03/07/2008 12:00AM

Long friendship results in top-flight winner

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - A serious medical condition brought together the breeders of Ever a Friend, and their engaging personalities and deep interest in the sport of Thoroughbred racing have bonded them into fast friends.

Ever a Friend, an impressive winner in the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile, was bred in Kentucky by Liberation Farm (Rob Whiteley) and Oratis Thoroughbreds (Christopher Elia).

Ten years ago, Whiteley was diagnosed with severe arterial blockage that required a triple bypass. Whiteley was referred to Dr. Christopher Elia, then the busiest cardiac surgeon in Southern California, as the leading surgeon for this type of operation. The morning after the surgery, Elia popped into Whiteley's room to see how his patient was progressing.

They ended up talking about horses, and they haven't stopped.

"I was more interested in his horses than his heart," Elia said. "I knew his heart would be okay, but I didn't know if he was a good horseman."

Their friendship grew quickly, and they went into the following year's January sale and bought some horses together.

Both had already been involved in racing, and when Elia had begun racing horses, "it was a diversion from cardiac surgery," he said, "and then it was so challenging, probably more challenging than heart surgery."

After being in racing and breeding for 30 years, Elia was rewarded with his first Grade 1 stakes winner in Ever a Friend. As with this success, much of Elia's best horses trace back to his foundation mare Apalachee Princess.

She was the first yearling that Elia bought and is the third dam of Ever a Friend. He recalled that Apalachee Princess "was a beautiful filly, very fast, but she got hurt before her first race, and after she retired, I bred her to some nice stallions to try to build a broodmare band."

A daughter of English highweight Apalachee out of the Bold Bidder mare Sinouj, Apalachee Princess produced three stakes horses, but her most lasting influence has come through her daughter Ms. Patty B., a winner by Grey Dawn. She has produced four stakes horses, included the graded stakes winner Aunt Henny (by Hennessy).

Elia has two of the mare's daughters, including Never Is a Promise, the dam of Ever a Friend. And these long-term equine holdings are the basis on which Elia built a successful broodmare band.

Accustomed to building things from scratch, Elia had immigrated to the United States at age 11. He was a young fellow with big dreams, and he has brought many to fruition.

"My father came over first," he said, "and then about two years later, he brought the rest of us. My father waited 25 years to get permission to come here.

"I was born on Cyprus in a village called Ora, and Oratis means the 'man from Ora.' The village was less than 100 people, and there were only four students in my class at school.

"All four of us became pretty successful, but when I left Cyprus, we had no cars, no electricity, and traveled by donkey everywhere we went. Then I came to America, straight to New York City. Now that was culture shock, but we were so happy to come to the land of opportunity, the most wonderful place in the world. You can come to the United States as practically the poorest kid in the world, get a great education, and become very successful."

After coming to New York, Elia went to high school, then successfully completed his college, medical school, and specialist training to become a heart surgeon.

That took many years, because it takes a long time to become a specialist in cardiac surgery. Elia went into private practice in 1978 and bought Apalachee Princess a couple of years later.

Now 28, Apalachee Princess is still alive, boarded at Needham-Betz Thoroughbreds in Kentucky, and "looking quite young for her age," Elia said. Her two important granddaughters, Never Is a Promise and Trust Your Heart, are at Trackside Farm.

"Never Is a Promise has a beautiful Hennessy colt from his last crop, is in foal to Orientate, and is going to Bernardini," Elia said.

Her half-sister Trust Your Heart (by Relaunch) has produced a pair of graded-stakes-placed runners (Special Grayce and Trust Your Luck) from her first three foals. She is going to Hard Spun.

The energy and competitive nature that marks Elia's endeavor with Thoroughbreds is part of his overall ethic.

Elia worked in a "community hospital in Southern California and did heart surgery, performing over 10,000 open-heart surgeries before I retired. I retired because I developed rheumatoid arthritis, and I wasn't willing to continue without being able to perform at the top level."

After retiring, Elia has cut down his involvement with breeding. He owns Trust Your Heart, and his wife, Catherine, has a filly, as well as a half-dozen or so in partnership with Whiteley.

Their association also includes the full sister to Ever a Friend, Pure Offence, in partnership with Rick Trontz. Pure Offence has a 2008 filly by Bellamy Road and is going to Lion Heart this year.

Depending on how Ever a Friend continues to progress, the gray gelding could bring many more cheers from friends through his racing career.