For owners and trainers of 2-year-olds, autumn means a look into the proverbial crystal ball and seeing images beginning to take shape of the following spring’s classic horses, and sometimes even beyond.
Last autumn appeared no different. On Nov. 2, Beholder’s victory over grade I winners Executiveprivilege and Dreaming of Julia and grade II winner Kauai Katie in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies provided a promising peek into the future.
On Nov. 24, Unlimited Budget and Emollient ran 1-2 in the Demoiselle Stakes and justified that form by winning the grade II Fair Grounds Oaks and grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes, respectively, in 2013. On the same day, Seaneen Girl captured the Golden Rod Stakes and would come back this year to romp in the Monmouth Oaks. On Nov. 17, Rose to Gold won the Delta Downs Princess Stakes and carried her form into 2013, winning the Fantasy Stakes and Honeybee Stakes. On Nov. 22, Fiftyshadesofhay broke her maiden at Betfair at Hollwood Park by 3 1/4 lengths and would go on to win the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and Iowa Oaks this year.
So, the foundation for the 2013 3-year-old filly division appeared to be very strong during that promising month of November.
Meanwhile, at Penn National Race Course, light years away from the traditional spawning grounds of future champions, Todd Pletcher (yes, the same Todd Pletcher) was running a 2-year-old Pennsylvania-bred filly named Princess of Sylmar in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race, in which she finished a fast-closing fourth, racing for Ed Stanco’s King of Prussia Stable. On Nov. 8, the homebred filly came back in a one-mile maiden race at Penn National, winning by a breathtaking 19 lengths. Impressive, yes, but it still was Penn National, one of the last places you would normally find one of Todd Pletcher’s brilliant 2-year-olds or a future classic winner.
But this is Thoroughbred racing, where nothing should be taken for granted. Nine months later, most of the major 2-year-stars are gone and Princess of Sylmar is one race away from nailing down the 3-year-filly championship in the Aug. 17 Alabama Stakes following a string of impressive victories over Aqueduct’s inner track, including the Busanda and Busher Stakes, and back-to-back scores in the grade I Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks, the latter by a widening six lengths.
With the majority of the top 2-year-old fillies from last year either sidelined or heading in other directions, only Fiftyshadesofhay remains of the aforementioned group to challenge Princess of Sylmar in the Alabama.
Not only has Princess of Sylmar emerged as this year’s Cinderella story, even her mating was an accident.
Bloodstock agent and former jockey Joe Brocklebank, who actually met Stanco through Pletcher, had purchased her dam, Storm Dixie, at the Midlantic 2-year-old sale at Timonium for $67,000. The daughter of Catienus had been sold by breeders’ Ken and Sarah Ramsey at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred yearling sale for only $20,000. After being withdrawn from the Ocala 2-year-olds in training sale the following year, she showed up at Timonium a month later, where Brocklebank purchased her for Stanco.
“She was an exceptionally well made filly, and Catienus turned into a good broodmare sire and the Ramseys were supporting him,” Brocklebank said. “I was all over the filly, because so was so well made and she could run. She galloped out really well at the sale. Several people told me how stupid I was spending that much money on a Catienus. She won first time out at Saratoga at 2 going a mile and a sixteenth on the grass, but just ran OK after that. When the time came to breed her, she was scheduled to go to Grand Slam, but he got kicked the night before.”
Storm Dixie was residing at Ronnie and Betsy Houghton’s Sylmar Farm in Christiana, Pa. in south Lancaster County, where Stanco’s horses are foaled and raised.
“We had to make a last-minute decision who to breed her to,” Betsy Houghton said.
Brocklebank had just the right substitute stallion. “I had looked at Majestic Warrior and he was a stunning looking individual,” he said. “The pedigree and conformation were there. I thought for the money he was a steal. At $10,000 it seemed like a no-brainer to me. So, there was no real master plan. We were just trying to match the best physical to the best physical.”
It was the Houghton’s son Bernie who actually foaled Princess of Sylmar. The Houghtons are a family-run operation, with Bernie training 33 horses at Penn National. One daughter, Robin Perry, works in the office, another daughter, Wendy Kinnamon, breaks yearling and uses their training track, and another son, Michael. is a trucker who delivers all their hay and straw. Bernie’s wife Shannon and Michael’s wife Melissa both work in the broodmare barn and assist with the foaling.
Although Betsy is one that is always quoted, she says Ronnie is the mastermind of the operation. “I just do the talking,” she said.
The Houghtons moved to Pennsylvania 37 years ago after having a farm in Maryland, which they named Sylmar Farm.
“Part of the road we lived on was in Maryland and part was in Pennsylvania, so it was named Sylmar Road – the Syl from Pennsylvania and the Mar from Maryland,” Betsy said. “We named our farm Sylmar Farm, and when we moved to Pennsylvania we were a corporation so we didn’t want to change it.
“When Storm Dixie’s filly was a couple of months old, I told Ed we had to come up with nice name for her, because we like to register them early as soon as we get the papers. He called me the next day and said, ‘Betsy, would you mind if we named her Princess of Sylmar?’ I kidded with him and said, ‘That would be fine, but that’s going to put a lot of pressure on Todd Pletcher.’ He told me, ‘She’s so pretty and I just think that would be such a great name for her.’”
Right from the beginning, the Houghtons thought they had something in Princess of Sylmar.
“Her mother was terrific to work with, and she was the same way,” Betsy said. “She always acted like a nice filly. She had a great temperament the whole time. Nothing at all bothered her and she was just a happy filly all the time. When we sent her to Todd she was breaking out of the gate and was up to three-eighths of a mile in her works. Every time we worked her she would go better than the horse she was working with. We usually only work two 2-year-olds together, because we have a five-eighths of a mile track and it’s pretty tight. Ronnie always makes sure they stay together. We don’t like to have one beat the other. But we would notice, when they came around the turn, the boy on her workmate would be riding his horse and the boy on Princess of Sylmar would be sitting still in order for them to stay together. Ronnie and I both said, “You know, this filly can run. She acts like she has a lot of ability.
“We could never believe she would turn out the way she has, but we did like her a lot. You knew just being around her that she had more than enough ability. But it was her great temperament. She didn’t like the noise of the starting gate or when the irons would hit the side, so Ronnie put cotton in her ears and it just made an unbelievable difference, and now she does everything with her ears stuffed with cotton.”
The Houghtons, who have been married for 51 years, and Stanco have had a close relationship over the years. Ronnie and Betsy run a top-classic facility, breeding, training, and breaking yearlings, with 300 acres and a one-mile turf course to go along with the dirt track. They keep about 40 mares on the farm, 10 of which are their own. All their horses are kept outside in large fields, and Princess of Sylmar wasn’t in a stall until she started being broken.
Stanco, a former resident of Schenectady, N.Y., has been with Pletcher for about a dozen years and was one of his first clients. It was Pletcher who told Joe Brocklebank to see if he could find a horse for him at the sale. He purchased Capeside Lady for $65,000 at the Timonium sale and she went on to win seven stakes and earn over $800,000, racing under the name So Madcapt Stable.
“Ed is a wonderful person and a great family man, and he thinks of nothing but this horse,” Betsy said. “He just called one day and said he had this filly (who had placed in a small stakes at Belmont at 2) who was ready to be retired and he wanted to send her here. In addition to Storm Dixie, we also have another really nice mare named Raise a Kitty for him. We have all their babies here. We have a 2-year-old (by Flatter) out of Raise a Kitty and an E Dubai yearling filly out of Storm Dixie and a couple of their babies (by Jump Start and Petionville, respectively). I talk to Ed about every day. His home is in Malvern, Pa., and that’s only about a half an hour from the farm. His family, friends, and neighbors have been so excited about this filly; she’s taken them on such a wonderful ride.”
When it was decided to send her to Penn National for her career debut, Ronnie and Betsy weren’t surprised one bit.
“She’s Pennsylvania-bred and the money at Penn National is so good now they figured it out, with the pot and breeders’ awards, it was worth running here,” Betsy said. “They had put her in a race at Parx and it didn’t go, and the track at Penn National actually is a very good surface.”
From that first race, the dream just continued to escalate and reached a state of delirium in the winner’s circle of the CCA Oaks, where 125 of Stanco’s friends and relatives, some coming from as far away as Tokyo, celebrated by shouting out Ed-die! Ed-die!
“It was an explosion of emotions,” Stanco said. “I can remember driving with my uncle down Nelson Ave. in Saratoga when I was 8 or 9 and falling in love with horses, just watching them cross Nelson Ave. to go to the main track. I started handicapping horses, then owning horses, then winning a race at Saratoga. And now to win a grade I at Saratoga was just overwhelming. It literally was the culmination of a lifetime dream. And having that many people come from all over to be there was so rewarding and so thrilling.”
When Stanco sent Princess of Sylmar to Pletcher, he told him, “Take as long as you possibly can with her. I want her perfect for her first start, and I don’t care if she doesn’t start until 3.” Even early on, the ultimate goal was the Alabama Stakes.
“One thing about Todd, he gives just as much attention to a smaller owner’s horses as he does the bigger-name horses,” Stanco said. “We actually planned her campaign starting with her allowance win in December. It was decided to go easy with her and let her grow. She won the Busanda (by 7 1/2 lengths) pushing through a wall of horses on her own. Then after she won the Busher (by seven lengths), people started saying the inner track horses aren’t that good. When Close Hatches beat her in the Gazelle, it was tough race, but probably was the best experience of her entire campaign, because we learned more from that race, that she wanted to come from behind and give that one kick.”
After following Princess of Sylmar through her inner track campaign, Stanco suddenly found himself at Churchill Downs for the Longines Kentucky Oaks. He figured Pletcher’s big filly, Dreaming of Julia, was a cut above everyone else, but felt Princess of Sylmar belonged in the next tier with four or five other fillies. He had the option of running two weeks later in the Black-eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico, but decided to go for the big one. Standing in the winner’s circle, however, he was jolted back to reality when he looked at the odds board and saw Princess of Sylmar at 38-1.
“I said to my wife, ‘Uh, oh, I think we have a problem,’” Stanco said. “I asked Todd,’ Do you really think we have a shot?’ and he replied, ‘Absolutely.’”
Princess of Sylmar proved the bettors wrong, unleashing a powerful stretch run to win by a half-length over Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Beholder, and then proved her victory in the Kentucky Oaks was no fluke by demolishing her opposition in the CCA Oaks.
“Now we have the favorite for the Alabama, and I say, ‘God, just please let her stay healthy and have a nice trip,’” Stanco said.
Stanco visits with her as often as possible and asks everyone, except Pletcher, how she’s doing. “He’s so busy, and I believe in letting the doctor do his work. Two works back, her exercise rider, Jake Nelson, had to stand in the irons to hold her back and she worked great. Now she’s had another good work and Todd has been using words about how excited he is that I’ve never heard from him before.”
Now that the Alabama is getting closer, Stanco isn’t getting too anxious. “Four days and four and a half hours to go,” he said. “I haven’t slept all week. It’s just shocking to me how far she’s come. It’s truly a blessing.”
Princess of Sylmar has a habit of digging deep into her alfalfa and then....
Flinging it out of the tub