Updated on 09/17/2011 11:23AM

Minnich lets it ride on Peace Rules

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Everyone involved in the Kentucky Derby feels pressure as the race approaches, but no one has felt it more intensely than Blair Minnich. He has experienced emotional lows and highs for months, and Friday he was hospitalized in Pennsylvania after suffering what may have been a mild heart attack.

Minnich, 59, is the owner of a horse farm in Annville, Pa., and in the fall his modest business was overwhelmed by debts. After retiring from his job at a Pennsylvania public-utility company, he didn't have any outside income or assets. He tried to borrow $20,000 to see him through his financial crisis, but, he said, "Not a bank around would give me any money. I was going through pure hell."

He asked himself repeatedly: "If this is the sport of kings, then what am I doing in it?"

Minnich clung to the hope that a single horse might alter his fortunes - and one did. Now that Minnich owns the dam of Peace Rules, a top contender for the Kentucky Derby, he suddenly is a player at the upper echelon of the breeding business. "I went to Kentucky," he said in an interview before his hospitalization, "and, my God, all these people were shaking my hand like I'm the sheikh."

His financial salvation is ensured and, if Peace Rules wins Saturday at Churchill Downs, he will provide the perfect ending to an already implausible success story.

Minnich had always hated the thought of being in debt because he knew first-hand the pain associated with financial pressures. His job, for most of his life, was collecting delinquent debts for the Pennsylvania Power and Light Co. He sympathized with the people he had to dun: "I knew what it's like to have my mother crying because we couldn't pay the bill and they turned the electricity off."

But while his principal job was often distasteful, he got great pleasure from operating a farm. When his brother, Clarence, became a trainer at Penn National Race Track, Minnich got interested in the sport, bought some inexpensive mares and bred his own horses. He didn't have much success, but he made the farm pay for itself by boarding horses for other people.

His troubles began when a client boarded 14 horses with him last year. The client stopped paying his bills, and his tab mounted to $42,000. Minnich's son, Bryan, studied the records of these animals and concluded that one had commercial value. Hold to Fashion was a well-bred mare who had been a stakes-winning filly. At his son's suggestion, Minnich signed an agreement with the client, taking ownership of Hold to Fashion and her young foals while writing off most of the debt. Minnich not only acquired a potentially good mare but also a financial burden.

Hold to Fashion at the time was not on the farm; she had been sent to Kentucky to be bred. Minnich inherited a $25,000 debt for the stud fee, plus $17,000 in boarding expenses. He also owed $11,000 to the sales company that had auctioned Hold to Fashion. He went to his long-time banker for a loan, and the bank turned him down, pointing out that he didn't have any money.

"No [kidding]," Minnich responded.

At about this time, one of Minnich's horses was entered in a race at Penn National that he figured to win; a few thousand dollars in purse money might ease some of the pressure. Minnich was waiting in the paddock when somebody gave him the bad news: "Blair, I think your horse just killed itself." On the way to the paddock, the horse had reared, fallen, hit his head on a blacktop road and died instantly. "You keep thinking things can't get any worse," Minnich said. "But, by God, it does get worse."

Minnich managed to stay afloat by boarding as many horses as he could find and doing all the work himself. He was about to take a part-time job at a gas station when he finally found a bank willing to extend him a modest line of credit. As he gradually paid off the bills connected to Hold to Fashion, he watched with keen interest the progress of her son Peace Rules. If the colt became a stakes winner, the mare's value would increase.

After Peace Rules won the third start of his career, on the turf at Belmont Park, he was bought by Edmund A. Gann and put into the care of America's leading trainer, Bobby Frankel. Minnich's reaction: "Oh, boy, this horse is going to go places!" He was right. Peace Rules won a pair of stakes races on the grass in California, and Frankel decided to test the colt on the dirt in the Louisiana Derby. When he beat the highly regarded Kafwain, Peace Rules established himself as one of the country's top 3-year-olds.

"One minute after the race," Minnich recalled, "the phone rang. Kentucky was calling. Do you own the mare? Is she for sale? Are her foals for sale?"

Offers kept coming in, but no deal was struck. A month later, Peace Rules led all the way to win the Blue Grass Stakes at Keene land, solidifying his status as the No. 2 contender for the Derby, behind stablemate Empire Maker. Hold to Fashion's value grew, too, for she was now the dam of a Grade 1 stakes winner. Prospective buyers were talking about a $750,000 price for her and her filly by the fashionable stallion Forest Wildcat.

Minnich's son advised him, "Dad, roll the dice," and the father agreed. He will keep the mare and her foal until after the Derby and sell them at auction later in the year. A victory by Peace Rules would make their price skyrocket, but in any event their value is ensured. Minnich also owns a 2-year-old colt out of Hold to Fashion, but he intends to keep that one.

"I'd like to race a good horse," he said. "I'd like to be in the limelight." When the sale of the mare frees him from financial pressure at last, Minnich can afford to have a little fun.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post