Stradivari lacks experience but not talent for Preakness Stakes

Stradivari will be giving up both significant experience and months of age to his competitors when he enters the Preakness Stakes as a new shooter, but the colt, who has won his past two starts by a combined 25-3/4 lengths, sure doesn't behave like it.

"I hope his maturity will enable him to be able to handle it and run beyond his experience," said Tanya Gunther, who, with father John Gunther, bred the colt and co-owns him with Coolmore. "If he didn't have as good of a mind, we might be taking a different track."

Although Stradivari is a new shooter, the Gunthers are no strangers to this level of competition. John Gunther, an investment banker and stock-brokerage executive, has been involved in Thoroughbred breeding and ownership for more than 25 years and is the proprietor of 350-acre Glennwood Farm in Versailles, Ky. His daughter Tanya, a former investment banker in London, serves as the farm's general manager and takes a leading role in planning matings for the select broodmare band of 20-30.

They bred, raised, and sold multiple Grade 1 winner Stay Thirsty, second in the 2011 Belmont Stakes; multiple Grade 1 winner First Samurai, third in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile; Florida Derby winner Materiality, a creditable sixth in last year's Kentucky Derby in just his fourth career start; and multiple graded stakes winner My Miss Sophia, second in the 2014 Kentucky Oaks. They also co-bred champion Stevie Wonderboy, the winner of the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Another Gunther homebred was Bending Strings, a daughter of Grade 2 winner American Chance and multiple stakes winner Straight South, both of whom John Gunther campaigned. In four seasons of racing, the speedy Bending Strings earned $870,612 while winning four graded stakes at distances of six furlongs to a mile -- the Grade 2 Nassau County Breeders' Cup, Grade 3 Safely Kept Breeders' Cup, Grade 2 First Flight Handicap, and Grade 2 Chilukki Stakes. She placed in nine other stakes at up to 1-1/8 miles, including runner-up finishes in the Test Stakes, La Brea Stakes, and Go For Wand Handicap and third-place efforts in the Ogden Phipps Handicap and Humana Distaff Stakes, all Grade 1 events.

Stradivari, by Medaglia d'Oro, is the first winner from four starters out of Bending Strings and displays some of his family's characteristics.

"The mother is a big mare, a pretty mare," Tanya Gunther said. "Bending Strings was a very fast horse. He's obviously wanting a distance already, so he gets some stamina from somewhere. [Bending Strings] has a good mind as well, which she gets from [Straight South]. She's very laid-back, and most of her foals are very laid-back. [Stradivari] gets that maturity from her."

Stradivari was an April 24 foal, relatively late in the world of commercial Thoroughbred breeding; although all members of his crop turned 3 on Jan. 1, he will be the youngest horse in terms of actual age in this year's Preakness field. His foaling date might have partially accounted for his market reception at the 2014 Keeneland September yearling sale, where he failed to meet his reserve with a high bid of $335,000.

"He was in Book 1. It's a tricky book," Tanya Gunther said. "We thought he was our best colt. Dad brought a couple of people over to look at him. He was well received, but he didn't do it at the end of the day. In hindsight, maybe they wanted him to be a little bigger. To me, he was a pretty medium- to normal-sized colt for his age. We just scratched our heads and moved on. Dad was prepared to race him."

Stradivari got his early training at Glennwood before moving on to Hidden Brook Farm in Ocala, Fla., to learn the finer points of being a racehorse.

"Very early on, they identified him as one of their top horses," Tanya Gunther said. "He impressed people right away. When he moved on to [trainer Todd Pletcher], he's several times told me what a great mind he has. He's more mature than his years of age."

After finishing fourth in his debut in November at Aqueduct, Stradivari burst onto the scene with an 11-1/4-length victory in December at Gulfstream Park, but minor issues prevented him from following up on that win immediately.

"We just had a minor setback with him," Pletcher said. "He never was totally out of training. He stayed at Palm Beach Downs, and we just got a little behind schedule in some of the traditional Derby preps. We just ran out of time a little bit."

Meanwhile, things continued to move ahead behind the scenes. Glennwood breeds to Coolmore's stallions, both at its Ashford Stud in Kentucky -- where Stay Thirsty stands -- and at its Irish headquarters. It also boards mares at the latter facility, further developing the relationship between the two entities. In February, Tanya Gunther was in Ireland to inspect her family's stock, and the topic of Stradivari came up.

And so, by the time the colt resurfaced in April at Keeneland, running away with an allowance race by 14-1/2 lengths, the Coolmore group had bought in as a co-owner of the colt who now targets the second leg of the Triple Crown as his stakes debut.

"On one side of it, you have a fresh horse that hasn't been through the rigors of the prep series and a race like the Derby," Pletcher said. "On the other side of the coin, you have a horse that's pretty light on experience and is giving up some seasoning to some horses that have been on that campaign. You might gain a bit in one area and lose a bit in the other, but historically, I think it takes a pretty special horse to be able to compete in races like that against these types of horses."

And the Gunthers know what a pretty special horse looks like.

"I think it's a mixed bag," Tanya Gunther said. "Some horses you might not like as much early on, and then they keep improving. Others just wow you from the start. So, some are 'boom, pow,' and others surprise you. But [Stradivari] was a foal I liked right away."