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Runnymede ready to make splash in Breeders' Cup debut
LEXINGTON, Ky. − Runnymede Farm was founded in 1867, and in the ensuing 143 years there aren’t many things its owners, the Clay family, haven’t accomplished in the world of Thoroughbred breeding and racing. But this weekend they’re about to do something they’ve never done before: run a horse in a Breeders’ Cup race.
That the farm’s owner, Catesby Clay, 87, owns Breeders’ Cup Juvenile starter Rogue Romance would be enough to bring him and his family to Churchill Downs on Saturday. But the Clays also have rooting interests in two other Cup runners they bred: Rogue Romance’s Juvenile rival Jaycito and Marathon hopeful Awesome Gem. Runnymede sold them as yearlings for $110,000 and $150,000.
Rogue Romance, a son of Smarty Jones trained by Ken McPeek, was also for sale as a yearling in 2009. Clay and his farm were partners in breeding Rogue Romance, and when bidding faltered below the colt’s reserve, Clay stepped in and paid $65,000 for him.
“Mr. Clay and I liked this colt a lot, and he said to me, ‘I’m not just going to give this fellow away. I’ll buy him for myself,’ ” said Martin O’Dowd, 59, Runnymede’s farm manager for 24 years. “So he literally went to the ring and bought Runnymede out.”
Clay made what appeared to be a bold decision to put Rogue Romance in the Juvenile rather than the Juvenile Turf, where he probably would have been a favorite thanks to his two wins on the grass. But O’Dowd said the decision was logical.
“We don’t see it as a gamble,” he said. “Kenny always liked this colt. He had him in Saratoga all summer, and he trained great on the dirt there. The only reason he ran him on the turf up there the first time was to teach him how to run two turns. Kenny said, ‘I’ll run him in whatever race you like, but just know I think this horse can handle the dirt just fine.’ There was a lot of discussion about it, but we feel he’s bred top and bottom to run on the dirt.
“The turf race is just a mile, whereas the dirt race is 1 1/16 miles,” O’Dowd said. “We know he loves 1 1/16 miles.”
Having three Breeders’ Cup starters as breeder is good news for any farm, but it’s remarkable for a 365-acre operation that has a relatively small broodmare band of 30 mares. The Clays have been breeding Thoroughbreds since Col. Ezekiel Clay set up the Paris, Ky., farm after the Civil War and started a breeding program with his brother-in-law, Catesby’s namesake, Catesby Woodford. Since then, the Clays and their land have produced some memorable stakes winners, including Miss Woodford, Hanover, and Ben Brush.
“They come in spurts, but Runnymede has had good success through the years,” Catesby Clay said of the Runnymede stakes winners. “I had some partnerships with Abram Hewitt, and he once said, ‘I don’t understand how Runnymede is breeding all these stakes-winners. It must be the land.’ ”
Runnymede’s latest purple patch has been going for more than a decade. Back in 2001, they sold yearling Reach for the Moon for $1.65 million, their highest-priced yearling at the time; she retired Group 1-placed. In 2003, they topped that personal best when they sold Panini for $1.9 million. This year, Runnymede-breds Laughing Lashes, Awesome Gem, and Jaycito all have performed well in Grade 1 company. Jaycito won the Norfolk, Awesome Gem won the Hollywood Gold Cup, and Laughing Lashes was third in Ireland’s Moyglare Stud Stakes.
Runnymede has had success with some sires who haven’t been the height of fashion. Neither Victory Gallop nor Smarty Jones were hot sale-ring sires when Clay and O’Dowd planned the matings that produced their sons Jaycito and Rogue Romance.
“Mr. Clay and I study these pedigrees in great depth,” O’Dowd said. “We go back many, many generations, and we look for the sire pedigrees that complement these female families of ours. We find two or three stallions that meet our criteria for that mare, then I go and look at the stallions to make sure the conformation will be compatible. The third aspect we look at is whether they’re commercial. But it’s in this order: pedigree compatibility, conformation compatibility, and finally, whether it works from a commercial point of view.”
Clay noted that Smarty Jones “was one whale of a racehorse” and said that Jaycito’s dam, Night Edition, is now in foal to him.
The farm also has had good luck with several mares by Ascot Knight. Night Edition produced Jaycito, and, earlier, Runnymede bred record-setting Grade 1 winner Divine Park and Grade 2 winners from Ascot Knight daughters.
But it hasn’t been all glory. On Monday, Clay got word that a promising Runnymede-bred juvenile in England had taken a bad step on the gallops, broken a leg, and been put down. And they lost Rogue Romance’s dam, Lovington, to founder in June.
“We were very fond of her,” O’Dowd said. “She was a real pet, and I’m not just saying that. We spent a long time in the hospital fighting for her life. Losing her was like losing a pet.”
Lovington, dam of three graded performers so far, left behind a Medaglia d’Oro filly, now a weanling.
“She left us something special, and then Rogue Romance jumps up,” O’Dowd said of the Afleet mare. “Maybe she’s repaying us for looking after her.”
So what’s the farm’s key to success?
“Godspeed,” Clay said. “We appreciate His creation, and we value His support.”
When Clay and his eight children gather at the Breeders’ Cup, they might have a pretty good connection in that regard. The party will include Clay’s son, Father Catesby “Chris” Clay Jr., 36, a pedigree scholar and bloodstock researcher who left the horse world for the priesthood in 2002.
“Doing this year after year, we’re trying to increase the probabilities by discussing the matings, what conformation fits, what nicks have worked,” the younger Clay said. “Some years things come together, and this just happens to be one of those years when the lightning strikes, so to speak, and we’re having a great run.”