06/10/2004 11:00PM

Birdstone has Grindstone rising

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Grindstone, a son of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, won the 1996 Derby in what would be his final race. Grindstone's son Birdstone (above) adds another classic to the family history, winning this year's Belmont Stakes.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Birdstone's Belmont Stakes win on June 5 will be most famous for ending Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid and his unbeaten record. But it was also a redemptive moment.

Birdstone, one of the nation's top juveniles last year, had been lackluster this spring. His Belmont victory not only restored a measure of his success but also brought some to his sire, Grindstone, the 1996 Kentucky Derby winner, whose most recent book of mares had been buoyed by Birdstone's performances as a juvenile.

Grindstone, who is 11 and stands at Overbrook Farm in Lexington for $7,500, has been a sentimental favorite among Kentuckians ever since he won the Derby for Overbrook's popular late owner, W. T. Young. But from a commercial standpoint, he needed a big runner to draw breeders' attention in a highly competitive stallion market, and he didn't get that runner until Birdstone came along. Last year, before Birdstone shot to the front of the juvenile division by winning the Champagne Stakes, Grindstone bred only 36 mares. In 2004, after Birdstone closed out his 2-year-old season, bookings to Grindstone rose to more than 90 mares.

Will Birdstone's return to prominence in the Belmont help keep that momentum going next season? Ric Waldman, Overbrook's manager of stallion operations, hopes that breeders watching Birdstone's relentless stretch run at Belmont were reminded, as he was, of Grindstone's Derby, when the Unbridled colt wore down Cavonnier and just nipped him at the wire.

Grindstone is undeniably well bred. His sire, Unbridled, won the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, and his dam is the Grade 1-winning Drone mare Buzz My Bell. In addition to his Derby win, Grindstone won the Grade 3 Louisiana Derby, and he finished second by a neck in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby. But he was very lightly raced, starting just six times. He injured himself winning the Derby and never raced again.

Retired to Overbrook with an initial fee of $20,000, he covered about 70 mares in 1997 and again in 1998. "He wasn't particularly well received at $20,000," Waldman said. "There were a couple of factors. First, he rose from relative obscurity to winning the Derby, then he went back into obscurity when he retired. It hardly gave the public much time to learn who he was. This business is one of what have you done for me lately, and his 'lately' was a pretty small window.

"The other factor was that Unbridled, who roared off to a great start at stud, got a little cold awaiting improvement in the mares he bred after his first crop of runners. That made it difficult to have a hot sire line to attach to Grindstone's name."

Although his book expanded to 87 mares in 2002, Grindstone wasn't getting the kind of early results on the racetrack that a stallion needs to stay competitive in Kentucky's deep stallion population. Grindstone had three North American stakes winners and a single graded stakes winner, Ommadon, when breeders started booking their mares in early 2003, and his number of mates fell to just 36 that season. By then, Overbrook had dropped his fee to $5,000.

"There wasn't much more we could do to grab breeders," Waldman said.

What Grindstone needed was a marquee horse, and Birdstone came along at exactly the right time to showcase the stallion's potential. Other factors, including Unbridled's rise as a sire, also helped, Waldman said.

"Combined with the fact that Grindstone is by Unbridled, is himself a Kentucky Derby winner, and was standing for $5,000, that made him awfully attractive to breeders around the United States," he said. Overbrook raised Grindstone's fee to $7,500 in the middle of the 2004 breeding season.

The "Birdstone effect" might have been even more pronounced if he had gone on to add the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to his Champagne win and 12-length Saratoga maiden victory last year. But trainer Nick Zito shelved Birdstone after the Champagne in preparation for the tough Triple Crown campaign in 2004. If Birdstone, son and grandson of Derby winners, had won on the first Saturday in May, the advertising would have been priceless. But a Belmont win is important, too, Waldman said.

"When you're the only horse to beat Smarty Jones, I don't care if the race was three furlongs or 2 1/2 miles," he said. "More importantly, there's no way Birdstone can be stuck with the 'Belmont plodder' stigma, because he won the Champagne at 2, and his maiden win at 2 was devastating. I think the Belmont only underscores his versatility."

Grindstone's supporters hope the result will also underscore the stallion's name in breeders' minds, too. Waldman said he doesn't know yet whether Grindstone's fee will go up again; that decision will be made in the fall. Overbrook has had "significant interest" in the stallion from overseas buyers, Waldman said, but there are no plans to sell Grindstone anytime soon. Aside from his good bloodlines, Grindstone also has a great deal of sentimental value for the Young family. He is the family's sole Derby winner, he is a homebred, and the circumstances of his breeding make him even more special to them.

W. T. Young, who died earlier this year, bought a $30,000 Unbridled season at a fund-raiser for the Kentucky Derby Museum, used the season for Buzz My Bell, and got Grindstone.

"We might have been a little disappointed, but we weren't losing faith in him," Waldman said of the stallion's early breeding career. "We still proudly own this horse, and we plan to do so for a long time."