04/21/2011 1:30PM

Derby contender Toby's Corner causes breeders to call audible


LEXINGTON, Ky. − Interstate 77 and Interstate 95 have seen a lot of Dianne Cotter over the last few years. At 9 a.m. Monday she was driving that route again, headed south and hauling a horse. This year, Cotter made the 8 1/2-hour trip between Elkin, N.C., and Alachua, Fla., to retrieve Tuff Tuc, a 4-year-old Concerto filly who, in retrospect, she gave away too hastily.

Tuff Tuc never raced. Until recently, she had been learning dressage and jumping as a three-day event prospect. That was before April 9, when her homebred half-brother knocked off undefeated juvenile champion Uncle Mo with a neck victory in the Wood Memorial. That win put Toby’s Corner and the Cotters on the road to the Kentucky Derby, and it put Tuff Tuc on I-95 South to the Cotters’ five-horse broodmare band.

“We had given this filly to our daughter and granddaughter to make into an event horse, but, after last weekend, we said, ‘Sorry, we’re taking her away,’ ” said Cotter, 73. She owns 340-acre Snooty Fox Farm in Alachua with her husband, Julian, 78, a retired obstetrician.

“They lose their horses to us all the time,” she said of daughter Carrie and granddaughter Hillary. “They’re always on the verge of becoming eventers, and then we snatch them back.”

In fact, the road trip seems almost obligatory for the mares in Toby’s Corner’s pedigree. His dam, the Mister Frisky mare Brandon’s Ride, was another Cotter homebred who returned from daughter Carrie Irwin’s stable to the Snooty Fox broodmare band. So was Hurry Home Hillary, the dam of Toby’s Corner’s sire, Bellamy Road. After Hurry Home Hillary won only once in six starts, Cotter didn’t think she would make a broodmare. But when Hurry Home Hillary’s Montbrook half-sister Fort Lauderdale brought $390,000 at a 2-year-old sale and went on to place in the Grade 2 Sorrento Stakes, Cotter brought her home again − and got Bellamy Road as a result.

Bellamy Road was the last Derby contender Cotter bred, and it is fitting his son is using the Wood Memorial as a springboard to Churchill Downs. Bellamy Road’s best performance was in the 2005 Wood Memorial, in which he stamped himself the likely Derby favorite with a 17 1/2-length win in record-equaling time. But luck went against him in the Derby: He finished seventh and injured a suspensory. He raced once more, finishing second in the Travers for owner George Steinbrenner, before he entered stud in 2007.

“We’d sold Hurry Home Hillary, so the mare we thought was the best we had was Brandon’s Ride,” said Cotter, a retired nurse. “We felt Bellamy was so great, we wanted one of his foals. We thought about selling Toby’s Corner because we thought we might make some money, and that’s what we’re in breeding for, is to make some money. But then we said, ‘No, we’ve got to keep him.’ ”

Toby’s Corner was born May 4, 2008, at Snooty Fox. If the Cotters had paid attention to nicking patterns, a popular method for selecting matings, he might not have been born at all.

“After I signed the first contract to breed Brandon’s Ride to Bellamy, I decided to do a nicking report, just for the heck of it,” Cotter said. “It came out an F-minus. So that’s how much nicking had to do with it. I’m sure you can breed your best mare by Giant’s Causeway or Storm Cat and you’d probably have a better chance of getting a great horse. But we can’t do that, so we do the way we do, and it seems to have been working.

“He didn’t race until late as a 2-year-old, and I think we’ve given him enough time,” Cotter said of Toby’s Corner, now trained by Graham Motion. “We haven’t pushed him. The longer between races, the better. He’s going to mature a lot more.”

Cotter said she thinks Toby’s Corner compares well with his sire.

“Both Bellamy and Toby, the whole time we had them, they couldn’t have been sweeter, easier horses to take care of,” she said. “They’re alike in personality and in their heads. I say they have a not very attractive head − my husband says it’s a gorgeous head.”

In fact, it was a Thoroughbred’s beautiful head that got the Cotters into the breeding business nearly 40 years ago. Julian, eager to join his kids out riding, went shopping for a riding horse and came back with a pregnant Thoroughbred mare named Banished Queen. Julian bought her, he told his wife, because she had the prettiest head he’d ever seen on a horse. The resulting foal, Mightier Mike, made his first start in 1976 at 3 and his last in 1983 at age 10. And he, too, did some time as a competitive three-day eventer, too.

In 1994, the Cotters got their big break when mid-Atlantic trainer Jim McGreevy suggested they buy a 4-year-old Cozzene filly named Ten Cents a Turn.

At first, it looked like a mistake.

“This mare, she would come out of the starting gate and take an immediate right,” Cotter said. “It didn’t matter what surface she was on, she just took a right. She was terrible. Finally, the jockeys wouldn’t get on her anymore, so we had no option but to send her home.”

McGreevy recommended breeding Ten Cents a Turn to Deputed Testamony on her way back to Florida. Even that didn’t go as planned.

“We had her checked twice while she was up there, and both times she was declared not in foal,” Cotter said. “So we brought her home and waited for spring to breed her again. But she started looking peculiar. So we had the vet check her, and he said, ‘The good news is, you’re going to have a foal in about three weeks.’ And that was Hurry Home Hillary.”

The Cotters sold Hurry Home Hillary back in 2005 for $800,000 to the family of Saudi Arabian king Abdullah bin Adulaziz. Now it looks like Brandon’s Ride could be the next big mare in the Cotters’ five-mare band.

But that, too, required a change of plan. The Cotters primarily are commercial breeders. Since the economy crashed in 2008, they have opted to breed only one or two of their small band each year. In 2010, only one mare made the cut, and it wasn’t Brandon’s Ride. The Cotters didn’t plan to breed her this year, either, but that all changed when Toby’s Corner won the Whirlaway in February. Not surprisingly, they have sent Brandon’s Ride back to Bellamy Road, who stands at Pauls Mill in Kentucky for $10,000.

Will they keep this future foal?

“I think if it’s a filly we’ll keep her, and if it’s a colt we’ll sell him,” Cotter said. “But that’s three years from now, and there’s not much way to know ahead of time.”