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Four generations of chasing roses
MIDWAY, Ky. - About 34,000 Thoroughbred foals are born every year in North America. Given the long odds, most breeders would consider it a dream come true to have one Kentucky Derby starter in a lifetime. Two in the same year? Nearly impossible.
But not at Wintergreen Farm in Midway, Ky. The family operation headed by John "Bud" Greely III has two chances at this year's Derby, with Pollard's Vision and Borrego. Greely, a former trainer who founded the farm, planned the matings that produced the colts, who were born and raised at Wintergreen under the care of Greely's older son, John IV. The Greelys sold Pollard's Vision for $70,000 at the 2003 Keeneland 2-year-old sale on behalf of a longtime client, breeder Charles Smith. Borrego is essentially a Wintergreen homebred, having been bred in partnership by Bud's other son, Beau, who also trains the colt.
From the moment Bud Greely arranged the matings, the colts' lives have been entwined. Two years ago, when Pollard's Vision and Borrego were yearlings galloping in the same field, few people could have predicted they would meet again in America's most famous race. Pollard's Vision was laid up with an infection that would cost him the sight in his right eye, while Borrego was gawky and immature. The Greelys never lost faith in either horse.
Now, the Greelys hope that one of them will bring something the family has never had: roses on the first Saturday in May.
"We feel very fortunate," said Bud, 67. "It took us four generations to get to this. You've just got to keep trying."
The Greelys have had other Derby connections. Bud's grandfather, John Sr., saddled Burning Star to finish eighth in 1937. Bud Greely was co-breeder of Admiral's Shield, who ran sixth in 1970. Wintergreen Farm raised contenders Timber Country (third in 1995), Prince of Thieves (third in 1996), and Favorite Trick (eighth in 1998). But this year is different. Not only do the Greelys have two runners in the hunt, but Beau will become the first Greely to saddle a Derby horse in 67 years.
On the surface, it looked like business as usual this week at Wintergreen. John Greely IV was busy overseeing the last of the season's breeding sessions at Wintergreen Stallion Station, the farm's new division that John IV, 38, owns with Beau, 32. But when there was a lull in the morning routine, all thoughts returned to the Derby.
"I can't sleep at night," John said. "A dead heat would be just fine."
The Greelys come from a long tradition of horsemanship, starting with John Sr., an Irish immigrant who arrived in America at the end of the 19th century. John Sr. - and later his son John Jr. - saddled horses for such prominent owners as C.V. Whitney, Greentree Stable, and King Ranch, among others. John Jr.'s sons Bud and Bill spent much of their childhood in their father's barn, which still sits behind Keeneland's back gate and is now occupied by trainer John Ward. Bill Greely went on to become president of Keeneland from 1986 to 2000, while Bud followed the family's training tradition, then settled down to develop Wintergreen as a commercial breeding farm.
Bud left the racetrack in the early 1960's, first working for legendary breeder A.B. "Bull" Hancock, then partnering with Dr. Ben Roach of Parrish Hill Farm. In 1971, he bought 160 acres of land and started Wintergreen, which now covers 500 acres in two parcels. Bud Greely is majority owner, with sons John and Beau as partners.
"My father is my greatest asset, and he's Beau's greatest asset," John said. "I don't think there's anyone better out there. He grew up on the racetrack and training horses. Dad wanted Beau and me to experience that as well. He wanted to instill that in us, that you can only learn so much about the horses on the farm, but you can learn a lifetime's worth about them on the racetrack.
"Beau had the training bug," John continued. "We would always go to the track with Dad growing up, but I always had more interest in the farm. It worked out great for all of us. I couldn't imagine a better working relationship."
Three years ago, the sons opened a 20-acre stallion division, where they stand Ecton Park, Five Star Day, and Century City.
"We send Beau horses off the farm, and he does such a great job with them it's moved our stock up," John said. "Then we bring them back here to be bred as mares or stallions."
Pollard's Vision, a Carson City colt, was one of the first foals born at Wintergreen in 2001 - on Jan. 31 - and from the start, he looked like a winner.
"He was one of the best-looking babies I had that year," John said. "He was the cockiest horse I had, too. He wasn't mean, but if you walked out in the field where he was, he'd come challenge you. If you weren't paying attention to him, he'd come right up to you and push you with his head. If you pushed back, he'd paw at you a little bit. If he was getting tough and you were trying to restrain him, he'd get tougher. And this was when he was a foal. He was so tough we weaned him a little bit early.
"He was accepted to the Keeneland July sale," he said, "and we thought he'd definitely be a $300,000 or $400,000 horse. He was beautiful and very, very correct, which is a real plus for a Carson City."
But in May 2002, two days before the Greelys began preparing the colt for the sale, things went badly wrong. The colt's right eye turned pale and cloudy, and he began going blind.
"It was a result of MRLS," John said, referring to mare reproductive loss syndrome, the mysterious disease that caused thousands of Kentucky mares to abort in 2001 and 2002. One of the less-publicized effects of the disease in young horses is uveitis, an eye inflammation. Wintergreen and breeder Smith scratched their star colt from the sale.
"For a month and a half, we put our heart and souls into this horse, trying to save his eye," John said. "It didn't work. His eye started shrinking, so there came a point where we were either going to have to take the eye out or continue our treatment to try to save the aesthetically pleasing part of the eye. He was in his stall for a little more than a month and a half. He had catheters in his neck so we could treat him five or six times a day with steroids, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories. He had been a good-sized horse, but that stunted his growth."
The eye finally stopped shrinking, and eventually Pollard's Vision was turned out into a field again. But that wasn't the end of his troubles.
"Once we turned him out, he came up with some chips in his hind ankles," John said. The chips scuttled a private deal to sell the colt, and the Greelys and Smith arranged to have the chips removed.
"But he was still the neatest horse to be around," John said. "His attitude was getting him through everything. He was tough."
Having missed the yearling sale and an opportunity to sell the colt privately, Wintergreen sent Pollard's Vision to Florida pinhooker Eddie Woods, who broke him, with the 2003 Keeneland 2-year-old sale as a target.
Pollard's Vision was shipped to Florida in the late summer of 2002 alongside Borrego, his pasture-mate who was also bound for Woods's training center and the sales ring.
Borrego's only misfortune was the timing of his birth. He was the last foal born at Wintergreen in 2001, on May 17. In terms of maturity, that put him well behind Pollard's Vision and the other foals.
"He was a good-looking horse," John said, "but he was rangy and wasn't a real 2-year-old type of horse."
Beau Greely and his partners - Jon Kelly, Brad Scott, and Dr. Sam Bradley - pointed Borrego for the Keeneland September yearling sale, but Bud Greely warned them not to let the colt sell cheaply.
"My father always loved Borrego," John Greely recalled, "and he said, 'Don't just let this horse go. He's not bred to be a 2-year-old. He's bred to go a distance. It's a great pedigree, and he's a good-moving horse in the field.' So Beau bought him back for $20,000."
Borrego is by El Prado, and his dam, Sweet as Honey, is a half-sister to Canadian champion Truth of It All and Grade 1 winner I Ain't Bluffing. Borrego has an odd physical characteristic: calcium deposits on his head. His name in Spanish means bighorn sheep, a reference to the bumps on his head.
Both Pollard's Vision and Borrego bloomed at Woods's training facility. One person who noticed was Dennis Foster, another longtime Wintergreen client - the one who had balked at buying Pollard's Vision privately when the ankle chips were discovered.
"Dennis Foster has a barn at Eddie Woods's training center, so he saw everything," John said. "When he saw Borrego there, he was impressed with how he was turning out. He and his partner, Rawleigh Ralls, asked if they could buy into the horse, so Dr. Bradley sold his percentage to them."
In April, Pollard's Vision and Borrego were on a van together again. At Keeneland, Pollard's Vision sold for $70,000 to David Moore, who named the colt after Seabiscuit's jockey Red Pollard, who was also blind in his right eye.
"My brother Beau was the underbidder, bidding for my father," John said. "We loved the horse. But we were thrilled for the people who bought him."
"After the sale, I had some misgivings about not having gone a little farther," admitted Bud. "Ever since he was a little guy, that horse was tough."
Borrego once again failed to reach his reserve, this time on a $75,000 final bid. Beau Greely and partners were still heeding Bud Greely's words about the colt, who was developing into such a fine juvenile that the man who raised him could hardly believe it.
"When he came back for the 2-year-old sale, I couldn't believe how much he'd developed," said John. "Since then, he's just gone on."
The colts' paths diverged at the Keeneland sale, but not for long. Pollard's Vision has since won the Illinois Derby, and Borrego finished second in the Louisiana Derby and the Arkansas Derby. On Saturday, they'll go head to head for the first time, and the Greelys can hardly wait. After four generations, they might be due for a Kentucky Derby win.
"Before I die, I will win the Kentucky Derby," John Greely said. "That's been my dream, that's been our dream all of our lives. That's the Holy Grail. And this year, we have two shots to get the Holy Grail. Like I said, a dead heat would be just fine."