06/10/2004 11:00PM

Birdstone has two winning families


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Every sport has traditions, but no sport has a sense of time and continuity like horse racing. The 136th Belmont Stakes shows the link between horses and families, with the winner, Birdstone, bred and raced by Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson.

The Whitneys have been involved in racing for more than a century, and their influence has been significant. New York has been the family's focus in the sport, and Saratoga's most important stakes for older horses bears the family name. Marylou's late husband, C.V. "Sonny" Whitney, bred and raced Counterpoint, winner of the 1951 Belmont Stakes, and owned the 1948 Belmont winner, Phalanx.

Birdstone's fourth dam, Honey Dear, is by Counterpoint, who was the 1951 Horse of the Year and a son of Triple Crown winner Count Fleet. Whitney bred and raced Birdstone's second dam, Hush Dear, and third dam, You All.

C.V. Whitney acquired Birdstone's family from the dispersal of horses owned by the Idle Hour Stock Farm of E.R. Bradley in the 1940's. Bradley bred a few generations from the family after importing the mare Vaila to Idle Hour following her purchase during the first World War. Vaila produced Miss Jemima, the first top-class racer by Bradley's great stallion Black Toney. Both Birdstone and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones trace back to families that Bradley developed at Idle Hour.

C.V. Whitney had considerable racing success with the family. Hush Dear won the Long Island and Diana handicaps twice each, as well as the Tidal Handicap over colts; You All won the Ashland; and Honey Dear won the New York Handicap and ran second in the Spinaway.

The Echo Valley Farm of Don Sucher purchased Hush Dear for $1.15 million at the Keeneland November sale in 1984 when the mare was not in foal. Her daughter Dear Birdie, the dam of Birdstone, raced for Echo Valley but was sold on the racetrack.

Marylou Whitney then reacquired Dear Birdie.

"Marylou really deserves the credit because she went out and bought her from Juanita Winn," Hendrickson said. "And for a time, Marylou had given the mare to Lev Miller, her nephew, because a lot of people were saying that Marylou didn't need the mare since Dear Birdie hadn't produced any stakes winners or black-type runners."

This refers to Dear Birdie's first half-dozen foals. One good horse changes the perception of failure, however. After Dear Birdie's seventh foal, Mountain Bird (by Mt. Livermore), finished second in the Grade 2 Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland, Hendrickson said, Miller was going to sell the mare.

"So Marylou bought her back privately, because Dear Birdie has so much of the old Whitney breeding," Hendrickson said, "and Marylou wanted to keep it in the family."

Now 17, Dear Birdie reached unexpected peaks this season and last when her daughter Bird Town won the 2003 Kentucky Oaks and Birdstone, a son of Grindstone, won the Belmont Stakes. Producing a pair of Grade 1 winners is rare enough, but having one produce two classic winners is uncommon indeed.

Both Dear Birdie and Bird Town are boarded at Gainesway Farm north of Lexington.

"Dear Birdie is a remarkable mare, and we were delighted for Marylou and John," said Michael Hernon, the farm's director of sales. "Birdstone and Bird Town follow Orientate and a significant number of additional Grade 1 stakes winners to come off the property in the recent past. This property is remarkable in its production of top horses over the years. It is a very fertile belt of land, and neighboring Payson Stud produced champions Farda Amiga and Vindication in the past couple of years."

Currently, Dear Birdie is in foal to Mineshaft, and Bird Town is in foal to Empire Maker.

In selecting mates for Dear Birdie, Hendrickson said: "We have our impressions about mating, and then we go to some of the giants in the game, asking their opinions, and I put those on a spreadsheet. We will discuss it with some of Marylou's friends such as Will Farish, our trainer Nick Zito, and also Bill Young was very important in the mating that produced Birdstone.

"Grindstone won the first Kentucky Derby that I saw in person. And when Mr. Young had me out to Overbrook for lunch, the first thing I wanted to see was Grindstone, and visiting with Mr. Young and getting to see Grindstone were important in deciding to send the mare to Grindstone."

Young also played a role in sharpening the couple's participation in the sport. Hendrickson said Young told him, "I want Marylou to stay in the business. I think you need to get involved."

Even though he admits he isn't a horseman, Hendrickson has played a significant role.

"I'm a convener," he said. "I get the right people together. And having the right people and sound ideas is very important, especially when you're coming into a business that involves a lot of luck and variables. Marylou loves horse racing because the community is very close-knit, and you don't see that in a lot of other businesses. And since I used to be an athlete, racing allows me to get my competitiveness out without exercising."