06/12/2009 11:00PM

An unlikely path to Belmont glory

Barbara D. Livingston
Owners Drs. Kalarikkal (center) and Vilasini Devi (right) Jayaraman celebrate Summer Bird's victory in the Belmont Stakes with New York Gov. David Paterson.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Maybe it was inevitable that Drs. Kalarikkal and Vilasini Devi Jayaraman would someday own a Belmont Stakes winner.

It seems unlikely that a cardiologist and a pathologist who emigrated from India with no previous interest in horses would somehow end up as full-time Thoroughbred breeders and win the 2009 Belmont with a homebred they broke themselves. But as Devi Jayaraman points out, they are from Kerala, India.

"That's the name of the dam of Damascus," she said with a laugh. "Maybe that was it."

Maybe so. It can't hurt to have the dam of the 1967 Belmont winner somewhere in your background if you're breeding for the classics. The Jayaramans have made an unusual trip from horse apathy to horse ownership, but they were hardly novices in the game by the time they won their first classic race. The husband-and-wife team has been racing and breeding horses since the early 1980s, first in Hot Springs, Ark., and Louisiana, and more recently from their base in Ocala, Fla. They've bred a Grade 1 winner before: Dearest Trickski. They also raced Grade 1 winner Irish Actor.

"Every year, you get one or two good horses, which keeps it going," Kalarikkal, 69, said.

The couple owns 18 broodmares, some in Florida and some in Kentucky, but they are modest about their success in breeding the Belmont winner.

"Breeding is halfway science and halfway guesswork," said Devi, 66.

Summer Bird is the Jayaramans's best homebred runner by far, and comes from a breeding program that started almost by chance.

The Jayaramans got the racing itch while living in Hot Springs. Devi, a pathologist, was the first to go to Oaklawn Park with Dr. Thomas Burrow, a urologist at their hospital. Kalarikkal rarely attended.

"I never cared anything about the horses," he said.

Kalarikkal focused on cardiology and his own hobby, flying. But his wife's interest deepened, and eventually she bred a few horses in partnership with Burrow, mostly to sell. When Burrow died, his son asked Kalarikkal if he would mind flying him up to Kentucky, where the horses would sell. That trip in the summer of 1984, the Jayaramans say, changed everything.

"He wanted me to buy one of the horses for $50,000, and I told him that that was too much money to spend on a horse," Kalarikkal, also known as K.K., recalled. "Wayne Lukas bought that horse for $350,000, and it was Twilight Ridge."

Twilight Ridge later won the 1985 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

"I bought a Golden Act colt at the same sale without knowing anything about horses, and I don't remember what I paid for it, maybe $25,000," he said. "It ended up as a $5,000 claiming horse."

The thrill of that first purchase fresh in his mind, its future as a $5,000 claimer still unknown, Kalarikkal went on a buying spree, to his wife's concern.

"It scared me to death," Devi said. "We ended up with about 17 or 18 horses. I said, 'What are we doing?' He said, 'It's like playing the numbers. One of them should be good.' "

One was: the Grade 3 winner Lyphard's Ridge, a $25,000 yearling.

"I bought that one," Devi said. "A Lyphard's Wish colt out of a Riva Ridge mare, I told him you can't go wrong with that."

The Jayaramans are hands-on owners with deep interest in their horses' training and a reputation for changing trainers. Kalarikkal himself says they've had 82 public trainers and seven private ones, including Summer Bird's rookie trainer, Tim Ice.

One of the private ones that didn't work out was Kalarikkal himself. He lasted six months.

"One season at Louisiana Downs and Oaklawn Park in 1999 to 2000," he said. "I was on the leading trainer's list at Oaklawn Park. I wasn't No. 1, but I was on the list.

"Pat Pope was the racing secretary at Louisiana then, and he told me one day, 'You're always here, why don't you go take out a license?'

"I did it, but I told my wife, 'I'm going to fire myself.' It's not very easy to be a trainer, I'll tell you that. Being a cardiologist is easier than being a trainer. For one thing, you have to manage the people that work for you. I know English, but most of the people working at the racetrack speak Spanish, and I don't know Spanish. And I don't know how to get on a horse, so it makes it a little difficult to tell them how to ride your horse."

One of the fillies who frustrated her owner-trainer's desire to win races that year was Hong Kong Squall. The Jayaramans had paid just $22,000 for her as a yearling.

Hong Kong Squall never won her maiden but became a Kalarikkal favorite anyway.

"She was always right there," Kalarikkal explained. "Then she got a chip in her knee, and the surgery didn't go quite right, so we retired her. We never ran her in a claiming race, because we wanted to keep her. She was always well behaved and always looking for a peppermint every morning. She's like a little dog."

The Jayaramans bred Hong Kong Squall to Proudest Romeo and Stark Ridge early in her broodmare career and got four winners but no black type. For year five, 2005, they changed tack and sent her to Kentucky to meet Birdstone. Kalarikkal suggested Birdstone for his toughness and relatively low fee of $10,000.

"I always liked Storm Birds," said Devi, pointing out that that stallion is both Hong Kong Squall's grandsire and Birdstone's broodmare sire. That inbreeding appealed to Devi, who also is interested in genetics.

"We don't do Dosage analysis or get an expert or anything," Kalarikkal said. "We did that when we first started, but you spend all that money and then don't get the right things. We've always run the business on limited resources, and my wife knows the bloodlines better than I do."

The Jayaramans retired about 10 years ago and moved to Ocala, where they own 17-acre Tiffany Farm. They lease an additional 40 acres and have access to a six-furlong track that surrounding operations maintain communally. This is where Summer Bird got his first early lessons from Kalarikkal and barn manager Francisca Martinez.

"He was a good-looking colt, like the mare," Kalarikkal said. "There was nothing to fault on him. When he came to us in Ocala, you know, some colts develop fast with explosive speed, and he didn't do that. But he was a good colt. He didn't even buck his shins. He developed a little slower than the rest of them, but he was always a nice horse."

The Jayaramans kept Summer Bird until he was 3.

"He told me, 'This one looks like he is going to be nice, but he's big. Big horses going early end up in trouble,' so he held him back," Devi said of her husband.

The wait paid off beyond all expectations.

Hong Kong Squall was bred last week to Birdstone and has a 2009 Friends Lake filly.

"All my horses are for sale for a price," Kalarikkal said, "and if I sell her for a decent price, she'll get a good home anyway."

Devi's betting the 13-year-old mare will stay put.

"Sometimes he'll say, 'Oh, we're getting old, maybe she's better off with somebody else,' " she said. "I tell him he never thinks about that when he breeds these horses.

"But this is fantastic. I think maybe I'll wake up, it's a dream," she said. "This is all we talk about, this is all we do, is horses."