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Latest Features


Mike Pons leans on a podium set up on some wet stone dust next to the door of the breeding shed. Behind him stands a Bobby's Potty. Over his shoulder, 2 feet of snow gradually slides off the roof - landing periodically with a great "Schwalam." In front of him, guests at Sunday's Country Life Farm stallion show listen intently.

And just up the way come the stallions. One a time, each of the historic Bel Air, Md. farm's four relatively new sires strolls down the path. They're young and on their way, if mostly unproven, in a state trying to rebuild its stallion roster in the face of great exits by Not For Love, Allen's Prospect, Two Punch, Malibu Moon, Norquestor and others famous and not in the last 20 years.

Super Ninety Nine arrives first. He's a fireplug of a horse - chestnut, muscled like a college wrestler, long blaze with a wide top and white on his hind legs. He stares at the people, taking stock. "I'll show you," he might be saying. "Just tell this guy to turn me loose, one time, and I'll run through here so fast you'll think this is a Marvel movie." Then, prompted by a tug on the shank from Jerry Zavala, the 6-year-old son of Pulpit walks the other way. Pons says the horse is "full of beans," then rattles off some facts about co-owner Spendthrift Farm's commitment to their stallion, pedigree, race record and the like. Super Ninety Nine's first foals arrive this year. 

Next comes Freedom Child, another chestnut full of even more beans than his pal. The blaze is thinner, the feet are whiter and the demeanor is fiercer. Three times, Freedom Child rears on his hind legs. Zavala never flinches, and looks briefly like a man flying a horse kite. The 6-year-old follows hoofprints left by his sire Malibu Moon, who stood at Country Life for four years before moving to Kentucky and stardom. Pons calls Freedom Child "a general's horse" and people immediately understand. There's a regality to him that demands attention. He's been at Country Life since his 3-year-old season on the track ended prematurely, and grown 3 inches. Freedom Child is by the sire of a Kentucky Derby winner (Orb) and from the female family of 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby. The pedigree goes in all directions, stopping at names such as his dam's sire Deputy Minister plus A.P. Indy, Seattle Slew, Mr. Prospector, Green Dancer, Raise A Native, Secretariat, Northern Dancer. In a twist of nature that will delight some and make others cringe, his fifth dam Spinning Reel produced Eagle's Top - a steeplechase star of the 1960s. The mix will get tested this year as Freedom Child's first foals are yearlings.

The list of what Pons calls "my guys" includes Cal Nation, whose first foals are 2-year-olds. Showcasing the opposite of Freedom Child's shenanigans, the 8-year-old bay stops in front of the people and takes a deep breath in and a bigger sigh out. If he could talk, he might ask everyone what they're doing in his breeding shed. "The crab soup better not be here when the action starts," he thinks. "Leave the cookies." Kentucky giant Winstar Farm owns half of the son of Distorted Humor whose distaff side screams sire power with Not For Love, Girolamo, Bluegrass Cat, Super Saver, Frost Giant and 2016 rookie Imagining. Cal Nation reminds Pons of former Country Life stalwart Carnivalay, a half-brother to the great Go For Wand. To be a successful sire, a horse "needs to have a good mother and a good second dam, just like people do," Pons says. 

Last on the day is Friesan Fire. If you're paying attention, the Country Life stallions are a staircase. Super Ninety Nine's first foals will be born this year. Freedom Child's first foals are yearlings. Cal Nation's first foals are 2-year-olds. And Friesan Fire's first foals are 3-year-olds. As juveniles, 29 started and 10 won in 2015. He was 13th (wins) and 15th (earnings) on the list of freshmen sires nationally and tops in the region. His son Morning Fire won a stakes to start 2016. "We don't have a new stallion, but we have a new sire," Pons says in a great play on words. "He's the Alpha, it's his farm and we're just taking up space on it." The 10-year-old son of A.P. Indy is all-American on that side of his pedigree, but much of his female family hails from Australia including his Group 1-winning dam Bollinger and champion second dam Bint Marscay. Friesan Fire bred 94 mares in 2015 and he can expect a busy 2016. "We'll book the first 40 at $4,000," Pons says. "The Johnny Come Latelys might have to pay a surcharge."

Much like Dr. Tom Bowman (formerly at Northview Stallion Station and now at Heritage Stallions), Pons gives a great talk. His 2016 message is one of optimism, in more than one venue. "You know how baseball fans talk about the lineup going into the season every year? Well, I think we've got a star like (Orioles first baseman) Chris Davis hitting bombs out of the park and the guys right behind him in the lineup can hit too."

Play ball.

Photos by Nolan Clancy

For more photos, click the image below to launch a slide show.