John Clay

John Clay: Bourbon County breeders bursting with Derby pride

Kentucky Derby hopeful Orb, with exercise rider Jenn Patterson aboard, gallops at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Friday, April 26, 2013.
Kentucky Derby hopeful Orb, with exercise rider Jenn Patterson aboard, gallops at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Friday, April 26, 2013.

PARIS — Here in the heart of horse country, the town of Paris calls itself the "Thoroughbred Capital of the World."

Saturday's 139th running of the Kentucky Derby might be living proof.

One quarter of the 20-horse field was foaled within a 5-mile radius in Bourbon County. Four of the five were born on the stretch of Ky. 627 that connects Winchester with Paris.

Florida Derby winner Orb and UAE Derby winner Lines of Battle were both foaled at Claiborne Farm, which sits on Winchester Road and has long been at the pinnacle of Thoroughbred breeding.

Bourbon County's three other Derby contenders are from more modest but successful operations.

Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents was bred and raised at Chuck and Lyra Miller's Rosecrest Farm on Winchester Road, just down the road from Claiborne.

Gotham winner Vyjack was bred and raised at Craig and Carrie Brogden's Machmer Hall Farm on Winchester Road, also a stone's throw from where Secretariat retired from racing.

And a couple of miles over, as the crow flies, Holy Bull winner Itsmyluckyday was bred and raised at Jim and Pam Robinson's Brandywine Farm on Jackstown Road.

"What are the odds of five of them within five miles?" Pam Robinson asked this week. "I don't know the history, but you wonder if that's ever happened before."

"It's just, 'Gollee,'" Lyra Miller said. "That's how I feel about the whole thing."

Chuck Miller was a farm boy from Minnesota who went to medical school in Cincinnati and met Lyra. The two settled in the Queen City, but Chuck Miller knew he always wanted to retire to the farm and own Thoroughbreds.

"Every year when we came down to Keeneland, we would always end up in Paris," Lyra said.

They bought Rosecrest in 2005 and opened a bed-and-breakfast there. Lyra also owns Lil's Coffee House in Paris. So much for retirement, "but we love it," Lyra said.

When co-breeder Karyn Pirrello brought the mare Golden Works to Rosecrest in foal to Into Mischief, the Millers bought half-interest.

Did they know they had a Derby horse when Goldencents was born?

"If I thought that, I don't think we would have sold him for $5,500," Lyra said. "You never know where they're going to come from."

For the Millers, part of the pre-Derby fun has been hearing from guests who stayed at the bed and breakfast.

"They'll email me pictures they took here and ask, 'Is that one Goldencents?'" Miller said. "They're so excited about the horse."

Like Goldencents, Vyjack is by Spendthrift Farm's first-time sire Into Mischief, although Vyjack is not Machmer Hall's first Derby horse. The farm bred Join in the Dance, which came in seventh in the 2009 Derby.

The Brogdens, along with Carrie's mother, Sandy Willwerth, moved from Virginia in 2001 when they bought a 105-acre tract simply because it was between Seth Hancock's Claiborne Farm, with connections to five Derby winners, and Arthur Hancock's Stone Farm, with connections to three Derby winners.

"The first crop we raised here, we had a Grade I winner in Premium Tap," Carrie said. "It has to be the limestone and the grass."

As soon as Vyjack was born, Craig Brogden, a native of Australia, told his wife they had a "stunner." Two weeks later, the Brogdens told Spendthrift Farm that Vyjack was exceptional.

"Spendthrift used him in all their ads," Carrie said. "He was just born that way."

Liberation Farm and Brandywine Farm bred Itsmyluckday, by Lawyer Ron, but the colt was foaled and raised at Brandywine, which also prepped him for sale.

"We've known him from the time his two little feet were sticking out," Pam said.

Brandywine Farm had bred a classic winner in 2011 Belmont champion Ruler on Ice, so did the Robinsons know what they had with this foal?

"You hope that every single one is a Derby horse, but you never know," Pam said. "He was a very athletic, good-moving foal, I will say that."

The Robinsons bred Thoroughbreds in North Carolina, came to Kentucky for a sale and bought Brandywine three days later. That was 16 years ago.

"We don't take vacations," said Pam, a former professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "We can't think of anything else we'd rather be doing."

The Bourbon Countians all know and root for one another, which makes this year's good fortune even more meaningful.

"People question us: 'Isn't it hard to break into the business, it being a small town?'" Lyra Miller said. "But we've just been fortunate to meet so many great people. Arthur and Staci Hancock have just welcomed us with open arms."

The Millers were at Keeneland last spring to see a horse of theirs run when up came Dell Hancock of Claiborne. "She said she saw in the program that we had a horse and she just had to come down and wish us good luck," Miller said. "And we won."

In that spirit, and to celebrate this year's good fortune, the Bourbon County Homegrown Derby Celebration will be held Thursday night at Clay's Downtown Restaurant in Paris. Arthur Hancock III and his son Arthur Hancock IV will play bluegrass music.

On Saturday, the Brogdens and the Millers will be at Churchill Downs. The Brogdens have missed one Derby in the past 15 years. On Tuesday, Lyra Miller was in Lexington shopping for a new hat.

The Robinsons have decided they will watch the race from home, where they can get a better view and listen to the commentary.

"I think I'll just try to help the horse around the track by jumping up and down at home instead of making a fool of myself in front of everyone at the track," Pam said.

Let's put it this way: In a field of 20 horses, there's a 25 percent chance that someone from that 5-mile plot in Bourbon County will be in the winner's circle.

"That's just crazy," Carrie Brogden said.

"I guess it's just buying a farm on the right road in the right county," Lyra Miller said. "And lots of luck."

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