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May 26, 2012

Darley farm hopes for Triple Crown winner as one rests on grounds

In two weeks, Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another will take his shot at equine immortality in the Belmont Stakes. If he succeeds, racing will be looking for the second coming of Camelot. The hope: that a Triple Crown winner could revive a limping sport. But the odds are long.

Every year the horse industry's version of the Arthurian legend plays out: After the Kentucky Derby, a new contender steps up to attempt to pull the Triple Crown sword from the stone by winning the Preakness and the Belmont.

In two weeks, Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another will take his shot at equine immortality in the Belmont Stakes in New York.

If he succeeds, racing will be looking for the second coming of Camelot. The hope: that a Triple Crown winner could revive a limping sport.

But the odds are long.

Since 1978, he is the 12th horse to win the first two legs. The rest — including greats such as Spectacular Bid, Alysheba and Sunday Silence — all came up short.

"That's how tough it is. That's why the swell of anticipation is going to be off the charts," said Jimmy Bell, president of Darley at Jonabell Farm in Lexington.

"He is looking at destiny."

Few farms know what it's like to have a Triple Crown winner living in their midst: Jonabell, now owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, was the last to claim the throne. Only 11 horses have ever held the title.

Affirmed, who died in 2001, is buried just outside the stallion barn at Jonabell.

Enormous crowds came out to see him duel with Alydar throughout the 1978 Triple Crown campaign, but in the 34 years since Affirmed accomplished the near-mythical task, horse racing's popularity has plummeted. Once a regular Sports Illustrated cover story, no horse has been featured on the front of the magazine since 2009's Mine That Bird after his long-shot Derby win.

A Triple Crown winner could be a big shot in the arm, Bell said.

"Fans understand what it takes to reach the pinnacle in any sport and the Triple Crown is that," Bell said. "It transcends."

Tracks and breeding farms realize the enormous potential for a new star, both in the public eye and in the breeding shed.

"People could get behind something," said Michael Banahan, Jonabell's director of farm operations. "We need superstars."

Having a Triple Crown winner would be the media equivalent of the next Rachel Alexandra, the next Zenyatta, he said. But with one big difference: He would be a stallion.

While it may seem unfair, that means a dozen Rachel or Zenyatta babies versus a thousand chances for I'll Have Another to pass on his genes over the course of his potential stud career.

If I'll Have Another wins, his future could truly be golden.

"History proves how very difficult this is," Bell said. "They really are in very rarified company — it takes a very unique individual. The farms know that."

So while racing fans watch one race June 9, horse breeders will be watching another: the race to build the next stallion dynasty.

Kentucky's Thoroughbred breeding industry has suffered since the 2008 market downturn. Horse sales, which drive the economic engine of Bluegrass horse farms, have bounced back in the past year but the size of the foal crop continues to shrink by thousands every year, and that is expected to continue. There are predicted to be 3,500 fewer foals born this year than in 1975, the year Affirmed was born.

In recent years, as prices for horses plunged, the market became increasing stratified, with horses at the top end of the scale reaping profits while those at the bottom went unsold. That put breeders, farms and horses out of the business and drove the rest toward a few proven bloodlines, all of which flow through the Bluegrass.

According to The Jockey Club, the breed's registry, the 80 or so high-priced stallions in Central Kentucky that breed to 100 mares or more draw intense interest, but stallions under $10,000 practically go begging for potential mates.

That creates huge incentive to find the next big star that can deliver both on the track and in the barn.

"Just because you've got a great racehorse doesn't automatically stamp your credentials to be a great sire," Bell said. "That's why the game goes on."

At Darley, the big hope right now is Bernardini, who won the 2006 Preakness and was champion 3-year-old for that year and leading freshman sire in 2010. He now stands at stud for $150,000. One reason his fee is so high: His first crop of foals won four Grade 1 races, the top level.

Champion Zenyatta's first foal was by "Bernie," as he's known, and champion Rachel Alexandra's next one will be.

Bernardini is himself the grandson of a Triple Crown winner, just not Affirmed. Affirmed did not prove to be a great sire, but his ill-fated rival Alydar did.

"It started with the Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, whose best son was A.P. Indy, whose best son is Bernardini," Banahan said. "You have those stepping stones."

Every horse farm is looking for the next in the line.

"The odds are so long to begin with, to get a horse that can become a great racehorse, then to become a great sire ... that's a very tough goal to attain," Bell said.

But that keeps owners and breeders trying, particularly because it can't be won solely by desire or even money. Darley owner Sheikh Mohammed, who is ruler of the Middle Eastern emirate Dubai, has poured passion and millions of dollars into breeding and racing in pursuit of that pinnacle.

I'll Have Another owner Paul Reddam, a former philosophy professor, might get there with a horse he bought for $35,000 as a 2-year-old.

"There's an intangible element to it," Bell said. "Nobody gets a sneak peek at the sure thing. That's the intrigue of the business ... and that's the lure that draws people from all over the world."

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