01/16/2004 12:00AM

Breeder Ryan at 71: What, me retire?

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Call it luck, or label him a genius. Either way, Jim Ryan's success over the past 25 years at breeding and racing Maryland-breds has been a wonder to behold.

First to gain national fame were his back-to-back Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old fillies Smart Angle (1979) and Heavenly Cause (1980). Then came Belmont Stakes winner Caveat (1983).

Ryan conducted a major dispersal of his horse holdings in 1989, selling 80 horses and seven stallion shares for slightly more than $10 million. But instead of leaving the business, he launched into a new era of his horse breeding career, and soon came up with a new group of stars that included $3 million earner Awad and Grade 1 winner Ops Smile.

Is it true that Ryan, 71, is about to fade from the racing scene? No way, says the genial retired homebuilder, who over the years has donated a substantial portion of his runners' earnings to improve the quality of life for backstretch workers.

Ryan continues to participate in a lower key, and if the past is any indication, a big horse could come along at any time. Meanwhile, an ultra-consistent 4-year-old gelding named Irish Colony is helping Ryan maintain his enthusiasm. Trained by Ron Cartwright, Irish Colony has taken Ryan to the winner's circle in two of his last three outings, all at Laurel Park. Irish Colony rose to local fame last fall, capturing the starter handicap on Maryland Million Day and becoming the first stakes winner for his sire, Larrupin'. Ryan owns Larrupin' in partnership with his daughter Barbara Ryan. A son of Mr. Prospector, Larrupin' stands at Green Willow Farms in Westminster, Md.

Planning matings - Ryan's forte - still consumes countless hours of his time. "When you race a horse, the trainer basically makes the decisions," said Ryan. "But breeding is where the owner of the horse can really get involved and make choices that have a big impact on the outcome. I have always enjoyed looking at all the possibilities--the nicks, comparing the size of horses. I spend a lot of time on it, and it's relaxing to me."

It has been more than a decade since Ryan maintained a farm. Ryehill Farm in Mt. Airy, Md., birthplace of his champions, is now the site of an 88-lot housing development. The main barn was converted into a home. Ryan stays connected to the property by keeping a few horses on a 30-acre remnant that contains several run-in sheds and a tenant house. That land now belongs to the county, and Ryan pays a yearly fee for its use.

Ryan's seven broodmares primarily are boarded at nearby Derby Hill Farm. He has six horses currently racing with four different trainers - Cartwright and King Leatherbury in Maryland, David Walters at Charles Town, and David Donk in Florida.

He also owns shares in the stallions Awad, Eastover Court, and Mojave Moon. "For the last three years I've bred a lot of my mares to Awad [at Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City, Md.] and Larrupin', to try to get them off to a good start," he said. "Both of them are doing better as their runners get older. Awad's first crop are now 4-year-olds. Northview told me that a lot of people are not even trying to race Awad's runners until they turn 3, and that they get better with the opportunity to go longer."

Three of Ryan's five children are active in the Thoroughbred business. His son Dan, who has always preferred racing to breeding, has more than 35 horses in training with Maryland-based conditioner Mike Pino, according to Ryan. Another son, Jim, breeds and raises horses at his Ryver Meadow Farm in Carroll County, Md. Barbara Ryan, previously in the business in Kentucky, maintains Thunder Hill Farm in Myersville, Md.

* Maryland Horse Breeders Thoroughbred Weekly will launch its second 13-week television series on Feb. 8, not Jan. 25 as previously planned. The show airs at noon on Sundays on ABC 2 WMAR in Baltimore.