Bluegrass field of dreams

As winter settles in, inevitably people begin to dream of warmer weather. In the thoroughbred world, those dreams almost always include the first Saturday in May. But not for Suzi Shoemaker.

The owner of Lantern Hill Farm does not dream of winning the Kentucky Derby.

"I personally don't ever think in terms of winning the Derby in the same way I don't think of winning the lottery," said Shoemaker, who has raised the likes of champion Dreaming of Anna. "I just think that it is such a hard race to win for so many reasons unrelated to horsemanship. Not that I wouldn't love to win it, but it's not something I can tell you is a dream of mine. Now, my husband, oh yeah, it is a dream. He sees it as attainable and I don't."

We have these two really wonderful 2-year-olds, and I am so happy and thrilled and proud we got them. It's really hard not to go crazy, but you can't do it. It's more intense already than I thought it would be.

-- Suzi Shoemaker, Lantern Hill Farm owner

However, this spring Shoemaker's realistic streak may have to be put on hold.

While the Derby has never necessarily been her endgame, Shoemaker does know how to breed and raise a good horse. Two graduates of her 2009 foal crop continue to leave no doubt about that, and in fact, may provide memories in the coming months that go beyond those of Shoemaker's dreams.

Grade 3 winners Sabercat and Motor City grew up together on Lantern Hill Farm near Lexington. And although it is early to be discussing things like roses in May, both young horses have already shown enough ability to be among those lining up at the start of the Kentucky Derby trail.

"I try to break it down into pieces, otherwise my brain starts being overwhelmed with all of the possibilities," said Shoemaker. "We have these two really wonderful 2-year-olds, and I am so happy and thrilled and proud we got them. It's really hard not to go crazy, but you can't do it. It's more intense already than I thought it would be."

Racing as a homebred, Motor City's biggest victory to date came in the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs Oct. 30. In doing so, the gelding became the first stakes winner for his Derby-winning sire, Street Sense.

The fact that Motor City is trained by Ian Wilkes makes it all that more special for those involved. As Carl Nafzger's top assistant, Wilkes was very much part of Street Sense's success.

Sabercat made headlines when he took the Nov. 19 Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes, a race that carries a $1 million purse and virtually guarantees its victor a spot in the starting gate come the first Saturday in May. The son of Bluegrass Cat races for Winchell Thoroughbreds and was bred by Shoemaker in partnership with her husband's Lighthouse Group and William Punk Jr.

Having two promising youngsters come out of the same field is especially remarkable when you consider Lantern Hill's foal crop was about 25 that year. Even more satisfying is the history that goes along with the families of both graded stakes winners.

Motor City's family has been part of Lantern Hill's family since 1990. That is when Shoemaker bought the gelding's granddam, Star Empress, for $40,000 at the Keeneland January mixed sale. The mare was 19 at the time, but her good lucks charmed Shoemaker.

The foal Star Empress was carrying at the time would grow up to be Shawgatny, the dam of Motor City.

Shoemaker sold Shawgatny for a cool $320,000 as a yearling. Later, she bought Shawgatny's first foal, Noble Charger, for $32,161 and resold him for nearly $500,000 the following year. That windfall came shortly after Shoemaker purchased the land that is known as Lantern Hill today.

After two unsuccessful attempts to buy back Shawgatny herself, Shoemaker finally succeeded in 2002. The first mating she planned for the mare resulted in stakes winner Satulagi.

The money she paid to breed Shawgatny to Street Sense in 2008 is the most Shoemaker has spent on a stud fee, but it looks like it is paying off in the form of Motor City.

The graded stakes winner was put through the auction ring as a yearling, but had grabbed a heel in his stall while at the sale and went lame. He failed to meet his reserve, so Shoemaker brought him home and decided to race him herself.

"I still look back and think, 'What was I thinking,' especially in light of the market crash," Shoemaker admitted about the breeding. "It is surreal. That family has had an incredible effect on my life at all these different points. It just continues to have a huge impact. Now, Shawgatny is 21-years-old, so you would think it is all over and she has the Iroquois winner. It is like some really overwritten kid's book."

For those who are wandering what the name Shawgatny means, you are not alone. Shoemaker did not name the mare and has been unable to find out.

Sabercat's story is a little bit different. His dam, Miner's Blessing, has called Lantern Hill home for about decade but Shoemaker has only owned part of her for five years. Punk owned the mare in partnership with Philip DiLeo. When DiLeo wanted out, the Shoemakers wanted in.

The pretty bay mare throws pretty babies. Her first born, Salt Lake King, was so handsome that his nickname around the barn was George, in reference to George Clooney. After bowing a tendon, he eventually became a riding horse for Shoemaker, who sold him this summer so he could take part in Pony Club.

When Sabercat sold to Ron Winchell for $120,000 as a yearling, Shoemaker was thrilled not only because he sold so well but because she knew he was going into a strong racing program.

Neither Shawgatny nor Miner's Blessing are in foal for 2012, but their sons will hopefully provide Shoemaker with plenty of memories in the coming months. For now, she can reflect on what it was like to raise the two graded stakes winners.

While Sabercat always demanded attention due to his good looks and charismatic ways, Motor City is remembered for his desire to be with people.

Lantern Hill has an in-depth website featuring photos of all of the foals and mares that reside there, whether they are boarders or belong to the Shoemakers. While Sabercat has multiple photos documenting his youth, Motor City was a bit trickier.

"There are certain foals that are very hard to photograph because they just want to be on top of you," said Shoemaker. "Motor City was one of those. Every time I would go out there, he would be like, 'Of course you want to be with me! Of course! Look, I'm here, I'm here.' "

The gelding is currently wintering in Palm Meadows, and Shoemaker is looking forward to his 3-year-old season, whether it leads to the Twin Spires or not.

"If he is going to take us there, he will," she said. "He will have every opportunity to make it but we are not going to compromise his future for Derby fever."

In the meantime, it is hard to deny that those long winter days are made a little warmer by the thought of a promising soon-to-be 3-year-old in the barn.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.