11/12/2004 1:00AM

Tense moments for $5M mare's caretakers

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Moments before I'll Get Along sold for $5 million at Fasig-Tipton's Newtown Paddocks in Lexington last Sunday night, Crystal Fernung reached out and placed a hand on the mare's neck.

The 12-year-old I'll Get Along was standing in the walking ring behind Fasig-Tipton's pavilion, and, as expected, she was the center of attention. Horsemen and fans alike crowded along the wooden railings to get a look at the dam of 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones. The horse racing network TVG was there, and so was Fox news. So were racing fans who had never been to a horse sale. I'll Get Along, it seemed, belonged to the public now. That's why, just before the mare stepped into the auction ring, Crystal Fernung reached out to pat her bay neck a final time.

"I just had to touch her one more time while she was still ours," Fernung, 47, said.

Fernung and her husband Brent, 51, have been major players in I'll Get Along's story since 2001, when Brent Fernung bought the mare for $130,000 at auction for CloverLeaf Farms owner John Sykes. Fernung is general manager at CloverLeaf.

"I called him and I said, 'I went over my budget, but I got you the nicest mare I've ever bought for you,' " said Brent Fernung, who had no ownership interest in the mare.

They got more than they bargained for.

By the spring of 2004, when Smarty Jones was pointing for the Derby, I'll Get Along's value had appreciated well beyond her $130,000 purchase price. Sykes promptly booked the mare back to Smarty Jones's sire, Elusive Quality. Shortly after the mating took place, Smarty Jones won the Derby, vaulting his dam into one of the world's most exclusive equine clubs. Now carrying a full sibling to Smarty Jones, I'll Get Along had rapidly become the most valuable mare at CloverLeaf.

"Then a freak lightning storm hit Ocala," Crystal Fernung said. "Bang! Bang! I woke up and went into the living room, and Brent was already sitting there, looking out the window."

I'll Get Along was out in her pasture, and, with lightning striking all around, it was too dangerous to bring her in.

"Brent looked at me and said, 'We can't go out there and get her.' "

After that, Crystal Fernung said, the couple moved CloverLeaf's prize mare into a smaller paddock right outside their house.

While Smarty Jones won the Preakness and became an American idol, his dam grazed unconcernedly in the company of an old mare, Stutz Poker. I'll Get Along was now one of the most valuable mares in the world. The day before the Belmont Stakes, when Smarty Jones seemed on the verge of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, Sykes got a private offer almost too big to refuse: $3.5 million. Brent Fernung won't say who made it.

"But I told the boss, 'This is a snapshot in time. Today she's worth $3.5 million. I can't guarantee her value won't go down,' " said Fernung. "But if Smarty Jones wins the Triple Crown, I think she's worth $5 million.' "

Smarty Jones, as is well known, did not win the Triple Crown. He finished second in the Belmont, and soon afterwards Sykes announced he would put I'll Get Along in the Fasig-Tipton November auction.

The Fernungs' tribulations were not over. Between mid-August and late September, three major hurricanes blew across central Florida, downing power lines, tearing roofs off barns, and scattering fence boards across the landscape.

"This mare was probably worth more than everything else combined," Fernung said. So CloverLeaf twice evacuated I'll Get Along to a show-horse facility near Macon, Ga., along with CloverLeaf broodmare manager Ken Breitenbecker.

"It was all-encompassing, having that mare," Crystal Fernung said. "It was a lot of fun and a real life experience."

"It's not hard to second-guess yourself," Fernung said as he looked back on Smarty Jones's Belmont and CloverLeaf's decision to turn down the $3.5 million offer. "I was really sweating it out this week, because if she didn't bring more than $3 million, I was going to look pretty bad."

Brent and Crystal Fernung watched the Fasig-Tipton auction Sunday night from a doorway in the bidding arena. When the bidding passed $3 million, they embraced. When the hammer fell at $5 million and Olin Gentry signed the ticket for Gaines-Gentry Thoroughbreds, John Sykes locked Crystal Fernung in a bear hug.

"Let's face it," Brent Fernung said afterwards in the Fasig-Tipton bar, where he was buying the celebratory round. "We were on a free ride, a mini-Chapman experience. This was a signature moment for CloverLeaf."

"But, you know," Crystal Fernung added, "it's going to be kind of weird looking out at her paddock and not seeing her there."