05/05/2005 12:00AM

Small breeders, big results

Dianne Cotter has just five mares, but one of them - Hurry Home Hillary, above with Cotter - is Bellamy Road's dam.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - If the odds are against the little guy in racing, you'd never know it by looking at the breeders of this year's Kentucky Derby contenders. In a game dominated by the vast stables of such owners and breeders as Coolmore Stud and Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, the breeders of this year's Derby horses include an improbably high number of small-timers who don't seem to know that Thoroughbred racing is supposed to belong to the Goliaths.

Take Dianne Cotter. A nurse and self-professed city girl from Cleveland, Cotter got into Thoroughbred breeding by accident, when her husband bought a riding horse "that happened to be a Thoroughbred mare and happened to be pregnant," as she put it. Twenty-five years later, she has five mares at her Alachua, Fla., farm, and one of them is the dam of the Derby's probable favorite, Bellamy Road.

How did she do it?

"Well, there's a sign over our barn door that says, 'Luck is often better than skillful planning,' " Cotter, 67, explained.

The breeders of Afleet Alex, Buzzards Bay, Coin Silver, Flower Alley, Going Wild, High Limit, Noble Causeway, and others in the Derby field have more than luck in common. Many have fewer than five mares. Almost all have family-run operations and handle the duties themselves. Almost all breed to sell, meaning they won't benefit from the purse if their horse wins, but they all agree that the honor and the increased value a Derby winner gives his relatives are bonus enough.

Afleet Alex's breeder, John Martin Silvertand, who credits the horse with helping him endure cancer treatments and whose 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, bottle-fed Afleet Alex after his dam failed to produce any milk, has captured some media attention. But the rest remain largely outside the spotlight.

And none of them, it seems, ever really thought they would have a Derby horse.

"Somewhere, way up in the sky of my head, I'd think about it," said Michael Baum, who bred Noble Causeway in partnership with his wife, Reiko. "There's always a little place in your head for thinking that, but it doesn't seem real. It isn't realistic."

Said Cotter: "When a good one is born, you think, 'This is really a nice horse,' but you have no idea they'll go on and do this well."

In Bellamy Road's case, family history didn't suggest Triple Crown greatness. His granddam, Ten Cents a Turn, was so hard to handle at the track, Cotter said, "We finally had to quit because the jockeys wouldn't ride her." Ten Cents a Turn's daughter Hurry Home Hillary won her maiden but then became so fractious that her trainer gave up on her.

"He said, 'She's trying to kill us, I'm sending her home,' " Cotter recalled.

Bellamy Road, Hurry Home Hillary's second foal, has had no such trouble.

"He's always been kind and easy to deal with," Cotter said.

Cotter isn't the only one reaping rewards for perseverance. Jay Shaw, breeder of Santa Anita Derby winner Buzzards Bay, has bred five generations of that colt's family, including his sire, Marco Bay. When Florida breeders didn't flock to breed their mares to Marco Bay, Shaw moved the horse to Pennsylvania. The stallion covered just one mare, who didn't get in foal, and Shaw moved the horse back to Florida, where he now stands for $3,000. If Buzzards Bay wins the Derby, it won't be the first vindication for Shaw.

"Marimascus, the dam of Marco Bay, was a nice racehorse," he said. "But I had been told that I was overbreeding her by paying $15,000 to breed her to Copelan. But I did it anyway and proved them wrong when I got Marco Bay."

Shaw, 70, a retired corporate chairman, has four mares and breeds horses mainly for fun, the same way he collects art and no less than 30 varieties of roses in his Manhattan penthouse. For him, a Derby win would be a sporting achievement and a testament to another of his hobbies, studying pedigrees and planning matings.

"We do it like they did it a couple of hundred years ago," he said of his breeding program. "To me, it's a hobby, not a business."

For Michael and Reiko Baum, who own only three broodmares, Noble Causeway already has been big business. The Baums went out on a limb to buy his dam, Mimi's Golden Girl, at the 1999 Keeneland November sale for $475,000.

"I was above my limit," recalled Baum, 71. "I got together as much money as I could to get the best mare I could buy."

Her first foal, Noble Causeway, brought $1.15 million four years later at the 2003 Keeneland September yearling sale.

"He means as much to me now as if he were still ours," Baum said. "I think I'm very lucky. It's a thrill to have bred a horse that's even considered for the Derby, and obviously it makes the dam and her babies worth more. It's exciting to think of the money I could make now if I sold the mare, but that's not really why I'm in it. My purpose is to have the nicest mare I can have."

John O'Meara, co-breeder of Going Wild, is a lifelong horseman who is heavily invested in Thoroughbreds. He owns 165-acre Milestone Farm near Lexington, where he stands Mancini, a half-brother to Unbridled's Song; boards mares for clients; and breeds his own stock to sell. For O'Meara and partners Charlie Goldberg and Richard Rosee, Going Wild has been a real windfall. The trio bought the colt's dam, Pola, for $55,000 at the annual Adena Springs November auction, conducted by Fasig-Tipton. Pola was in foal to Alphabet Soup, and her price included a free mating to Golden Missile.

The result of the Golden Missile breeding was Going Wild, whom O'Meara and partners sold for $140,000 as a yearling.

Going Wild's exploits have increased Pola's value, especially now that she's back in foal to Golden Missile. And the publicity didn't hurt, either.

"It's an incredible buzz," O'Meara, 46, said of Going Wild's emergence as a Derby contender. "People know who you are and what you're doing."

George Brunacini has two chances to improve the values of his mares in the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Brunacini, who owns Bona Terra Farms in Georgetown, Ky., with Emilie Fojan, is the breeder of Flower Alley, and still has the colt's dam. He also owns Verbality, the granddam of Florida Derby winner High Fly. High Fly is a Live Oak Plantation homebred, but Brunacini feels a strong connection to High Fly, an Atticus colt.

"I have to root for High Fly, but it wouldn't hurt if Flower Alley won," Brunacini, 59, said. "Verbality's been a challenge to me for years, because she's only had two foals in the last nine years. I bought Verbality about six years ago. She had EPM" - equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, a sometimes fatal infection - "and hadn't had a baby for a few years. But she's a beautifully bred mare, and we've taken good care of her. I buy mares like that, who have the blood but for some reason come available at a little bit lower price."

A former contractor in Albuquerque, N.M., Brunacini seemed stuck with Flower Alley's dam, the Lycius mare Princess Olivia. He bought her for $32,000 in 2000, then tried to sell her several times at auction. In 2001, carrying Flower Alley, she failed to reach her reserve on a $10,000 bid. In 2002, carrying a full sibling to Flower Alley, she went unsold at $9,500. And last year, Brunacini bought her back at $23,000. In retrospect, that's not necessarily a bad thing. And now, of course, his phone has been ringing with offers for her.

If Flower Alley wins, he would also help another of Brunacini's investments - he is a shareholder in Distorted Humor, Flower Alley's sire.

"He wasn't all that well received as a stallion at that time, and I just happened to be looking at buying shares in stallions," Brunacini said. "That turned out to be a good investment."

For Clifford Barry, the key ingredient was the stallion when he sent the mare Known Romance to Maria's Mon, the 1995 juvenile champion. The result of that pairing: High Limit. Barry and his wife, Elizabeth, both 38, breed horses in the name of Brookfield Farm, although they don't actually own a farm. Barry is general manager of Josephine Abercrom-bie's Pin Oak Stud in Versailles, Ky., where Maria's Mon stands.

"He's one of my favorite horses of all time," Barry said of Maria's Mon.

The Barrys keep two or three mares, usually boarding one at Pin Oak and the others elsewhere, and they generally breed to sell. They didn't have High Limit or his dam for long. They bought Known Romance in 2001 and sold her privately, with the foal High Limit by her side, in 2002. But that was just long enough for them to become the breeders of a potential Derby winner.

"I try not to think about it too much!" Barry said. "How lucky can you get to have a couple of mares and get a horse that can run like this?"

Known Romance's buyer, Domino Stud, stands to gain if High Limit takes the roses. But the Barrys don't regret their decision to sell.

"I would never end up racing something I bred," Barry said. "I feel like it would be a conflict of interest, with me working for Pin Oak. Everything I have is for sale."

In this case, Pin Oak's team feels it has a stake in the Barrys' success, too.

"Everyone is just bubbling over about this horse," Elizabeth Barry said, "especially because of Maria's Mon.

"You know, this is what helps small breeders compete with the big ones, the hope that you can get a horse like this. Whether you have a hair of a horse or 100 horses, you always have that dream. It's what keeps you going."