12/19/2008 1:00AM

Researcher does Hokies proud

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For years, savvy horse buyers in Middleburg, Va., and surrounding areas have known where to look for yearling bargains.

Now a 4-year-old gelding named Researcher is spreading the word throughout the racing world.

Researcher, who earned his fourth straight victory, and third stakes win in a row, when he won the Grade 3 $100,000 Queens County Handicap at Aqueduct last Saturday, is a product of the breeding program at Virginia Tech's Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center, better known as the MARE Center.

Established in 1992, on land originally donated by the late Paul Mellon, the center maintains a large band of Thoroughbreds used to perform groundbreaking studies on equine nutrition.

All of its horses are donated, some by prominent owners culling from top-notch racing bloodlines (although the majority are show horses and foxhunters).

To make way for new arrivals and raise funds for its ongoing projects, the center markets its entire yearling crop to the public each fall.

Researcher, who now boasts career earnings of $288,670, was purchased by his owner, Hermen and Monica Greenberg's Rutledge Farm, for $5,000 at the MARE Center yearling auction in 2005.

Best known as the breeders of 1993 Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair, the Greenbergs have maintained a major Thoroughbred operation for decades at their farm located near the center.

They have been staunch supporters of its auction, frequently buying the sales-topper.

"I like to support Virginia Tech," said Hermen Greenberg. "And they sell some good horses."

Rutledge Farm has campaigned other successful runners bred at the MARE Center, including allowance-winning full brothers Afternoon Clinic (once stakes-placed) and Evening Clinic. Those two were sired by the center's former stallion Ball's Bluff from its consistent producer Cup Custard, a Secretariat daughter donated by Mellon.

Researcher, whose purchase price was well above the $3,566 average for the 21 sold at that year's MARE Center auction, was the first choice for Rutledge farm manager Bob Powell.

"He was big and strong," said Powell, "and his sire, Two Smart, was a racehorse."

Researcher was sired on a donated season to Two Smart, a multiple-stakes-winning son of Two Punch whose career was cut short after four seasons at Larry Johnson's Legacy Farm in Bluemont, Va. From a total of 29 starters (from 34 foals), Two Smart has been represented by four additional stakes performers.

"We always knew Researcher was good," said Jeff Runco, the Charles Town-based trainer who handles a half-dozen horses, including Researcher, for Rutledge Farm. "But we didn't know he would be this good."

An allowance winner at Charles Town at 2 and 3, Researcher overcame minor problems earlier in his career and twice placed in stakes on the Colonial Downs turf last June.

He launched his streak with an allowance win at Laurel Park in September, then aired by 14 lengths in the $50,000 HBPA Governor's Cup Handicap at Charles Town on Oct. 17. On Nov. 8, he added a three-quarter-length score in the $125,000 Mountaineer Mile Handicap at Mountaineer Park.

In the Queens County, his eighth win from 14 starts, Researcher earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 - his third 100-plus Beyer Figure in a row.

Researcher's dam, Wild Magnolia (by Apalachee), was donated to the MARE Center as a 3-year-old in 1998 by her breeder, Roy Lerman, after failing to win her maiden in three starts.

Wild Magnolia produced Researcher as her fourth foal. She is the dam of one other winner, Wild Ball, a 2003 daughter of Ball's Bluff.

Ironically, Researcher's success comes at a time when the MARE Center has temporarily suspended its research program. It halted after Dr. Ray Geor, who who held the endowed professorship, left last summer for a post at the University of Michigan, explained the center's animal care technician, Tim Parmly.

A search is under way for a replacement, but the process will likely take several more months to complete, according to Parmly.

Budget constraints have meanwhile led to cutbacks in the center's horse population, which is down to 36 mares. None was bred in 2008, and no auction will be conducted in 2009. The rising crop of 15 yearlings will be offered privately or sent to other auctions, said Parmly.

Wild Magnolia has found a new home at Rutledge Farm, where Greenberg is considering various options for her 2009 mating.