Michelle and Jody Huckabay drove home from the Kentucky Derby like any other racing fans last Saturday when an unlikely connection to their farm dawned on them.
"Hey, wait a minute," Jody said to his wife and business partner in the Paris, Ky., Thoroughbred nursery Elm Tree Farm. "Do you realize what happened?"
Then they laughed. Elm Tree, founded by Jody and his father Jackie in 1989, is home to the dams of Lucky Pulpit (sire of Derby winner California Chrome) and Master Command (sire of Derby runner-up Commanding Curve). The Huckabays knew the connection going in, as they are personally involved in the regular care of Lucky Soph and Lady Lochinvar, but lost track of the feat in the pomp, circumstance and hoopla of the country's most important Thoroughbred race.
"You know how it is, sometimes you get a much better picture of what's going on when you watch at home on TV," said Jody. "We were there with some clients and just watching the race and got caught up in the moment. It wasn't until later that we put it together."
And Sunday morning, Lucky Soph and Lady Lochnivar got a little more attention.
"We came in and gave them a little pat on the head and told them they'd done a very good job," he said. "We don't want to tell them too much because you never know. If they know too much they might colic or something. We want to keep them humble. Lady Lochinvar already has her own way of doing things. You certainly have to let her be the boss. Lucky Soph is an easy old girl."
The brush with greatness won't change much at Elm Tree, a 600-acre operation with 125 stalls in eight barns. Along with a host of other Thoroughbred services, the farm foals mares and preps horses for sales with a large consignment of yearlings at Keeneland every September.
"It easier to get up in the morning and go to work when you've got quality stock," said Huckabay. "If you interview most people they're going to tell you that. The prize possession is to get to the Derby or be related to something that gets to the Derby. To have something of that quality is rewarding. We're a little bit removed, but it's a nice thing.
"No, I didn't bet it," he added of the $340 Elm Tree Derby exacta.
The celebrity mares are owned by Thoroughbred owners/breeders Marianne and Larry Williams of Idaho. The Williamses bought the mares at auction - Lucky Soph in 2000, Lady Lochinvar in 2002 - and sell most of their offspring as part of a six-mare Kentucky division.
Both mares came to Elm Tree a few years ago and have thrived. Lucky Soph was bred in California, but raced in England where she won once in six starts. The daughter of Cozzene and the Lucky Mel mare Lucky Spell turned 22 this year and had a Bodemeister colt in late April to go along with a Congrats yearling that will sell at Keeneland in September. The mare is booked to Majestic Warrior.
"She's medium-sized to small, but has very long underline to her and has a real nice stride," said Huckabay. "She's got a long neck, she's elegant and a very pretty mare. Since we've had her they've tried to breed her to larger horses, which has helped. The Congrats filly is a very nice filly with a beautiful head and eye that her mother puts on everything."
Bred in Kentucky by Wimborne Farm and Diane Perkins, Lady Lochinvar is a revenue generator as recent yearlings have sold for $800,000 and $600,000 (twice) since the Williamses bought her. As a racehorse, she won once in six starts for Pennsylvania's Brushwood Stable and Mid-Atlantic trainer Chuck Lawrence, breaking her maiden at Saratoga in 1996. Her foals include millionaire and sire Master Command, Grade 3 winner Aurora Lights, Grade 1 placed X Star and Grade 3 producer Priceless Storm. The 21-year-old daughter of Lord At War and the Secretariat mare Lady Winborne delivered a Distorted Humor colt this year and was bred to Street Sense. An A.P. Indy colt did not meet his reserve ($975,000) at Keeneland September 2012 and is training with Jerry Hollendorfer as a 3-year-old but has yet to race. A yearling Street Cry filly heads to Keeneland this September.
"She is an absolutely outstanding mare, big, long-legged, and she throws exceptional foals every single year," said Huckabay. "She's also certainly a very dominant mare in the field."
Elm Tree works closely with Dan Kiser, the farm manager for the Williamses' Tree Top Ranches in Parma, Idaho, and Kentucky bloodstock advisor Tim McMurry. They make a pretty good team, though the relationship just kind of came to be.
"I met Larry Williams through a trainer in California, Jerry Dutton," said Huckabay. "He's also from Idaho and I met Jerry through a classmate of mine at UK (University of Kentucky) years ago. It's just how things go, networking and whatever. Mr. Williams is a great guy to work for. I talk with Dan Kiser all the time and Tim McMurry. Mr. Williams lets us do our jobs."
From the outside, California Chrome looks like a tale of random good fortune. His sire stands for $2,500 in California. His dam was purchased for $8,000. Behind it all stands a pedigree far deeper than evident on first glance.
"If you dig around, there's a whole lot there," said Huckabay. "Cozzene on the bottom side of the sire and Pulpit is surely a good sire and Tapit is by Pulpit and everybody is talking about Tapit now. Then you've got Not For Love on the dam's side. That's a very good family. Just because they got lucky and got her for $8,000 doesn't mean he's not a good horse or doesn't have a strong pedigree."