04/25/2002 11:00PM

Flying Continental, renaissance stud

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - At the age of 16, Harris Farms stallion Flying Continental is enjoying a revival.

Flying Continental, who has stood his entire stud career at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., had some hard times early in his career when he failed to sire precocious 2-year-old runners. But he has proven himself a valuable sire of money-making handicap runners, and breeders have been taking note.

Flying Continental, a son of Flying Paster and the Transworld mare Continental Girl, has had six crops reach the races so far. He currently is second behind Bertrando on California's leading general sire list, with 34 winners and progeny earnings of more than $999,000 this year. On California Gold Rush Day, Flying Continental has Continental Stitch in the Quicken Tree Stakes and Nicole's Pursuit in the Melair Stakes.

"His first couple of crops to go to the Del Mar yearling sale sold well. There were pretty high expectations that they'd come right out of the box firing, that Flying Continental would get some quick runners and maybe a few stakes-winners," recalled Harris Farms manager Dave McGlothlin. "But those runners didn't materialize, and people kind of got off him. But now, as his runners are getting older - and his pedigree indicates that he shouldn't have gotten 2-year-olds anyway, but older-developing horses - people are starting to come around again. They've reevaluated, and they're finding that he's a real steal at $3,500.

"There's still a huge amount of pressure here in California to have those 2-year-old winners," McGlothlin added. "But then when people see horses like Continental Red and Irisheyesareflying and the amount of money they've generated as older horses, that's quite attractive to people."

Irisheyesareflying and Continental Red are the most obvious examples of Flying Continental's propensity to sire tough, moneymaking older runners. Bred by Wes and Sharon Fitzpatrick, both are foals of 1996 who are still competing and winning in graded stakes company.

Irisheyesareflying, a son of the Track Barron mare Sharon's Barron, has won 8 of 35 starts for earnings of $710,256. He's a graded stakes winner whose most recent victory came in the Grade 3 Berkeley Handicap at Golden Gate.

Continental Red, who is out of the Glaros (Fr) mare Sharp Looking Lady, has started 40 times, earned more than $558,000, and won several Grade 2 races, most recently the San Luis Rey Handicap; he also finished third this year in the Grade 1 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap.

Flying Continental's other wealthy stakes winners include Radar Contact ($300,955), Heightenedawareness ($237,789), No Cal Bread ($222,376), and Fabulous Flight ($151,816).

Clearly, the Flying Continentals are blooming. You would think these long-awaited results would tempt the stallion's owners, Nancy Yearsley and Ross Harris, to cash in on the opportunity to raise his stud fee. Not so, says Yearsley, who notes that the market seems to like Flying Continental's accessible fee and that it has encouraged breeder loyalty to the horse. And so his fee remains at $3,500, where it was in his first year at stud back in 1994.

"He's the hard-knocking horse who might not be like Storm Cat, but he's a natural go-to horse for California's average breeder," Yearsley said.

The no-brainer California sire

Yearsley, a Los Angeles-based bloodstock and insurance agent, has been part of the Flying Continental team since 1992, when she bought the stallion from Jack Kent Cooke. Her initial plan was to resell Flying Continental in California as a stallion prospect.

"I thought he'd be great for California because he's from the Flying Paster-Gummo sire line," she said. "He was a no-brainer for California with those sire lines, and I thought he'd dominate there, as his sire and grandsire did in the past. Also, everybody in California knew the horse."

Everyone in California knew Flying Continental from his many winner's circle appearances. Stakes-placed at 2, Flying Continental went on to win eight stakes in a long career that didn't end until he was 7. In California, he won the Grade 1 Charles H. Strub Stakes, Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes, and several other ungraded stakes, on the way to earning more than $1.8 million. But his big-race scores weren't limited to the West Coast: Flying Continental also won the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont in 1990.

But Yearsley's plan to resell her "no-brainer" California stallion went awry because of the weak economics of the Thoroughbred breeding business in the early 1990's.

"The market for stallions was very soft, so I decided to put him back in training," Yearsley said. "We raced him for about a year, and he earned about $300,000."

Ultimately, Yearsley and Ross Harris retired Flying Continental to Harris Farms. But business was slow.

In an effort to jump-start bookings to their new stallion, Yearsley followed the advice of Garvan Kelly, a friend and Thoroughbred breeder with an advertising background. Kelly suggested that Yearsley offer two-for-one matings to Flying Continental - the program that got Wes and Sharon Fitzpatrick Continental Red and Irisheyesareflying.

"We've done other things, too," Yearsley said, "like giving breeders who return to him or breeders from out of state a transport discount."

The twofer deal helped put more foals in the pipeline for Flying Continental, and as some of those foals have developed and improved, the current Flying Continental revival was sparked. The deal is no longer in effect, said Garvan Kelly who estimates Flying Continental's book size will be between 60 and 70 mares this year. Last year, according to Jockey Club statistics, the horse bred 37 mares.

"Suddenly, he's revitalized completely," Kelly said. "He sires very enduring horses who stay sound, and the older the Flying Continentals get, the better they get.

"But California is a house of speed," he continued, "and they have a preponderance of races under six furlongs, so this horse didn't get the best shot in the world. It's kind of a shame that more of his progeny didn't have a chance to run more in New York, Kentucky, and Eastern tracks where the track is deeper and there are more routes."

Making the most of a good thing

Yearsley and partners, including Kelly, are working to take advantage of the route opportunities in other states. They have started upgrading their mares and have bought about 20 mares from Kentucky to support Flying Continental.

Yearsley said the plan is to bring the mares, now in foal to Kentucky stallions, out to California to foal, so the offspring will be California-bred. The mares will be bred back to Flying Continental, and at least some of the resulting foals, Kelly said, will point for racing careers outside the Golden State.

That may make selling Flying Continental's attributes as a sire easier in the future.

"He's our cash cow, and now we're trying to get as much quality in his mares as we can," Yearsley said.

"Flying Continental is an athletic-looking horse, and people like that. But a lot of the true measure of a sire is not his looks, but the heart he shows and throws. It's taken his foals some time to mature, but those foals that started later are running longer."

Understandably, given the fact that his best runners have improved after their juvenile seasons, Flying Continental has not been as fashionable on sale-catalog pages as are the sires of early speedballs. But Flying Continental's owners and manager have found a good niche that works for him - the homebreeding market-and they're seeing the payoff.

"We haven't encouraged people to breed to him for commercial reasons, but to breed to him if they're breeding to race," McGlothlin said. "Our mindset has been to tell those breeders that if they're not going to breed to him, they're going to have to beat him."