PA-breds get chance in Derby

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Christian Hansen will watch Saturday’s Kentucky Derby on television, while keeping an eye on several mares at Blackstone Farm. Stuart Grant will host 150 people at his annual Derby party, and fight the urge to think about what might have been. The men are responsible for the two Pennsylvania-bred runners in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

Hansen, a partner in Blackstone Farm in Pine Grove, Pa., helped bring Tom’s Ready into the world, watched him grow into a Saratoga sales yearling and – eventually – into a Derby starter. He breaks from post 12 at 30-1 for trainer Dallas Stewart and GMB Racing in Saturday’s Derby.

Grant bred Mor Spirit under the name of his Elkstone Group racing business, sold the yearling for $85,000 and watched him bring $650,000 as a 2-year-old and potentially be worth even more as a Grade 1 winner and 12-1 shot in the Derby. He’s trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert for Michael Lund Petersen, founder of the Pandora Jewelry empire.

“I’ll be watching,” said Hansen last month. “I have some mares that will be ready to foal. We need to generate another generation of Derby winners.”

Grant won’t be quite so hands-on, but won’t miss the big race either.

“We have a Derby party every year, and I always said I will never go to the Derby without a horse that would take me,” said Grant. “We’ve had two runners in the Oaks and that’s the only time we didn’t have the party. We are having our party and we are going to be rooting for Mor Spirit.”

Blackstone, a partnership of Hansen, Douglas Black and Mark Weisman, purchased the broodmare Goodbye Stranger for $40,000 at Keeneland November in 2012. She was carrying Tom’s Ready, a son of More Than Ready. The colt grew up fast at Blackstone, about 40 miles east of Harrisburg.

“He was very forward, very,” said Hansen. “You knew he was a colt, without being stupid. When they got weaned, he was always one of the dominant ones in the crop of about 15 or 20 colts.”

Blackstone breeds for the market and sent Tom’s Ready to Keeneland November as a weanling, only to bring him home. The next year, he went to Fasig-Tipton Saratoga and sold for $145,000. Stewart and agent Kip Elser picked out the dark bay colt for GMB.

“Like any other colt, he went through the teenage phase or whatever you want to call it,” said Hansen. “At Saratoga, he got a bump that took some people off him. There is a lot of scrutiny up there. Just a bump, on a leg and it was profiling a little bit. It was nothing.”

Tom’s Ready won a maiden race at Churchill Downs last fall, and has placed in three stakes. Seconds in the Louisiana Derby and LeComte this year brought enough points to get into the Derby. Stewart has engineered big Derby efforts from longshots Commanding Curve and Golden Soul so Tom’s Ready could be next.

“It’s very rewarding to see something you foaled out go on to things like this,” Hansen said. “We feel fortunate to be part of that. We are grateful for the connections and the way they care for him.”

Goodbye Stranger produced a Creative Cause filly, now 2, has a yearling filly by Lemon Drop Kid heading to Saratoga this summer and foaled a Gemologist filly this year. The mare was booked back to More Than Ready.

Two months after Tom’s Ready was born near Harrisburg, Mor Spirit was part of the last crop foaled at Derry Meeting Farm in Cochranville, Pa. Birthplace of Danzig, Storm Cat, Mrs. Penny, Yankee Affair and scads of Augustin Stable stars, the farm might get one more chance to shine two years after its closure and sale by owner Bettina Jenney.

A son of Eskendereya and the Dixie Union mare Im A Dixie Girl, Mor Spirit won a Grade 1 as a 2-year-old and finished second behind Exaggerator in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby this year. Grant takes a mixed approach to his breeding business, which produces roughly 24 foals a year – half to the sales ring and half to the racing stable. Mor Spirit went with the first group and was at Fasig-Tipton July to sell.

“We thought 150 to 200, he was getting a lot of interest,” Grant said. “He is a spunky guy with a mind of his own and decided one morning to kick the wall. He didn’t show for days and we had to scratch him. I was so mad at him, we put him in (Fasig-Tipton) October and there wasn’t anywhere near the interest.”

Mor Spirit sold for $85,000 to Wavertree Farm, which produced a pinhooking score when the dark bay ridgling brought $650,000 at Fasig-Tipton’s March sale of 2-year-olds in Florida. While Grant would love to have a Derby starter in his racing stable, the Delawarean understands that nothing is guaranteed in racing.

“It’s a humbling game, I sold him for 85, the guy who buys him sells him for 650 and that might not even look all that smart now,” said Grant. “Sometimes (the decision to sell) is driven by the market. You have some by stallions that are hot at that time, you like one for one reason or another. You try to make good decisions.”

Grant, who moved his mares to a farm (managed by former Derry Meeting employee Bobby Goodyear) recently purchased in Chesapeake City, Md., still owns Im A Dixie Girl, who produced a Maryland-bred full-brother to Mor Spirit this year and was booked to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Pedigree decisions are barely half the challenge when breeding Thoroughbreds.

“It’s really cool, really exciting to think we created an animal that’s going to run in the Derby,” Grant said. “On the other hand, you’re sort of playing God. The stallion has seven million sperm and the mare’s got a million eggs and you’re trying to say you can figure out which one of those is going to make a super horse. You can tilt the odds in your favor, but there’s a lot of luck involved.”

A Pennsylvania-bred won the Derby in 1992 (Lil E. Tee) and 2004 (Smarty Jones), and the state’s Thoroughbred industry could use the boost from a third. The foal crop is shrinking as breeder incentives come under fire, the state recently overhauled its commission structure and financing, Parx Racing is quarantined because of an equine herpes outbreak and also reportedly for sale/lease, and there’s a general sense of unease from farms to racetracks and beyond.

“We got some stability (with the new commission set-up and other legislative assurances) and we’ll have to build from there again,” said Hansen. “It’s a good program, still a solid program. There were glory days and I think it’s a realistic program now. It has a future. How do we work with what we’ve got and how do we make that work for the next 10 years?

“Anything that goes out and runs on the national scene with a PA in parenthesis is good for all of us. It’s an important thing for the state to see that we can compete and deliver a product that can compete on the highest levels in the U.S.”