02/20/2004 1:00AM

A broodmare helps rebuild an empire


Marylou Whitney went looking for the empire's old bloodlines soon after her husband, C.V. Whitney, died in 1992. Her goal was to restore the famed Whitney stable to prominence. But she had no idea she would find its new cornerstone so close to home.

Whitney bought Dear Birdie, who was out of the C.V. Whitney mare Hush Dear, less than a mile down the road from her own farm on Bryan Station Road in Lexington, Ky. She bought Dear Birdie privately for $50,000, a price that seemed a little high at the time for a mare who had placed in a small turf stakes and earned only $30,430. Ten years later, the price looks cheap.

Dear Birdie has unexpectedly turned into a candidate for Broodmare of the Year as the dam of 2003 champion 3-year-old filly and Kentucky Oaks winner Bird Town and the 2003 Champagne Stakes winner Birdstone. Every foal she has produced for Whitney has turned out to be a winner, a happy result for any breeder. But the magnitude of Bird Town and Birdstone's accomplishments for trainer Nick Zito were more than Whitney, or anyone, ever expected. The two runners have put the Whitney family's fabled blue and brown silks back where they belong - in the winner's circle.

"So many people told her she should sell that mare," said Whitney's husband, John Hendrickson. "But she wouldn't do it. I don't think she'll sell her now!"

There was a close call, though. Whitney actually gave Dear Birdie away to C. V. Whitney's nephew, Leverett Miller, who is the breeder of record for the mare's 2002 Pioneering colt, now named So Long Birdie.

"At that point, she wasn't producing any Grade 1 winners," Hendrickson said. After breeding Dear Birdie to Silver Charm, Miller planned to put the mare into a breeding stock auction. In light of Bird Town's success, Whitney decided to buy her privately, and she did.

Anyone who has an old-line broodmare in his barn can take hope from Dear Birdie that, yes, good breeding eventually does show. That was the idea from the start for Marylou Whitney when she started to hunt down mares who hailed from the long and fertile line of blue-blooded mares that her husband's father, Harry Payne Whitney, had bred and raced so well from 1915 to his death in 1930. In fact, she was following in Harry's footsteps, albeit on a smaller scale, when she went looking for those old bloodlines; Harry Payne Whitney did some of that himself after his father, William Collins Whitney, died and many of the estate's horses went up for sale.

"I'd been trying for a number of years to acquire the Whitney mares," Marylou Whitney recalled recently. "I thought, 'If I'm going to do well in racing, I don't know much about it, but I'm going to get the best mares.' I wanted so much to get Dear Birdie, and it was sentimental as much as anything. She goes back to You All and Honey Dear on her female side."

The sentimentality, Whitney said, wasn't only to do with the Whitneys' quality horses. The horses were also reminders of her life with C.V., or "Sonny," as he was known.

"Sonny would sometimes say, 'Shut up!'" his widow recalled. "And I would say, 'Don't say that. Say 'Hush, dear' instead. So we went from Honey Dear, which was another name he called me, to Hush Dear!"

The way Marylou Whitney remembers the story, Hush Dear's daughter Dear Birdie, by Storm Bird, was cataloged to a Keeneland sale in 1992 but ended up scratching.

"It wasn't a great sale, but I thought I'd try to get her," Whitney recalled. "But when I got there, she wasn't there."

Whitney finally discovered that Dear Birdie was boarding at Trackview Farm, but, she said, "no one knew where the farm was."

It turned out to be less than a mile down the road from her own front door. As Whitney tells the story, she bumped into Trackview's entrance one day while she was driving near her property.

"It was a mom-and-pop operation," she said, "and Dear Birdie was out in a field. Not that she wasn't taken care of, but it wasn't the way we do it at Whitney Farm. She wasn't in great shape, but I didn't care. I wanted her. I had to have her."

Trackview's owner, Jean Craven, boarded Dear Birdie for the mare's Arkansas owners, Mr. and Mrs. James Winn. Craven, who has owned the 45-acre farm for 15 years, strongly disputes any notion that Dear Birdie "wasn't in great shape," and she remembers the mare as "big and fat and pregnant" when Whitney arrived to look at her.

"She was a very nice mare, easygoing and easy to work around," Craven said of Dear Birdie. "The Winns had bought a lot of mares to breed to their stallion Proper Reality, and she was one of them. Basically, they were buying mares, breeding them to Proper Reality, and then selling them to distribute his foals, as a way of helping to make Proper Reality as a stallion. Dear Birdie was a pretty, correct mare, a medium-sized chestnut with average bone. She was well put together and well-balanced."

Whitney called the Winns and - depending on who you talk to - either made her own offer of $50,000 or immediately agreed to pay the asking price of $50,000.

"She was in foal to Proper Reality, and she foaled the most horrible-looking thing, a filly," Whitney said. "Tommy Kelly was my trainer then, and when he looked at her, he said, 'She hasn't got any legs, and she's so sick-looking!' I had all sorts of people look at her, and they said, 'Oh, Marylou, put her down.' But I couldn't put her down."

Instead, Whitney named the ungainly filly Honey Bird and put her in training. She went on to win almost $97,000. "When that happened," Whitney said, "I really believed more and more in this mare."

Honey Bird was born in 1993. Some other creditable earners followed, most notably $100,000 earner Brave All the Way, by Cryptoclearance, in 1995. But it wasn't until 1998 that Dear Birdie produced a stakes performer, in the Mt. Livermore filly Mountain Bird, who went on to be Grade 2-placed. Bird Town, foaled in 2000, was Dear Birdie's first stakes winner, followed the next year by another Grade 1 winner, Birdstone.

Bird Town and Birdstone, by far Dear Birdie's best runners to date, have something else in common: they are both by young stallions owned by W.T. Young. Bird Town is by Cape Town, and Birdstone is by Grindstone. Whitney and Hendrickson described Young as "a close friend," and say they are pleased that Bird Town's and Birdstone's successes have helped to raise their young sires' profiles.

Hendrickson said that Cape Town in particular appealed to him because his dam, Seaside Attraction, is a daughter of Seattle Slew.

"Seattle Slew blood mixes well with the Whitney bloodlines," said Hendrickson, a pedigree student who is also one of his wife's chief advisors on Thoroughbred matings. "Arthur Hancock once said to me, 'I look at matings the way you'd look at a salad or a soup: I try to find the missing ingredient.' So I look for what the mare's bloodlines might be missing, and I try to find it in the stallion."

Whitney credits Hendrickson with helping her make the most of the Whitney bloodlines now. "I think my problem was that I was doing too much inbreeding at first," she said. "You need to outcross."

Hendrickson said Dear Birdie would be bred to 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft this season. Mineshaft, a son of A.P. Indy, is a grandson of Seattle Slew.

Dear Birdie, now 17, seems to have entered her best production years. She currently is not in foal but has a yearling Silver Charm colt that Whitney is very pleased with, partly because Silver Charm also has some of the prized Whitney blood in him - through his sire Silver Buck's second dam, Silver Fog.

"I like lots of Silver Fog in my stud," Whitney said. "Everything in my stud has Whitney blood. I believe in it. Sonny had such good luck with it and was such an astute breeder. Not only did he study breeding all the time, but he also looked at each horse."

Whitney and Hendrickson hope that the double-dose of old Whitney bloodlines in the Silver Charm-Dear Birdie colt's pedigree will help him live up to the high expectations Bird Town and Birdstone have inspired. They already have one good omen, in his foaling date.

"The day after Bird Town won the Oaks, we got the call that Dear Birdie had foaled, right as the [Kentucky] Derby horses were going to post," Whitney said.

But even if Dear Birdie never produces another classic winner, she undoubtedly will be a great favorite of her owner.

"She's a sweetheart," Whitney said. "People may laugh at this, but even our friends have noticed that when I'm in the barn, Bird Town and Birdstone will turn toward me and look when they hear my voice. It's the same way with Dear Birdie. We have a feeling for each other.

"Maybe it's my imagination, but she does stop and turn around and look at me. I think what happened is that I spent so much time with her when she wasn't well. I lived on the farm then, and my life was just me and my horses.

"She's given me so much pleasure, and she means so much to me. To have this great filly, Bird Town - well, I just can't believe it happened to me! You never know where you might find something. Thank God I happened to go down that road and find Dear Birdie."