Louisville Magazine

APR 2012

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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was Zenyatta. She brought an immaculate 12 for 12 racing record — including the Whitney Handicap against males — to Churchill Downs for the Breeders' Cup Distaff. In a thrilling finish, Personal Ensign nipped Winning Colors at the wire and retired undefeated. She quickly distanced herself from Winning Colors as a broodmare, with three of her first four foals becoming graded-stakes winners, the Holy Grail for elite stallions and broodmares. In addition to her own progeny, Personal Ensign's offspring also went on to become excellent producers. Her son Our Emblem, for example, sired 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem. While many breeders prefer to have broodmares who were successful racehorses, it certainly isn't a prerequisite. Of the 11 mares that produced Derby winners since 2000, few would have been considered top-level racehorses during their careers. In fact, just two — I'll Get Along (Smarty Jones, 2004) and Set Tem Free (Giacomo, 2005) — were stakes winners. A glance at the other nine mares' race records leaves much to be desired. Mining My Own, dam of 2009 longshot winner Mine Tat Bird, never raced. Mien, dam of 2008 Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, recorded one win from two starts. Repeatedly proven to be true, the unsuccessful or unproven racemare can still produce the big horse, while the successful racemare can flounder. For some, it's enough to call the whole process random, arbitrary and luck of the draw. With gentle rolling pastures and Old World design, Monticule Farm, on Harp Innis Pike northeast of Lexington, looks similar to most traditional horse farms in the region, but its approach to breeding deviates from the conventional. Many breeders rely heavily on proven pedigree "nicks," or pairing horses of particular bloodlines that have yielded successful results in the past. While Monticule uses nicking to some extent, its model justifies its matings with solid mathematics. Te results of the 2008 Kentucky Derby represent the farm's crowning achievement. As Big Brown continued to distance himself from that year's three-year-old crop of contenders at classic distances, it came as a mild surprise to those familiar with equine pedigrees. His sire, Boundary, had been a speed horse, specializing at six furlongs, and a mediocre stallion whose best progeny consisted mostly of sprinters. For owner Gary Knapp though, the Big Brown phenomenon was simply the ideal outcome of a qualitative statistical model that informs all of Monticule's breeding decisions. "I wasn't surprised he could get a mile and a quarter," Knapp says matter-of-factly during a phone call from Florida, where he spends winters. "It was in his EQUIX report." Te former university professor holds a University of Kentucky Ph.D. in applied statistics and owns EQUIX, a company that uses biomechanical data to analyze the purchase of horses and breeding decisions for a small book of clients. In brief, EQUIX uses 36 different physical measurements of a horse, including stride analysis, cardiac capacity and very specific measurements of a horse's bone structure to predict how successful they might be as runners. Monticule looks to mate and produce horses with high Biomechanical Efficiency Scores (BME). However, the process is far more delicate than simply breeding a high BME mare to a high BME stallion. Like jigsaw pieces, breeding is as much about the art of matching mares with stallions that "fit" them, meaning they complement the mares' genetic, dispositional and physical components. Knapp maintains a database that holds biomechanical measurements of all 34 of Monticule's broodmares, along with most stallions standing in Kentucky. Te creation of Big Brown began when Knapp purchased a mare named Miasma, who was carrying a foal by a prominent turf runner and stamina-laden stallion named Nureyev, a son of 1964 Derby winner Northern Dancer. Te foal was Mien, who Knapp retired as a broodmare prospect after she won her second race at the suggestion of a trainer who thought she wouldn't develop into a successful racehorse. Using his data- driven approach, Knapp determined that breeding Mien to Boundary, a son of super-stallion Danzig, also by Northern Dancer, gave Monticule the highest statistical probability of producing a fast, well-balanced horse. "Boundary was strictly a good physical fit for Mien," Knapp says. He also liked the Northern Dancer inbreeding factor. It's unseasonably warm for late February and my brain is fried with abstruse details like how the length of a horse's cannon bone can affect his biomechanical efficiency, or how mitochondrial DNA is passed on through the female line of a pedigree. I'm ready to see some of Knapp's theories in the flesh. Monticule's farm manager lets me meet Big Brown's half sister, a yearling filly who looks calm and relaxed as she poses for our photographer. Te circumstances that led to her breeding were, of course, well calculated, but Knapp jokes during another Florida phone call that she was actually a well-kept secret. "We didn't talk about it at first because I didn't want people to think I'd lost my mind breeding a Kentucky Derby-winning dam to a $5,000 stallion," he says. Te stallion Knapp references is Hat Trick, a son of 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence who was unproven at stud and hadn't been around long enough to produce his first racing crop when Knapp made the decision to send Mien to him. Unfettered by the logic of breeding a valuable commodity to an unproven one, Knapp's decision came down to the two factors that determine all of his decisions on such matters: the statistical match of the two horses and their pedigrees. "When you look at that filly, genetically speaking you are seeing the inbreeding to Almahmoud (one of the most influential broodmares of the last century and mother of Northern Dancer's dam, Natalma) that shows up in over 80 percent of Sunday Silence's principal runners," Knapp explains. We talk more stats and I begin to wonder how anyone ever breeds a decent horse without also being a member of Mensa. Dr. Bill Baker, an equine surgeon at Woodford Equine Hospital in Versailles, has spent the last 35 years of his life operating on, racing and breeding horses. Despite the wealth of knowledge he's accumulated, however, he aptly refers to his greatest breeding success as "blind luck." Having worked with a stakes-winning colt named Ethan Man in his veterinary practice, Baker spotted a half sister to the horse — a filly named Lucky One — running in a $15,000 claiming race at Turfway Park in late 2005. He didn't claim the horse then (no one did), but had post-race second thoughts and attempted to buy Lucky One privately for $20,000. Amazingly, Baker's bid was rejected. More amazingly, the filly ran again 10 days later in another $15,000 claiming race, and this time Baker did claim the horse, although another party also entered a claim. Baker successfully acquired Lucky One by winning the pre-race "shake"of labeled pills in a bottle. Te horse turned out to have severe ankle problems. Still, Baker had a hunch he'd bought a quality animal. "I was really enticed by her looks," he recalls. "She was big, strong and muscular, but she had a pretty head, good conformation, and was very feminine." Relying on the suggestions of a nicking service, Baker and his wife wanted to breed Lucky One to a son of the prominent speed sire Carson City, a son of prolific sire Mr. Prospector. Five Star Day was their first choice, but in three attempts Lucky One failed to get pregnant. So another Carson City son — the lesser-known, half-blind Pollard's Vision — was chosen. Te unlikely pair produced Blind Luck, the 2010 Kentucky Oaks winner and Champion Tree-Year-Old Filly, who earned more than $3.2 million on the track. Her late-running tactics produced graded-stakes wins in California, New York, Delaware and Kentucky, earning her a huge national following and a reputation as a throwback horse — one reminiscent of yesteryear horses that ran often and everywhere. Upon retirement, she brought $2.5 million at auction in November 2011. A year earlier, Baker's Fairlawn Farm sold Lucky One for $1.85 million. Perhaps the only part of the Blind Luck script lacking ready-made Hollywood drama is the fact that she stood in Zenyatta's mammoth shadow for her entire career. In a game where storylines always seem to intermingle and reconnect, Blind Luck was also bred to Bernardini following her retirement this winter. Maybe the very same things that made her special will be passed down to her offspring. It's even possible she could produce better foals than the Zenyattas and Rachels of the world. Just as when they were racehorses, the three mares are essentially maidens again, waiting for the starting gate to spring open. Q 4.12 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE [97]

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