04/30/2008 12:00AM

Small band has big impact

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When Nora and Al Figliolia arrive at Churchill Downs on Friday for the Kentucky Oaks, they will be enjoying their first-ever full afternoon at the races. And they will be doing it in style. The couple breed Thoroughbreds at their Westbury Stables near Ocala, Fla., and in just six years in the business, they have turned up with Oaks contender Awesome Chic as well as Kentucky Derby starter Denis of Cork.

A breeder has won the Oaks and Derby in the same year at least three times before: Col. E.R. Bradley's Idle Hour Stock Farm won the Derby and Oaks in 1933 with Brokers Tip and Barn Swallow, and Calumet Farm did it in 1949 with Ponder and Wistful and in 1952 with Hill Gail and Real Delight.

Whether they win either race, the Figliolias' feat is all the more impressive when you consider that they own only 15 broodmares, and their foal crop of 2005 that produced Denis of Cork and Awesome Chic numbered just seven.

That tiny crop also has yielded a stakes winner in France, this one a Hennessy filly named Deep Dish Pie. The Figliolias sold all three runners. Denis of Cork brought $120,000 as a yearling at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's August sale, then sold to current owners Mr. and Mrs. William K. Warren Jr. for $250,000 at the Barretts March 2-year-old auction. The Figliolias sold Awesome Chic as a juvenile to Aurora Springs Stable for $100,000 at the Ocala Breeders' Sales April sale.

"We are thrilled and excited," Nora Figliolia, 59, said. "To have one in on Friday and one in on Saturday is beyond our dreams for our little farm. We've been blessed."

Whether by grace of God, good luck, or astute planning, the Figliolias have ascended to a plane many larger-scale breeders never reach, and they got there by an unusual path. Neither Nora nor Al, 69, grew up with horses. About 15 years ago, the couple were dividing their time between New York, where Al was an industrial developer and owned Sunset Industrial Park, and south Florida. Then Nora was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder, and a family friend who was a physician and horse owner suggested that she try therapeutic riding

"He said, 'Equine therapy is so wonderful for people who are having muscle issues and joint issues, because you don't have to gallop off into the sunset, you just get on, move around at a walk, and the natural rhythm of the animal will exercise your muscles,' " Nora Figliolia said. A lifelong athlete who could no longer tolerate the physical stress of pounding the pavement, Figliolia agreed to try and immediately fell in love with her four-legged therapists.

The couple later purchased 47 acres in Ocala, and they expanded into Thoroughbred breeding. A mutual friend introduced them to Barbara and Francis Vanlangendonck of Summerfield Sales in Ocala, now their main advisers.

The Figliolias and Vanlangendoncks will be together for the Oaks and the Derby.

"Every time I speak with Nora, I say, 'Now, you realize, statistically, we won't win,' so we don't set ourselves up for disappointment, but in your heart it's what you want so much," Barbara Vanlangendonck, 55, said with a laugh. "We're concentrating on how proud we are and how blessed we are to be there. I can't tell you how many rosaries have been said for these horses. The beads are clicking, and, so far, someone's listening! For Denis to have gotten into the Derby by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin, that's pretty amazing."

Denis of Cork, a Harlan's Holiday colt, had been on the bubble for the Derby until Monday, when Behindatthebar's defection opened a spot for him.

"I have always loved the horses, but this is, of course, very different from just riding horses," Nora Figliolia said of Thoroughbred breeding. "This is something you really have to study and surround yourself with wonderful people and be dedicated to. We've been fortunate to have good people working with us."

The Figliolias credit their farm staff and farm manager Melissa Bailey, as well as the Vanlangendoncks, 2-year-old sellers Jacqui and Nick De Meric, and Journeyman Stud owners Crystal and Brent Fernung for guiding them along the way. The Vanlangendoncks work most closely with the Figliolias to select mares, plan matings, and determine potential sale values. From the beginning, say the Figliolias and the Vanlangendoncks, the plan was to develop a small but high-quality commercial broodmare band that produced not just sale horses, but real racehorses.

"We didn't want to be a factory," Nora Figliolia said. "We never wanted to be so big that we couldn't keep our hands on it."

The Figliolias literally do keep their hands on everything from the hammers that built the barns to the foals as they are being born. Al has planned and built Westbury Stables' barns and paddocks and overseen the operation's expansion from 47 acres to about 250 acres, and he is happy to pitch in with the horses, too, his wife says. Nora, meanwhile, works directly with the farm's horses: the broodmares and their foals as well as half a dozen other horses, including a Percheron driving horse named Big Daddy, an ex-racehorse named Jack Be Nimble, and the farm's teaser, who is blind in one eye.

She remembers Denis of Cork's birth particularly well. Most mares foal at night in a stall, but Denis of Cork's dam, Unbridled Girl, was out in a field across from the Figliolias' house during the day when the time came. Nora Figliolia, then-farm manager Janie Keeton, and a maintenance worker named Jose were the first to touch the newborn Harlan's Holiday colt.

"Denis was born right at the gate," Figliolia said. "Jose and I picked him up. He was all wet, and I had his head and front legs and Jose had his back end, and we carried him back into the foaling stall."

Awesome Chic's dam, Trading, was one of the first mares the Figliolias purchased when they decided six years ago to breed Thoroughbreds. She had a high-risk pregnancy carrying Awesome Chic, an Awesome Again filly, and she was euthanized in 2007 when she foundered after producing a Dynaformer colt.

"I was in the hospital with her and crying, and I said, 'I'll take care of your babies,'" Figliolia recalled. "Awesome Chic was my favorite girl. She thinks she's a big horse. We'd turn the other fillies out at about 7 in the evening when it got cool, and the others would romp around the field for a few minutes and then put their heads down and eat. But she was one of those fillies that would gallop and gallop, stop and get a little bite to eat, and gallop again."

The Figliolias have raced a couple of horses, donating all their earnings to the nonprofit foundation Race for the Cure, which funds cancer research. But it is the Westbury breeding program that has taken off most dramatically, thanks especially to Trading and Unbridled Girl, whom the Figliolias bought for $100,000 and $95,000, respectively.

"The girls have been so good to me, I can't imagine not being there for them," she said. "And when you pull that baby out and they look up at you with those big brown eyes, it's just a miracle. Yes, it's a product, but, to my husband and me, our product is a living thing, and we're responsible to give back to these animals in a way that is kind and supportive and loving."

Looks like the horses are repaying the favor.