Updated on 09/16/2011 8:11AM

Our Emblem, from 0 to 60 in 11 days


WASHINGTON - The 3-year-old classics annually produce some unlikely success stories. None this year is more dramatic than that of a discredited horse named Our Emblem and a Maryland farm that bought the stallion when everybody else had given up on him.

Our Emblem had flopped in his brief stud career at Claiborne Farm, Kentucky's greatest breeding establishment, and was sold last fall to Murmur Farm in Darlington, Md. For a Thoroughbred, this was the equivalent of being demoted from the starting lineup of the New York Yankees to a Class AAA farm club. But even in Maryland he didn't get much attention or respect - until the last 11 days. One of his sons, War Emblem, ran away with the Illinois Derby by nine lengths in sensational time, becoming a contender for the Kentucky Derby. Then another of his offspring, Private Emblem, won the Arkansas Derby by 4 1/2 lengths, also earning a trip to Louisville.

"Our phone hasn't stopped ringing," said Audrey Murray, who operates Murmur Farm with her husband, Allen. People want to breed their mares to Our Emblem, buy shares in him, or buy him outright. One of their business associates told the Murrays: "You have to be the smartest or the luckiest people in the world."

Our Emblem is as regally bred as any Thoroughbred in America. His sire was the late Mr. Prospector, the most influential American stallion of the last 20 years; his dam is Personal Ensign, the champion mare who won all 13 of her starts.

Although he didn't quite live up to his bloodlines, Our Emblem was a good enough sprinter and miler to place in Grade 1 stakes competition. His pedigree made him an excellent stallion prospect, and when he went to Claiborne Farm he was mated to high-class mares who would enhance his chances for success.

Our Emblem's first foals were born in 1998; the yearlings who were auctioned in 1999 commanded a respectable average price of $57,619. But when they were 2-year-olds in 2000, only three of them won races - and minor races at that.

Although it was much too soon to judge him, Our Emblem was in trouble commercially. "Because there are so many stallions in Kentucky to choose from," said pedigree consultant Bill Oppenheim, "there is tremendous pressure for a stallion to have early results."

Almost instantly, Our Emblem fell out of favor. His yearlings who passed through auction rings in 2000 sold for a paltry average of $9,116. Ray Paulick, editor of The Blood-Horse magazine, said: "Based on our numbers, only 4 percent of his yearlings were profitable." By 2001, few people wanted to breed mares to Our Emblem. His career as a stallion had barely begun, yet he was regarded as a failure and Claiborne wanted to get rid of him.

The Murrays learned in September 2001 that Our Emblem was for sale, and drove to Kentucky to inspect him. They reasoned that even though his first runners had not been successful, plenty of sons and daughters of Our Emblem would be launching their careers in the next two years. They were the result of matings to high-quality mares, and so Our Emblem still had a chance to click.

"We decided that we'd take a gamble and buy him," Audrey Murray said, "and then we offered shares in him for $7,500. It was tough. People looked at his record at stud and saw that he hadn't hit big."

Murmur Farm set the stallion's stud fee at a modest $4,000, and hoped that something would happen to boost his stock.

It happened at Sportsman's Park, when War Emblem found a set of circumstances in his favor - he got an unchallenged lead on a track that typically favors speed and romped to a victory in the $500,000 Illinois Derby. After watching the simulcast from Laurel Park, Audrey Murray said, "We didn't sleep all night. We couldn't believe what a stroke of luck it was."

The victory was impressive enough that The Thoroughbred Corporation bought War Emblem and turned him over to trainer Bob Baffert, who will saddle the horse at Churchill Downs as he seeks his third Derby triumph. Lightning struck a second time Saturday when Private Emblem rallied strongly to win at Oaklawn Park.

The Murrays, like all breeders in Maryland, gear their operations to the economics of the regional marketplace, and so they deal mostly with moderately priced bloodstock. They seek to find stallions whose offspring can win ordinary races in great numbers, while capturing a few decent stakes along the way. Such breeders don't usually get to entertain grandiose dreams, but the Murrays can now dream that their farm is home to the sire of the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post