05/09/2002 11:00PM

Derby winner a long time coming

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MIDWAY, Ky. - Not much has changed at Charlie Nuckols Jr.'s farm since last Saturday, the day War Emblem finally gave the Nuckols family's century-old Thoroughbred breeding operation its first Kentucky Derby victory.

In fact, little has changed on the Nuckols family property in the last 110 years, when Charlie Nuckols's grandfather traded some land near Versailles for the parcel in Midway that has become a birthplace of champions. The farm has grown since then - it now covers 1,150 acres - and Charlie and his brother Alfred have since divided the family's land into two breeding operations, Hurstland and Charles Nuckols Jr., and Sons.

But the family's philosophy remains much the same as it was at the turn of the last century, when they began breeding racehorses: Breed for soundness, take care of the land that feeds your horses, and don't spend good money chasing fashion when you can breed to a less-expensive stallion with a solid record.

Charlie Nuckols Jr., learned those lessons from his father, Charles Sr., who was the first to raise Thoroughbreds on the family's land. Now 79, Charlie Nuckols Jr., has found no reason to change. The Nuckols way has produced a dozen champions, half of whom were bred by Charlie, and about 300 stakes-winners over the years. War Emblem's front-running Derby win finally has given the Nuckols name a permanent place in Kentucky Derby history.

The only part of this tale that astonishes people who know Charlie Nuckols is that it took him this long to get his Derby. He has come close before; he and Alfred bred No Le Hace, who finished second to Riva Ridge in 1972.

"I've heard from hundreds of people," an amazed Nuckols said recently as he sat in his farm office. "Really, I know it's a great honor, but I didn't expect all this."

Nuckols watched the Derby at his Midway home with daughter Judy Offutt, one of four children he and his late wife Louise, who died in 1999, had. War Emblem's victory left him speechless, but once he found words again, Nuckols made a congratulatory call himself, to Chicago steel executive Russell Reineman. Nuckols and Reineman, 85, have one of Thoroughbred breeding's longest-running and most fruitful partnerships, and War Emblem - whom Reineman raced until selling 90 percent of the colt to The Thoroughbred Corp. for $900,000 three weeks before the Derby - is a product of that friendship.

Reineman keeps about 35 mares with Nuckols and owned War Emblem's dam, the Lord at War mare Sweetest Chant. But, as with all his mares, Reineman leased Sweetest Chant to Nuckols, making Nuckols War Emblem's breeder of record. But it's more than a technicality, Reineman said of Nuckols's role in the Reineman program.

"Charlie does all the matings, selects the stallions, takes the mares to the stallions," Reineman said. "How can I take credit for breeding the horses when he's the one who has earned it?"

Reineman sent his first mares to Nuckols in 1960, on the recommendation of A. B. "Bull" Hancock, owner of Claiborne Farm. The association immediately got off to a successful start when the first mating Nuckols planned for a Reineman mare resulted in Smart Deb, a champion juvenile filly of 1962.

"The most enjoyable part of the business is trying to raise a stakes-winner," Nuckols said. "I don't breed to the top, top stallions, but I try to find the right cross for pedigree and conformation. It's the most joyous thing to see a little foal come into the world weighing 75 or 80 pounds, raise him and sell him, and see him become a stakes winner. It's a challenge, and you're trying to make the point that you can raise a good horse."

The good horses Charlie Nuckols has raised over the years also have included North American champions Hidden Lake, Typecast, Decathlon, White Skies, and Grecian Queen.

"I let them raise themselves," he said. "We don't put them on a walker, we just turn them out at night and let them exercise. Some people put yearlings on a treadmill or a walker because they think it muscles them up. But you take a treadmill horse to the sale, and when the buyer takes him home and turns him out, he'll fall apart like a melted ice-cream cone."

Nuckols remembers War Emblem well, not so much because he looked like a future star but because he had an unusually uneventful early life, avoiding the scrapes and accidents that boisterous Thoroughbred colts often bring upon themselves.

"He never got sick, never got hurt," Nuckols said. "He was a good, clean, sound colt."

Nuckols bred Sweetest Lady, whom he described as "a medium-sized mare who was very hard to fault" to Our Emblem, who stood then at Claiborne Farm for a $10,000 fee, partly because he liked the stallion's regal pedigree as a son of Mr. Prospector and champion Personal Ensign. But Nuckols also liked the stallion's speed, and, as he put it, "He wasn't an expensive stud horse."

"I was looking for speed," he said. "Sweetest Lady was by The Pruner, by Herbager, and Herbager needed some distance. And I figured something good had to come out of Our Emblem's family."

When War Emblem failed to reach his reserve at the Keeneland September yearling sale and Reineman bought him back for $20,000, Nuckols was surprised. But when the colt developed into a fast front-runner for Reineman, Nuckols wasn't surprised a bit.

"Sweetest Lady's daddy was Lord at War, and he ran just like this horse," Nuckols said. "He'd go to the front and, you know, it was 'Catch me if you can.' "

Heading into the 2002 Derby, Nuckols figured War Emblem might throw down the same gauntlet to his rivals, and he made a wager of an undisclosed amount on the 20-1 colt.

"Tell the truth, I looked at the Beyer on all of them, and War Emblem had a 112 when the next nearest had a 104," Nuckols said. "That's a lot of difference."

Since the Derby, the phone has been ringing with congratulations and reporters' questions, but that doesn't change the fact that Nuckols and his sons Charles "Nucks" Nuckols III and Jim have about 175 mares and foals and four stallions - Jambalaya Jazz, Home at Last, Play Fellow, and Stalwart - to tend to.

"No, by golly, we're all still the same," Nuckols laughs when asked if the Derby win has made life feel different. "I remember when I was in high school, I made all-state and all-Southern in football. I asked my dad, 'Aren't you proud of me?' He said, 'Sure am, right now. But in another year, no one will be able to tell you your name.' I feel the same way about this now."

Nuckols's father is a continuing presence at the farm, long after his death in 1951 gave Charlie and brothers Alfred and Hiram the responsibility of running the family's farming interests.

"He'd have been happy about this," Nuckols said of his late father. "Now, well, I'd like to see the Nuckols name in Triple Crown history."