05/18/2013 6:10AM

Preakness Stakes: Orb's sire got start at Maryland farm Country Life

Ellen Pons Photography
Country Life Farm stands two stallions at its Merryland Farm in Hydes, Md., including Friesan Fire, who is flanked by farm owners Mike (left) and Josh Pons.

Mike Pons was about 100 yards past the wire when it happened.

The co-owner and manager of Country Life Farm was seated with his youngest son David and his older brother Andrew on the first turn at a rain-soaked Churchill Downs as he watched Orb charge down the middle of the track to win the 139th Kentucky Derby.

As the mud-caked horse and rider made their way back to the grandstand and were led into the historic Kentucky Derby winner’s circle, Pons reveled in the culmination of a journey that started more than a decade ago. Orb’s sire, Malibu Moon, began his stallion career at the Ponses’ farm in Bel Air, Md., where he found immediate success.

[2013 PREAKNESS STAKES: Latest news, video, and more]

Country Life Farm, owned and operated in its third generation by the brothers Josh and Mike Pons, has had plenty of great horses occupy its stalls in its 80-year history. It was the birthplace of National Museum of Racing Hall of Famer Cigar and the home of foundation broodmare Raise You, who produced Raise a Native, sire of Mr. Prospector and Alydar.

Now, in a roundabout way, Country Life Farm has gotten its Derby winner. Malibu Moon stood his first four seasons at the central Maryland farm, building the foundation for his career as he developed into one of the industry’s hottest sires in the racing and commercial arenas.

“It was fabulous to have that much of a role in the production of a Derby winner,” Mike Pons said, holding his fingers about an inch apart. “It’s like being the third grade teacher to Cal Ripken Jr.”

The relationship between Malibu Moon and Country Life Farm has been one of great risk and great reward. A son of A.P. Indy with French-influenced bloodlines and a physical presence to match his racing potential, Malibu Moon broke his maiden in his second start as a 2-year-old. His career was promptly cut short by injury, though, leaving owner B. Wayne Hughes with a stallion prospect deficient of racetrack credentials.

With Malibu Moon lacking the résumé to give him a fighting chance if he began his stallion career in Central Kentucky, Hughes sought out a regional market in which to stand his horse. The seeds of the partnership with the Pons family were planted at the memorial service of Kent Hollingsworth, Blood-Horse editor and mentor to Josh Pons, in 1999.

“At the memorial service, [Josh] saw John Stuart of Bluegrass Thoroughbred Services and he said, ‘Johnny, where’s the best stallion prospect in America?,’ ” Mike Pons recalled. “John said, ‘Oh man, there’s an A.P. Indy colt you’ve got to see in California. He’s unbelievable.’ So instead of coming home to Maryland, Josh went to California.”

The physical presence of the horse was enough to sell Josh on the deal. Country Life bought in for a 50 percent share to stand him at the farm.

“I remember Mr. Hughes said to us, ‘Boys, make him so valuable he’s got to come to Central Kentucky.’ ” Pons said.

Malibu Moon began his stud career at Country Life in 2000 at a modest fee of $3,000.

The Ponses brought every mare they could find to be bred to Malibu Moon. His first crop arrived in 2001, and was represented by 61 foals, and they started fast, led by Perfect Moon, winner of the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes and Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile Championship Stakes in his juvenile year.

“Mr. Hughes tells the joke that Josh threw himself in front of a horse van if he thought there was a mare in there to be bred to Malibu Moon,” Pons said. “Once the babies started showing up, when Perfect Moon won a Grade 2 at Del Mar as a 2-year-old, I went north and Josh went south, and the common refrain [from breeders] was, ‘That was the best foal this mare has ever had.’

“By about the third time we heard it, we started one by one buying [Malibu Moon foals] privately and probably bought a dozen of them on the East Coast out of backyards, barnyards, wherever we could find them, and the one thing they had in common, they could run – bay, gray, colt, gelding, filly, it didn’t matter. They got the ‘run’ gene from [their] dad. He’s stayed consistent. He’s improved his mares all the way through, even now.”

Malibu Moon was still a very young horse when his first crops hit the racetrack, and Pons said that his athleticism didn’t wither in his less-taxing life as a stallion. In fact, “Moon,” as the Ponses call him, frequently displayed just how much vigor he still had in his bones during the farm’s stallion shows.

“Moon comes in the breeding shed, where we have some chairs set up for a little show, and he’s on his hind feet and he starts to jump,” Pons recalled. “He’s jumping three or four feet off the ground like this great big kangaroo just because he could do it. He was the only horse on the farm that could do that. The folks that weren’t frightened by it were just enthralled by it.”

Malibu Moon sired four crops as a Maryland stallion, highlighted by 2004’s champion 2-year-old male Declan’s Moon, who was the cornerstone of his second crop. After the successful debut of his first crop in 2003, with Malibu Moon being the sixth-leading freshman sire that year, Hughes suggested it was time to try the up-and-coming stallion in the Kentucky market.

The owners eventually settled on the late Dr. Tony Ryan’s Castleton Lyons Farm in Lexington, Ky., where Malibu Moon stood until he was relocated to Hughes’ Spendthrift Farm, also in Lexington. He stood his first season in Kentucky for a fee of $10,000. For the 2013 breeding season Malibu Moon stood for a fee of $70,000. The Ponses still own a 25 percent share in the stallion.

Mike Pons reflected on the decision: “When all the offers came from Kentucky, Mr. Hughes said, ‘Boys, your one-quarter will be worth more than one-half in Maryland. He could be any kind of stallion. Bring him down here and see what he can do.’ ”

Today, Country Life Farm stands a pair of stallions at its second property, Merryland Farm in Hydes, Md. With Friesan Fire and Cal Nation, the Ponses are starting anew, standing two more young prospects in the hopes of nurturing another breakout star.

If not for the success of Malibu Moon, Mike Pons said the farm might not have survived the lean years in Maryland in the early 2000s long enough to celebrate a win as significant as Orb’s Kentucky Derby in 2013.

“He basically saved us,” Pons said of Malibu Moon. “When the Maryland [horse racing] industry didn’t have slots, and when it took so long for the slot money to find its way into the purse account, he was the oxygen we survived on. It’s fun all of a sudden to play offense again.

“Moon’s a ‘change your life’ kind of horse. It’s been really fun to just stand on the sidelines and watch him.”

And the Pons family will be out in force on Preakness Day to see if Orb can land the second leg of the Triple Crown.