06/01/2004 11:00PM

Elusive Quality: From solid to star

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - The day after Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby, trainer John Servis and his wife, Sherry, gathered up the family to escape the post-race hubbub in Louisville. They drove east on I-64 for about an hour, until they reached the edge of Versailles in Woodford County. They were making a sentimental pilgrimage to the place where the Smarty Jones story began - Gainsborough Farm.

On March 18, 2000, the Gainsborough stallion Elusive Quality covered the mare I'll Get Along, who gave birth to Smarty Jones on Feb. 28, 2001. The mating was just one of 106 for Elusive Quality in 2000, but its result has had spectacular impact - and not only for Servis, Smarty Jones's owners Roy and Pat Chapman, and jockey Stewart Elliott. Smarty Jones's bid for the Triple Crown has put 11-year-old Elusive Quality, a Gone West horse, at the top of North America's sire rankings and solidified his reputation as a bright young star among stallions. It comes at an opportune moment for the stallion and his handlers, who are unabashedly proud of his role in the Smarty Jones story.

"He brought all his family, his wife, his parents, his cousins," recalled Gainsborough stallion manager Steve Clark, referring to the visit by Servis. "There were about 25 people. They got the horse out and had their pictures taken with him. And it was like we all really knew each other because we had the Smarty Jones bond."

To casual racegoers, the Smarty Jones bond might seem pretty tenuous by the time it stretches from Philadelphia and Belmont Park to Versailles, Ky. But Elusive Quality and the Gainsborough staff played a critical role.

From a strict business sense, a Triple Crown hopeful can give his sire a powerful boost. Smarty Jones certainly has done that by contributing his 2004 earnings - including the $5 million bonus he received for winning the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby - to his sire's progeny earnings. That jumped Elusive Quality to the top of the North American stallion rankings with a staggering $8.6 million in progeny earnings this season. He leads the second-place stallion, the late Pleasant Colony (sire of Pleasantly Perfect), by more than $4.2 million. Without Smarty Jones's contribution of more than $7.3 million, Elusive Quality would rank 46th.

There's poetic justice in this windfall in Elusive Quality's progeny earnings. Two years ago, when his first runners arrived as 2-year-olds at the racetrack, Elusive Quality was in a statistical dogfight with another young sire, WinStar Farm's Distorted Humor, for top honors as 2002's leading freshman sire - an important designation for attracting breeders. Elusive Quality lost that race when one of his runners in Europe lost two wins because of a drug violation.

Elusive Quality never ran at 2, and many people, including Gainsborough's managing director, Michael Goodbody, were surprised that he got such early runners. Elusive Quality has surprised them again by siring a runner who can win at the classic distances, bucking conventional wisdom that focused on the stallion's own propensity for speed. Elusive Quality ran a world-record mile in 1:31.63 when he won the 1998 Poker Handicap on the turf, and set a seven-furlong track record of 1:20 at Gulfstream the previous year.

By the end of the 2002, Elusive Quality had made a convincing case that he could sire quick-maturing, speedy juvenile runners. He eked out a $14,898 lead over Distorted Humor, but the glory didn't last long. When his leading earner, an English-based runner named Elusive City, was disqualified from two wins for a medication positive, Elusive Quality lost $74,005 in earnings and promptly fell to third on the freshman sires' list. The following year, in 2003, Distorted Humor's son Funny Cide won the Derby and Preakness, making Distorted Humor something of a household name in the breeding industry. Now it's Elusive Quality's turn.

"Of course it's good for business," Gainsborough's general manager, Allen Kershaw, said of Smarty Jones's Triple Crown attempt. But he noted that Elusive Quality's stud fee had already gone from $10,000 in 1999 to $50,000 this year - even before Smarty Jones emerged as a classic contender. "He was a good, successful sire - but not a superstar sire - before Smarty Jones. His popularity will naturally go up, and he'll turn the heads of more international breeders now."

Business is good, but Kershaw pointed out that it's not necessarily the main point for Gainsborough's owner, Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum of Dubai, or his brother Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, who owns Elusive Quality. The Maktoums are famously focused on breeding classic winners, and, as Kershaw put it, "We do what we do because of pride," not money.

"We're ecstatic for the horse first," Kershaw said. "And let's give credit where credit is due, to Sheikh Mohammed. This horse didn't win a Grade 1, but he took a shot with him. And he priced him right at $10,000, so breeders could get their money back at the sales.

"I always thought Elusive Quality was an honest, nice horse," he said. "I loved his body. He was a solid racehorse. But nobody can expect something like this."

Elusive Quality arrived at Gainsborough back in 1998 and soon established himself as a smart, straightforward horse and an efficient breeder, all qualities that made him popular with breeding shed staff.

"He's cocky, but he's very controllable," said stallion foreman John Durr. "He doesn't have any real quirks, but he wants his space. If he has a day off and the other horses go to breed, he kind of sulks, and I think that gets back to his being young and sort of adolescent. He does have his preferences. He seems to love gray mares for some reason."

"He's got the kind of disposition that he overcomes stuff quick," Clark said. "When he went into quarantine last summer to go to Australia, he had to move into a new paddock, away from where all his buddies were. But he never ran the fences, he settled down within an hour and just started grazing. Never turned a hair. That makes our jobs easier. He's not real nervous."

Elusive Quality also developed a companionable relationship with one of his neighbors in the stallion barn, Quiet American, sire of 1998 Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet.

"Even stallions are social, and he and Quiet are sort of buddies," Clark said.

Like any popular stallion, Elusive Quality keeps busy. In the last three years, according to Clark, the stallion has had more than 300 mare applications. The list got pared this year to about 130 mates, but Elusive Quality also shuttles to Australia, where he will cover about 80 mares this season. To keep Elusive Quality and its other stallions physically fit and mentally bright on such a demanding schedule, Gainsborough arranges for the horses to be ridden. That task falls to Brownell Alexander, who develops individual exercise programs for and rides each stallion every morning.

"Elusive has to exert a lot of energy to do his job because of the number of mares he covers," Alexander said. "I walk him a great deal and do figure eights, serpentines, and circles and try to flex him back and forth, both directions. I try to change the pace a great deal, possibly trot a little. Lately, I've worked him a little less and then grazed him some when he gets done. It's something special he looks forward to, and he enjoys it.

"Elusive is all class, and he's been that way from day one," she continued. "He's cooperative, but he's always alert. Sometimes he's funny about putting the headstall of the bridle over his ears, and he appreciates it if you don't suppress his ears too much when you're putting the bridle on. But he evolves very nicely in any situation as long as he's handled properly, and that's why he's the nice horse that he is."

The people who handle Elusive Quality every day say the stallion seems to like the additional attention he has been getting from breeders, television crews, and tourists.

"He's been getting out of his stall more," said Durr. "I tell you what, I've been showing him to a lot of people from Philadelphia."

Philadelphia is, after all, home base for Smarty Jones and trainer Servis.

Servis first visited the farm in April on Gainsborough's invitation.

"He came out here fishing one day," stallion manager Clark said. "He brought a couple of guys with him and stayed all afternoon fishing one day. It was pretty cool. He pulled up in a big dually truck and had his ball cap on, and he just looked like another farmer.

"When he came in here after the Derby, we started to shake hands, and then suddenly we just gave each other a big old hug. It was real emotional.

"I think the best is to come," Clark added. "They hand-picked the mares in his next two crops to run. He gets bred to approved mares, and this year they had to be either graded or group winners or graded or group producers. I think there will be more like Smarty Jones. Well, there might not ever be another horse like Smarty Jones. But there will be good horses by this sire."

"His mare quality is really increasing," agreed Kershaw. "There's a lot of history of good horses coming from Woodford County, and we're living under a good star right now."