foal who's grown up into a nice horse," Betz summed up.

Bradley Purcell, manager of Claiborne Farm, made similar remarks about Orb and Lines of Battle, who were both raised at the historic Paris, Kentucky, nursery.

"They were very good citizens when they were here as youngsters," Purcell recalled. "Both were very nice-looking colts that had good heads on their shoulders.

"They were easy to work with and didn't have any bad habits. It is very exciting to see them as babies and yearlings, and now in the Kentucky Derby."

Orb is a homebred campaigned by Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Stable. Lines of Battle races for his breeder, Joseph Allen, in partnership with the same Coolmore team that has an interest in Verrazano.

The Diamond A Farm-bred Overanalyze was just a normal foal who blended in with the crowd, according to Mac Carr, the farm manager.

"He was just a nice little foal. He never did anything that made him bad, good or indifferent," Carr said.

"He was just another little guy. Very, very rarely do we have anybody that really stands out as being bad or good.

"Everybody liked him 'cause he was a kind little foal. He didn't do anything wrong."

Overanalyze was easier to handle than his dam, the unraced Unacloud.

"His mother can be a little goofy, and he's actually better than his mother. His mother was a little funny.

"He has a better personality than his mom. She's just kind of a funny old gray mare. As long as you're slow and easy around her, she's fine. But if you get in too big a hurry, she'll let you know. She takes a little more time than most."

Carr revealed that Overanalyze now has a newborn half-brother by Tiznow.

"The mare just foaled (Sunday) morning about 4 o'clock," Carr said. "He's as big as a yearling -- I've never seen a foal that big in all my life.

"And I started foaling in '78, so I've seen a bunch of foals."

Overanalyze was sold to Repole Stables as a Keeneland September yearling for $380,000.

Charming Kitten's "childhood was quite ordinary," recalled Mark Partridge, manager of Ramsey Farm.

A homebred campaigned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey, Charming Kitten is by their champion Kitten's Joy, who stands at their Nicholasville, Ky., farm.

Black Onyx, who was scratched Friday, was a beauty, bred by John Sykes under the Cloverleaf Farms II banner and raised at his Woodford Thoroughbreds.

"I just remember him always being a really big, black foal, real pretty," Woodford General Manager Matt Lyons said.

"He was always towards the best of his crop. His mother (Kalahari Cat) is a beautiful mare, and we were hoping when we made the mating that we would get a horse that looked like that. She's almost black as well.

"He had a very uncomplicated time, he stayed out of trouble, and he never had any issues with him, thankfully."

Despite his size, Black Onyx didn't try to throw his weight around.

"He really wasn't aggressive, or he wasn't a bully," Lyons said. "He was never a difficult horse to be around.

"Some of those big colts, they can be pushy, and try to jump on you, but he was always pretty well behaved, and just a nice horse to be around.

"He was a very, very good foal, and throughout, from a foal to a yearling, to taking him to Saratoga (for the Fasig-Tipton Sale in August). We only take our very best to Saratoga, and he was right up there with the very best of what we had.

"His sire probably wasn't the hottest stallion in the world when we sold him," Lyons added with nice understatement regarding the stallion Rock Hard Ten, who was eventually exported to South Korea.

"And, frankly, I would have thought if he was by any other stallion at the time, he would have sold for a lot of money. In the end, it all worked out, and he went into good hands."

Sam Herzberg, who races under the name of Sterling Racing, paid $125,000 for Black Onyx, and Lyons has happy memories of interacting with the new owner in the immediate aftermath.

"We actually had a really good experience with him when he bought the horse. A lot of owners don't always come back to the barn and interact, but he did come back to the barn that night to talk about the horse," Lyons said.

"He called me that evening, after buying him again later on, and he came back the following morning to meet us at the barn and take pictures.

"We had a nice time meeting him throughout the whole experience, and it kind of makes it extra special now that the horse took him all the way to the Kentucky Derby."

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