08/20/2003 11:00PM

Strong Hope gives owner just that


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - When Eugene Melnyk came to the Saratoga yearling sales in 2001, he was intent on buying a son of Storm Cat out of the mare Gone to Venus.

Melnyk's trip was delayed, and he had to do his bidding from his private airplane. Every time the plane dropped below 15,000 feet, Melnyk would lose his cell-phone connection. Melnyk eventually lost out on the colt to bloodstock agent John Ferguson, who purchased him for $3.3 million for Godolphin Racing. The colt, Habayeb, now races for Darley Stud and has won just 1 of 5 starts and banked a paltry $17,635.

Losing that yearling only strengthened Melnyk's resolve to purchase his second choice of the sale, a son of Grand Slam out of the unraced mare Shining Through. Melnyk had only planned to spend $1.5 million for him, but he made one more bid and bought him for $1.7 million. The yearling had already been named Strong Hope by his breeder, Tom Evans.

Three weeks ago, Strong Hope gave Melnyk his biggest thrill in racing when he defeated Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. It was Strong Hope's fifth consecutive victory after a loss in his debut, and it made him one of the horses to fear in Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

"If he could beat Empire Maker again and then go on to do something else this fall, he's got a shot at becoming the 3-year-old champion," Melnyk said this week from Italy where he was vacationing with his wife Laura and daughters Anna and Olivia. "That's something everyone dreams about."

Melnyk's dreams of becoming a major player in Thoroughbred racing have been coming true for the past several years. Though he began owning horses in Canada in the mid-1980's, it wasn't until the mid-1990's that his operation took off.

In 1996, he bought his first yearling at auction. That colt, Archer's Bay, won the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown and claimed the Sovereign Award as Canada's champion 3-year-old colt of 1998. In the past few years, Melnyk has campaigned stakes winners Graeme Hall, Harmony Lodge, Marley Vale, Tweedside, Lodge Hill, and Fisher Pond. Harmony Lodge is running in Sunday's Grade 1 Ballerina here.

Melnyk has rapidly increased his interests in the sport. In January 2002, he purchased Winding Oaks Farms, a 1,000-acre property in Ocala, Fla., formerly known as Mockingbird Farm. Melnyk said he has 100 broodmares and another 100 horses, from weanlings through horses of racing age. At the most recent Saratoga yearling sales, he spent $1.1 million on a daughter of Storm Cat out of the champion mare Jewel Princess.

Melnyk, a native of Canada, amassed his wealth as the chairman and CEO of a pharmaceutical company named Biovail. He now lives in Barbados, West Indies, and names all of his horses after landmarks in Barbados.

Though Strong Hope had already been named when Melnyk bought him, coincidentally that is also the name of a Barbados sugar plantation. Melnyk's horses run in the blue and yellow colors of the Barbadian flag.

Melnyk, 44, has been loyal to other jurisdictions as well. As a native of Canada, Melnyk couldn't help but become a hockey fan. Earlier this year, when the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League were up for sale, Melnyk stepped in and bought them to make sure they would stay in Canada.

"The last thing I wanted to see was the team of the national sport of the country's capital moving out of there," Melnyk said. "Before I was a horse racing fan, I was a hockey fan. The deal closes on Tuesday of next week. Between horse racing and hockey, I have my fill of sports."

Melnyk races most of his horses in New York. This year, he ranks as New York's sixth-leading owner in wins (14) and earnings ($857,415). Melnyk displayed his loyalty to New York by donating $1 million to help the New York Racing Association build a day-care center on the backstretch of Belmont Park. Anna House, named after Melnyk's daughter, opened in 2002 and can accommodate up to 80 children.

Melnyk was one of the early supporters of Todd Pletcher when the trainer went out on his own in 1996. For Pletcher, a Travers win would be payback.

"It would be meaningful to win the Travers for the Melnyks, because they supported me early in my career," Pletcher said. "They go to the yearling sales and spend a lot of money trying to get horses good enough to run in races like this. For them, the Travers would be a huge win. Because of that, the Travers is more important for me."