There is great excitement and anticipation among the ladies and gentlemen who breed thoroughbred horses in rural Virginia, where Secretariat, perhaps the best ever, was born and others with high profiles in Kentucky Derby history began life but not lately.
Before Secretariat raised the bar on immortality in 1973 two horses bred in Virginia Reigh Count and Riva Ridge won the Derby. Pleasant Colony and Sea Hero followed but 215 3-year-olds have started in the Kentucky Derby since the last Virginia-bred so much as made it to the post parade in 1996.
A succession of horses bred in Kentucky interrupted occasionally by winners bred in Florida, Pennsylvania and New York have dominated the Derby since Sea Hero, the last Virginia-bred winner, prevailed for Paul Mellon in 1993. There is no incentive to breed horses in Virginia and no significant commercial element of the business, which has been in contraction with the loss of old-moneyed breeders who produced horses primarily to race themselves and whose heirs did not share that passion. Unless you're very wealthy and like living in Virginia exactly the connections common to every Derby winner born there but not renewable resources you breed elsewhere, in states that have racetracks and provide financial incentives. While breeding of horses in Virginia is robust, the overwhelming majority of farms in the state are devoted to breeds other than thoroughbreds, from draft horses to the Tennessee Walking Horse and every other imaginable branch of the equine tree.
Yet, there is a great deal of thoroughbred history in the Virginia countryside, where Christopher Chenery, who bred Secretariat, Mellon and Thomas M. Evans, who bred and raced Pleasant Colony, presided at Meadow Stud, Rokeby Farm and Buckland Farm respectively. They bred horses that won the sport's greatest races and competed consistently at its highest level. But time, life and death have a way of changing things and the community of people engaged in the breeding of thoroughbred horses in Virginia is small nowadays. They are, however, encouraged by a home-bred rooting interest in the 135th Derby. At long last, they have a native on his way to Louisville, a big horse (literally) with a big shot (realistically).
Edward P. Evans, who owns Spring Hill Farm in Casanova, birthplace of 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam, is the largest breeder of thoroughbreds in Virginia. Horses he bred earned $3.3 million and won 104 races last year, many beneath his familiar yellow and black silks. Evans, son of Thomas M. Evans, owns 67 broodmares that produced 52 foals in 2008. His is among the few large, private American-owned racing operations that remain in an era of high-octane partnerships, a throwback.
If a Derby champion is to come from Virginia, it is likely the spawn of Evans' band of broodmares, one of which, Kobla, is an unraced full sister to the champion 3-year-old filly of 1997 and Breeders' Cup Distaff winner, Ajina, and dam of Quality Road, who is by Elusive Quality, sire of Smarty Jones, the Derby and Preakness winner 2004.
Evans, who purchased Kobla from the estate of Allen Paulson for more than $1 million, has bred and raced dozens of graded stakes winners but not the winner of a 3-year-old classic. In Quality Road, he has provided trainer Jimmy Jerkens with a good deal of potential: a 17-hand monster with speed that brings two impressive efforts that produced victories in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby to Louisville. By whatever speed figure the Florida Derby is measured, it was the strongest 9-furlong prep of the winter and Quality Road will be among the first three in the betting on May 2, perhaps the favorite once the bettors take over from the experts.
There is much to like about Quality Road. He is a huge, powerful animal with a long, effortless stride. He has tractable speed and after arriving at the quarter pole on the lead and under a hammerlock in his last race, he shrugged off the well-regarded Dunkirk, who would have won the Florida Derby were he the best horse on the day. Quality Road won without being extended by jockey John Velazquez, leaving the suggestion that there is more not yet revealed, an impression not lost on the trainer of the runner-up.
"Quality Road," said Dunkirk's trainer, Todd Pletcher, "is the horse to beat."
There is the matter of a fissure on the wall of his right-hind hoof that appeared, Jerkens said, prior to the Florida Derby. Time has been an ally and Quality Road has trained enthusiastically since his return to New York. Quarter cracks, Jerkens said, can always turn against you but the hoof-repair specialist Ian McKinley, who came to prominence last spring while nursing Big Brown's tender left-fore hoof through the Derby and Preakness, has been retained and the issue so far has been contained or Quality Road would not be on his way to Louisville.
If the 67-year-old Evans is old school he is no more so than 50-year-old Jerkens, whose comedic sensibilities lean toward "The Honeymooners" and whose training methods came together at the side of Harry Allen Jerkens, known widely as the Chief for good reason.
Beyond Quality Road, the pedigree in this alliance of men and horse is rich. Both Evans and Jerkens are sons of great racing families following tradition and methods learned at the knees of their fathers. Jerkens, who has, until now not had a Derby horse, has been working around a quarter crack on Quality Road's right-hind hoof that developed before the Florida Derby and the colt has trained impressively since his return to Belmont Park, which is quieter these days than Churchill Downs. Jerkens will remain in New York as long as possible and avoid as much of the media circus as he can. Do not expect that he will join the new trend in the perpetual digital dialogue that now connects fans with their favorite horses. Jerkens does not own a Blackberry. He does not twitter, tweet, text or IM. He is not on FaceBook. Nor is Evans.
So, the good people of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, alert to the public relations benefits of having one of their own prominent in the pre-Derby swell of media coverage, have jumped into the publicity breach on behalf of their favorite 3-year-old son. No Derby contender should be without a presence on the Internet even one in the hands of an owner and trainer without a slightest idea of what Twitter is.
Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge is on FaceBook and his rider, Joe Talamo, is issuing regular messages on Twitter as he travels the road to Kentucky. Owner Rick Porter issues updates on his contender, Friesan Fire, on his website. Followers of Oaks contender Justwhistledixie are kept abreast of her activities via Twitter, which is also being used by Churchill Downs and the New York Racing Association.
With the Virginia Thoroughbred Association providing the labor and technical savvy, Quality Road is developing a growing fan base on FaceBook and the association is updating members and fans on its own blog.
"We are developing a complete public relations campaign to ensure that not only racing fans, but also the citizens of the Commonwealth as well as the powers that be in her government understand the value of such a nice horse," said Glenn Petty, who speaks for the Virginia Thoroughbred Association. "They seem to know who Secretariat was and who Ferris Allen is, but it gets a bit dodgy after that."
Soon, they are likely to become aware of Quality Road, too, and should he emerge first from the scrum at Churchill Downs, Virginia will find itself once again prominent in the breeding world, a moment in the sun after a long winter for those who carry the torch there.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.