09/30/2009 11:00PM

DRF Weekend: Ramseys bank heavily on Kitten's Joy


LEXINGTON, Ky. - This year's freshman sire race is unusually close and interesting. As of Sept. 29, the top five freshmen by progeny earnings were each separated by between $15,000 and $64,000, so that just a win or two, or a decent stakes placing, could reshuffle the rankings.

There are a few other things that jump out about this year's freshman sire list. On a poignant note, the leader is deceased Proud Accolade with $642,187. Two of the top five sires, Proud Accolade and third-ranked Wildcat Heir, are from Florida, not Kentucky. And the fees of the current top 10 freshmen are relatively low. Only three of those horses stood for more than $10,000 this year; they are second-ranked Kitten's Joy, number four Roman Ruler, and fifth-ranked Afleet Alex, who all stood for $20,000 in 2009. The rest range in fee from a low of $5,000 for sixth-ranked Pollard's Vision to the $10,000 fees of Limehouse (No. 8) and Value Plus (No. 9). That's good news for breeders bargain-hunting in the poor economy.

Grass champion Kitten's Joy is a particular surprise in an era when "leading freshman sire" often is synonymous with "early-maturing sprinter."

Ken Ramsey and his wife, Sarah, chose to stand Kitten's Joy, a son of El Prado, instead of their Dubai World Cup winner Roses in May. The idea was to sell one and use the money to buy mares for the other one. Kitten's Joy won out over the Devil His Due horse Roses in May on the strength of his pedigree.

Much of the horse's success is due to Ramsey's decision, as he put it, "to go all in" on the sire. The Ramseys bred, own, or planned the matings for 13 of Kitten's Joy's 14 winners to date. Kitten's Joy has had between 100 and 135 mares each season, the majority owned at the time by the Ramseys.

"As I speak to you now, minus the four we just sold at Keeneland, I've got 342 Kitten's Joy offspring," Ramsey said. "That's counting the 2-year-olds I've got, basically 100 yearlings and 100 weanlings I've got, and the ones that are in the oven. I'm either gonna get rich off this horse or go bankrupt!"

Ramsey said he knew American commercial breeders probably would shy away from a turf champion, so he has worked to build clientele from international breeders who want turf pedigrees. Most recently, he sent 12 broodmares to Australia carrying Kitten's Joy foals.

"I said to myself, why don't we try to have a worldwide stallion?" Ramsey said. "If he can sire winners of international races, then to heck with the people who wouldn't breed to him because he wouldn't get 2-year-old winners over 4 1/2 furlongs at Keeneland."

The Forest Wildcat horse Wildcat Heir helped launch Crystal and Brent Fernung's Journeyman Stud in Florida in August 2007. Brent Fernung managed Wildcat Heir's first two seasons at CloverLeaf Farms II, and relocated when owner John Sykes closed that operation.

"He started out early in the year and keeps adding winners," Fernung said of Wildcat Heir, who stood for $6,500 this year and has 20 winners so far. "I think he's the perfect Florida horse. They're very precocious, very fast, sound horses, so they get to the races early."

It's no surprise to see Hill 'n' Dale sire Roman Ruler and Gainesway stallion Afleet Alex among the top five. Roman Ruler, by Fusaichi Pegasus, is a half-brother to the good sire El Corredor and was a speedy juvenile, while Afleet Alex was a Grade 1 winner at 2 who became a 3-year-old champion. Both looked likely to earn commercial breeders' support and stand at large stallion operations with good marketing budgets.

But just $2,402 below Afleet Alex in sixth place is Pollard's Vision, who hails from Wintergreen Stallion Station's five-stallion roster.

Wintergreen bred more than 100 mares to this Carson City horse in his first season, when he stood for $10,000, and the book has paid off with such runners as Blind Luck, the Del Mar Debutante Stakes runner-up who is expected to run in the Oct. 4 Oak Leaf, and three stakes winners.

"He's given all these horses his heart," said Wintergreen co-owner John Greely IV. "He was a fighter when he was a foal, a yearling, at the racetrack, and today. He's passed that on to his foals. They all want to compete and win."

Ramsey, Fernung, and Greely all say they haven't made any decision yet on whether to raise their horses' stud fees for 2010. A banner year for an inexpensive sire used to make fee raises almost automatic, but this year's bleak Thoroughbred market will make the poor economy a larger factor than usual in stallion owners' decisions. Still, having a horse high on the freshman list is a hedge against hard times. All three say they have had more inquiries about their horses already, even as active broodmare numbers decline.

"It's a great calling card," said Greely, who stands Pollard's Vision. "Everybody's taking notice."