04/17/2009 12:00AM

General Quarters turns breeders' luck around


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Whatever else he does on the racetrack, General Quarters already has served as an object lesson in the vagaries of racing luck, bad and good.

The 3-year-old Sky Mesa colt is headed for the Kentucky Derby after a win in the April 11 Blue Grass Stakes.

Among the luckiest members of the General Quarters camp are his breeders, David and Marylyn Randal. The couple have been breeding horses since the late 1970s, and they never dreamed their ungainly Sky Mesa colt would grow into a Derby contender and burnish the value of his dam, a broodmare whose two first yearlings showed little early commercial appeal.

"You really never know what's inside of these horses," David Randal, chairman of Hazard Construction, said recently. "You never know what's in their heads and hearts. There are a lot of pleasant surprises, and there's a lot of bad surprises."

The Randals live in California but also own Fallbrook Farm in Versailles, Ky., where they have about 30 mares to breed for the marketplace. The Randals would have been forgiven last year if they thought they had made a mistake with General Quarters's dam, Ecology. They paid $120,000 for her at Keeneland when she was carrying General Quarters, her first foal. It appeared to be a lot of money for a mare that was unraced at 2 and retired winless after just two starts at 3. But Ecology had things to recommend her, David Randal recalled.

"The mare was absolutely beautiful," said Randal, 66. "She's gray, and she's about 16 or 16-1 hands, and she's correct. She was striking."

Randal also liked Ecology's bloodlines. She is a daughter of the highly fashionable Unbridled's Song, and her female family included French champion Targowice as well as some very good U.S. runners beyond a mile - champion grass horse Manila and Stately Don, Ireland's champion miler who won the Secretariat Stakes and Hollywood Derby in the U.S., to pick out two. Her dam, the Danzig mare Gdansk's Honour, won Ireland's 1000 Guineas Trial Stakes. Together, Unbridled's Song and Gdansk's Honour also formed a coveted cross, a Mr. Prospector sire line with a Northern Dancer female line.

"I also ran a Compusire report on the [in utero] foal and looked at the Dosage Index on the foal to see if it fits my criteria, which it did," Randal said. "I try to keep the Dosage Index below 3 and above 2, for a foal that has speed but will also go the distance and won't be just a straight sprinter."

General Quarters, for the record, has a DI of 2.69.

Randal bought Ecology with the hope of making his money back on the first foal's sale. Sky Mesa's first crop of yearlings averaged $128,585 at sale in 2006. But those first runners started off quietly in 2007, with only one stakes-placed runner at 2. General Quarters went to market that year, as Sky Mesa's yearling average was dropping to $63,148.

"He was just a big, gangly foal," Randal said of General Quarters. "Even as a yearling, you wouldn't think he was going to be what he turned out to be when you first saw him. He was a large, average-looking horse."

General Quarters brought just $20,000 from Ken and Sarah Ramsey, failing to recoup the $30,000 stud fee it took to produce him. Ecology's next foal, a filly by the Randals' stallion Wild and Wicked, fared even worse at auction. Offered at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky's October yearling sale last season, she failed to sell at $4,700.

The market can be unforgiving. These were two strikes against Ecology, despite the fact that neither of her foals even had time to prove whether they could run. It didn't look promising when General Quarters was entered for a $20,000 tag in his first start.

Ken Ramsey, the man who bought General Quarters as a yearling, said the colt's trainer at the time, Wesley Ward, had consulted with a veterinarian who essentially gave the colt a thumbs-down.

"I don't mind running horses where they belong, where they can win," Ramsey said. "I had serious reservations about running this particular horse for the $20,000, but in the end it's what we did."

That provided the luckiest break of all for Tom McCarthy. He had been among those who passed the colt up at the Keeneland September sale, but now he won a four-way shake for him. General Quarters became a one-horse stable for McCarthy, who is owner, trainer, and groom.

"The gentleman who got him, that's a real break for him," said Ramsey. "It's a great Cinderella story. It'd be great for the game of horse racing if he could pull this off with a one-horse stable."

The Randals, meanwhile, kept their options open. They entered Ecology in the 2008 Keeneland November sale but then scratched her, in what turned out to be a very lucky move indeed. In the tanking economy, prices for most mares fell heavily. And Ecology's son was about to emerge as a better talent that anyone had predicted.

General Quarters didn't hit David Randal's radar screen again until he finished second in the Pasco Stakes in January.

"That's when he really woke us up," Randal said.

General Quarters followed up with a coasting win in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis, lost form to run fifth in Musket Man's Tampa Bay Derby, then rebounded for a 1 1/2-length Blue Grass victory.

For Ramsey, it was more bitter than sweet.

"My goal is to win the Kentucky Derby, so I'm trying to be a good sport about it," he said. "But, honestly, it was kind of sickening to see him win the Blue Grass."

For the Randals, it was a great boost at an opportune moment. Within days of the Blue Grass, their best broodmare, Ravnina, died. She was the dam of California stakes winner Costume Designer and of group performers Laureldean Gale and Secret History. Now, it seems, Ecology is taking up the torch, and luck is good these days for the Randals. Ecology currently has a Tale of the Cat filly by her side, and her Wild and Wicked filly, named Wickedology, is being broken for the Randals. Wild and Wicked, their stallion, just had his first winner, the Randal-bred Unloch the Fury, on April 15 at Turf Paradise.

Would Randal sell Ecology now?

"It'd have to be for a lot of money," Randal said. "You don't get a mare like that very often, and if you're a commercial breeder, that forms the basis for your farm."

For the next couple of weeks, at least, the Randals are savoring their good luck and counting their blessings.

"It's like they say," Randal said. "I'd rather be lucky than bright."

- additional reporting by Marty McGee