08/28/2009 11:00PM

Birdstone rewards Whitney's faith


The spring classics made it official: There has been a rebirth of the Whitney family bloodlines, thanks to Birdstone and Marylou Whitney.

It has been a long time coming. Whitney, the widow of C.V. "Sonny" Whitney and an owner and breeder in her own right, pledged to reacquire the family's bloodlines after C.V. Whitney's death in 1992. She wanted to bring new luster to one of the sport's most productive breeding empires by tracking down and breeding to that famous old blood. Whitney's homebred Birdstone, a small stallion who stands for the decidedly middle-class fee of $10,000, might appear to be an unlikely hero in this tale. But his owner, now 84, never lost faith that Whitney blood will out, thanks to Birdstone's dam, Dear Birdie.

"I think Dear Birdie is a very great broodmare," Whitney said. "She goes back to my favorite broodmares. She goes back to Honey Dear. Honey Dear ran into a fence when she was a yearling on the farm. They pulled all of this wood, splinters out of her breast. They said she was fine and sewed her up. So she went on to run, and she won her first race. But then pus kept coming out. We found she still had splinters in her side. She ran with them still there and won. She had the will to win, even as she was suffering. What a mare. I had to find out if I could ever find foals from that line again."

As Whitney put it, Dear Birdie was "the last thing from that line." When the mare scratched out of an auction, Whitney bought her privately for $50,000.

"I was so lucky - can you believe it?" Whitney said. "So I think Birdstone is no surprise. Think of Dear Birdie, and think of Honey Dear: They've all got great heart. As Sonny said, 'They have the will to win.' "

The question now is how the success of Birdstone's runners in this year's Triple Crown - Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby and Summer Bird in the Belmont Stakes - will affect the sale prices of his yearlings. Things look good for Birdstone, so far. His sole yearling to sell at auction in 2009, a son of Slew Smarts that Dapple Stud entered in the Fasig-Tipton July select sale, brought a session-topping $400,000 from Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum. That was the auction's second-highest price, behind a $425,000 Medaglia d'Oro-Ting a Folie filly that Maktoum also bought.

Birdstone had no yearlings entered in the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale, but he has 15 in the Keeneland September catalog, nine colts and six fillies. There are fillies out of A Touch of Romance, Ida Treat, Miss Tippins, and Tango, and colts out of Elle Nicole, Holidaisy, Judiths Rumour, Mikeandmegandrew, Spa, Spanish Melody, Star Wisper, and Zamgo. And there are three out of stakes producers. These are Toogie Pine, whose Birdstone filly is a half-sister to graded-placed Wollemi Pine; Trail Guide, dam of a half-sister to stakes winner Georgia's Joey and stakes-placed Sassy Skipper; and Sing and Swing, a stakes winner herself and dam of a half-brother to stakes-placed Got That Swing.

When he entered stud in 2005 at Gainesway, Birdstone had good credentials. He was a half-brother to champion 3-year-old filly of 2003 Bird Town. He won the Champagne at 2, came back at 3 to spoil Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, then took the Travers. Still, at stud, few people saw Birdstone as a good commercial gamble. He is small at 15-3 hands, and his own sire, W.T. Young's 1996 Derby winner Grindstone, had not been regarded as a sire of sires.

"But the stallions of W.T. Young's seemed to fit in with our Whitney blood," Whitney said. "So when I was looking for a sire, I thought let's try him. And he'd won the Derby. Stamina, that's what I want. It's what Sonny wanted, and it's what I want. I don't even care if I race a 2-year-old. Three-year-olds and 4-year-olds are the ones that count."

But stamina is not always what Kentucky's commercial breeders want, and they had some doubt that Birdstone would get the kind of early-maturing runners that many buyers seem to like. Whitney and Gainesway decided to set Birdstone's fee at a reasonable $10,000 and worked hard to market the stallion to prospective breeders. But Whitney was confident that Birdstone had the right stuff to get classic winners, said her husband, John Hendrickson.

"We understood that Smarty Jones was the star that year, and we had to give Birdstone a shot by making him attractive to everyday breeders," Hendrickson, 44, said. "In order to have success, we had to have runners. Some people said, 'If you stand him at $10,000, people will think you think he was a fluke.' But it was never about that. It was about him having a chance."

Still, it was a struggle to fill Birdstone's first book, and Whitney gave away a few seasons to friends and business associates, much as her old friend Young did to establish Storm Cat's first book back in the 1980s. It's too early to know whether Birdstone will become as commercially popular as Storm Cat eventually did, but Birdstone's first crop of 3-year-olds have done exactly what Whitney hoped they would do: won classic races. In addition to victories from Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, Birdstone also got the second-place finisher in the Kentucky Oaks, Stone Legacy. His other stakes winners are Livin Lovin, a Grade 3 winner last season at 2, and 2009 stakes winner Texas Birdstone.

Birdstone trails only Rachel Alexandra's sire, Medaglia d'Oro, on the list of second-crop sires, with more than $3.1 million in progeny earnings.

"If he does nothing more, we'll be happy," Hendrickson said.

Despite Birdstone's success, Hendrickson said he, Whitney, and Gainesway resisted the temptation to raise his fee midseason, and plans for his 2010 fee are still uncertain.

"We're going to take everything into consideration," Hendrickson said. "The economy is very important, as is his reputation. I would imagine he will go up, but the year's not done yet. We'll decide in October in consultation with Gainesway. But we'll give preference to people who have been supporting him all along."

Hendrickson said he expects they will keep Birdstone's book at "not much more than 100" for the next couple of years.

After Mine That Bird won the Derby, Whitney and Hendrickson paid Birdstone a visit at Gainesway to leave red roses outside his stall door. When Summer Bird won the Belmont, they were in New York but ordered white carnations, which Gainesway staff placed there in Birdstone's honor.

"We've had offers to buy this horse, but it adds years to both of our lives to have this horse doing so well, and you can't buy that," Hendrickson said.

Dear Birdie, the 2004 broodmare of the year, is 22 now, and Whitney is unlikely to breed her again, Hendrickson said.

"She's been unbelievable to Marylou," he said. "She's carrying a filly by Street Cry. She looks like she's about 13 or 14 at the most, but she's a lot older and she doesn't owe us a thing."

Whitney, on the other hand, feels that she owes both Birdstone and Dear Birdie a debt of gratitude for fulfilling her dream and breathing new life into the favorite bloodlines of the Whitneys.

"When she set out to do this, some advisers told her that sometimes these old bloodlines wear themselves out," Hendrickson said. "But she believed passionately that they don't. She went back to get the Silver Fog line and the You All and Hush Dear line. Those are the two main strands that we have. Anything that goes back to Silver Fog, she's tried to get. And anything that has You All and Hush Dear, she's tried to attain. A lot of people said she'd put a lot of time and money toward this when there were a lot more fashionable horses out there like Storm Cat. But she was a big believer that she wanted stamina. She's proven this blood doesn't just die out."