Darby Dan Back on the Derby Trail

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, and into the '80s, the name Darby Dan Farm and the Galbreath family were synonymous with the Triple Crown, especially the Kentucky Derby. The names still resound in my brain, with several of them finding a way into my heart forever. If it wasn’t for one in particular I would not be writing this column or any column for that matter, for he dramatically altered the course of my life and brought me to where I am today.

The glory days of Darby Dan and the Galbreaths (John, his son Dan and daughter and son-in-law Jody and James W. Phillips) began with Chateaugay’s victories in the 1963 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and continued through Kentucky Derby winner Proud Clarion in 1967 and Preakness and Belmont winner Little Current in 1974, and all the prominent horses on the Derby trail, such as Florida Derby winners Prince Thou Art, Brian’s Time, and Proud Truth, Sanhedrin (who chased Seattle Slew in 1977, finishing second in the Wood Memorial and third in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes), and Darby Creek Road (who chased Affirmed and Alydar).

But the most brilliant horse of them all, who many believe was one of the most brilliant horses of all time, was the sensational phenom Graustark.

In 1965, Loyd (Boo) Gentry was training the Darby Dan babies at St. Lucie training center in Florida (now Payson Park). Among the group was a magnificent-looking liver chestnut by Ribot, out of Flower Bowl named Graustark, who showed right away he was something special, tearing up the track in the mornings.

One day, their main trainer, Jimmy Conway, went down to see the 2-year-olds, but was never shown Graustark. When John Galbreath sent a string to Chicago with Gentry, Graustark went with him and began rattling off one spectacular victory after another. Te word was out that Darby Dan had something truly special.

An outraged Conway confronted Galbreath, telling him he believed Boo and Olin had conspired to hide Graustark from him, although he had no way of proving it. Galbreath claimed he was unaware of any secrets being kept from Conway and that he was never told there was anything special about Graustark. He offered to turn Graustark over to Conway, but the veteran trainer said he felt guilty forcing Galbreath to move the colt. He felt his only recourse under the circumstances was to resign.

Gentry took control of the main string of Darby Dan horses, and by the following winter, Graustark had become the shortest-priced Kentucky Derby favorite ever in the Caliente Future Book, which was the only Future Book at the time. Gentry trained him hard and often, feeling he could handle it, and Graustark, despite various physical setbacks, kept winning off by himself under wraps in fast times. His Florida campaign was cut short by a heel bruise after he demolished the speedy Impressive in the Bahamas Stakes. Impressive was so fast, he easily defeated his illustrious stablemate Buckpasser that winter going seven furlongs. Buckpasser would go on to win his next 15 starts. Graustark was forced to miss the Everglades and Flamingo and was put away and pointed for the Blue Grass Stakes.

Gentry began taking heat about the way he was training Graustark, who was now known as “The Big G.”. The day before the Blue Grass, Graustark blew out three furlongs in the slop in :33 4/5 and returned lame. Gentry blamed it on the blacksmith putting the nail in wrong and announced he would still run Graustark in the Blue Grass. He admitted it was a gamble, but said he had to take the chance if he was going to have Graustark fit enough for the Derby. Galbreath was never one to interfere with his trainer and decided to trust Gentry’s judgment and go along with his decision.

In the Blue Grass, Graustark opened a huge lead under Braulio Baeza, but started to bear out. Because the colt needed to be tested to get ready for the Derby, Baeza was told by Gentry to let the others close in on him and then ask Graustark for his run. Abe’s Hope, who had been beaten a nose by Buckpasser in the Flamingo Stakes, closed the gap at the quarter pole and got a good half-length lead in the stretch before Graustark came charging back at him, only to fall a nose short. It was his first career defeat. After the race, it was discovered he had fractured the coffin bone in his left front foot and he was retired to Darby Dan Farm. The injury likely occurred when Graustark was asked to go from a pull to a drive in a matter of a few strides.

Sports Illustrated took a shot at Gentry in their May 23 issue, publishing an extensive feature on Graustark, with the title, “Boo Made a Boo Boo.”

Graustark would go on to become one of the most influential stallions in the country and a major class and stamina influence.

Darby Dan, which had been part of the old Idle Hour Farm owned by Colonel E.R. Bradley, was home to a Who’s Who of stallions during that time that included two of earliest and most influential European imports, Ribot (sire of Graustark) and Sea-Bird, both regarded in the top 5 greatest European racehorses of all time. Others whose names still ring out in the Stud Book include Graustark, Swaps, His Majesty, English Derby winner Roberto, Little Current, Sword Dancer, and Helioscope. One of the first stallions ever to be imported to Japan was Chatueaugay. I remember being at the farm when the Japanese came to look at him. When Roberto won the English Derby, Galbreath became the first person to own and breed the winners of the Kentucky Derby and English Derby. He already was the first person to own a Kentucky Derby winner and a World Series champion (Pittsburgh Pirates).

I knew all those stallions well, along with all the grooms and office workers, and of course farm manager Olin Gentry, spending my vacations every year at Darby Dan, where I mucked stalls, showed the stallions to visitors, and saw my one and only foal being born during one of my vacations when I actually stayed on the farm. One year, I even had the honor of meeting Bing Crosby, with whom I chatted for a while, mostly about his Irish Derby winner Meadow Court, in whom he took great pride. One of my most prized photos is of me, Bing Crosby, and Ribot.

My most blissful moments came in the quiet afternoons when I would sit on a tack box looking out at the stallions in their paddocks, eating McDonalds fish sandwiches. I have albums of photos that include shots of His Majesty and Little Current as yearlings, and Maud Muller, who equaled Belmont’s track record for 1 1/8 miles in the Maskette Handicap, running through the fields as a foal with her mother, the great champion Primonetta. I will never forget the little giant True Knight, one of the smallest horses I’ve ever seen, who would come from 20 lengths back every race and was usually right there against the likes of Forego, who was twice his size, once beating him in the Suburban Handicap under 127 pounds, which was a burdensome weight for such a pony-sized horse.

Darby Dan for a number of years now has been run by Joan (Jody) and James Phillips’ son John, who slowly began to rebuild the stallion roster. With the massive expansion of magnificent breeding farms throughout Lexington and all the way out to Versailles, Darby Dan no longer was able to attract the big-name champions they once did. Their stallion roster back then had been made up mostly of homebreds after sending Swaps to Spendthrift Farm and the subsequent deaths of Ribot, Sea-Bird, and Sword Dancer. By the mid ‘90s they were all gone. The farm grew quiet, with only the two old stallion barns and the gravestones of all the greats remaining as a reminder of the dynasty that John Galbreath built.

Following Proud Truth’s stunning victory in the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Classic under the famed fawn and brown Darby Dan colors, future horses, mostly a bevy of stakes-winning grass fillies like Soaring Softly and Memories of Silver, ran in the Phillips’ green and white silks. The stallion roster that John Phillips began to rebuild was not made up of big-name stallions, but they were carefully chosen. The roster slowly began to grow, now numbering eight.

Three of them – Dialed In, Tale of Ekati, and Shackleford – have sons on the Derby trail this year. Gunnevera, by Dialed In, runs in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes after having finished a good second in the Holy Bull Stakes; Girvin, by Tale of Ekati, pulled off a stunning victory in the Risen Star Stakes this past weekend; Malagacy, a son of Shackleford, is undefeated in two starts, winning by 15 lengths and 7 lengths, establishing himself as one of the most brilliant 3-year-olds seen this year; and another of Shackleford's sons, Beasley, also runs in Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes. Also, Gunnevera's second dam is by Graustark, which gives him Darby Dan blood as well.

Three of the four horses are among the elite 23 individual betting interests in the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager. A Darby Dan stallion has already made an impact on the Kentucky Derby when Perfect Soul's son Golden Soul finished second  in the 2013 Run for the Roses.

As I reminisce about Darby Dan Farm and all the wonderful years I spent there, I can’t help but think back to that day in October, 1969 when, thanks to the encouraging words from my father about pursuing something in life that you truly love, I went to the offices of the racing bible, the Morning Telegraph, on the West Side of Manhattan, to interview for a job. I had no actual experience in racing, having toiled unhappily for several years in the printing business and then as a messenger, quote boy, and over-the-counter stock trader on Wall Street. I came to 52nd Street equipped with only an intense passion for the sport and the horses and as much knowledge as I could store from reading every racing publication I was able to get my hands on.

It had been nine months since I departed the scream-and-curse-all day-world of Wall Street, where your status was based on the price of your wing-tip shoes. During those nine months I was, well, unemployed, and living in the fantasy world of my newly discovered obsession, horse racing. But fantasies don’t come with pay checks, so on the advice of my father I applied for jobs in the racing industry, despite having no experience in any aspect of it. The only response I received was from Charlotte Berko, secretary for Saul Rosen, editor of the Morning Telgraph/Daily Racing Form, informing me that Mr. Rosen wished to speak to me. This was my one big chance in life. All that was left were menial jobs to try to scrape out a living. I couldn’t blow this.

Like an idiot, all I could think of was to memorize the winners of all the Kentucky Derbys, as if I was going to be quizzed. I had no selling points other than my passion and an insatiable appetite to learn everything imaginable about Thoroughbred racing. As a short side note, I had been introduced to the sport by a friend of my best friend when, on a whim, I went with them to Roosevelt Raceway. I became hooked immediately, and it was this person who started telling me about Thoroughbred racing and his favorite horse Graustark, who, by association, became my favorite horse, although he had already been retired.

With my entire life hinging on this interview, I skulked into Saul Rosen’s office. Outside, the copy editors were gathered around a TV set watching the New York Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles in game three of the 1969 World Series.

I sat down, not having a clue what to expect. Then came Saul’s first and only question to me: “Do you know how to type?”

“Uh, oh,” I thought. “I’m a dead man.” It was as if the door to my future, my entire life, had been slammed shut in my face. Hell, no, I couldn’t type. My answer wasn’t quite so abrupt, but the ‘no’ part came across loud and clear, as did any chance I had of working for “The Telly,” and in fact, working, period. All that awaited me in my mind was Skid Row.

“Sorry,” Saul said. “Why don’t you learn how to type and come back?”

“Sure,” I replied, knowing that wasn’t going to happen, not with my tiny, spastic fingers.

Then, from out of nowhere, the words blurted out of my mouth -- simple, trite, innocuous words, but ones that would alter the course of my life.

“While I’m here, is it possible to get the lifetime past performances of Graustark?” I asked. Saul called up Sol Seiden the head librarian and asked him if he could help me out. Sol came in and brought me back into the library – the library! Horse photos, newspaper clippings, bound Telegraphs. I was in heaven. While he was having someone Xerox the past performances from one of the bound volumes, Sol said to me: “I have an idea. We’ve started to go to microfilm and I’m going to need an assistant. Maybe you can work here as a copy boy to get your foot in the door and learn how to type in your spare time.”

To make a long story somewhat short, I was ecstatic, and Saul Rosen agreed to it. I started work the next day as a copy boy for four times less the salary I was making on Wall Street. What did I care? I was working at the Telly, surrounded by horse pictures and newspaper clippings. I spent most of my time talking horses with the copy editors and handicappers. Eventually I was promoted to the statistical department, confined to a desk and working with numbers, which I hated.

I never learned, or even attempted to learn, how to type after seeing what little typing was required (the name of a horse or trainer on an envelope), so it was time for drastic measures. I managed to fake it and convince Sol I was an expert typist by learning how to whiz type one phrase: “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their parties.”

”You’re ready,” Sol said. The statistical editor tried his best to convince me to stay where I was, that the library was a dead end job, for less money. But I would hear none of it. I went into the library, which didn’t even seem like a job. I was named assistant librarian, and after about a year, when Sol left the library to work in the advertising department, I was eventually named head librarian.

When the Telly closed down in 1972 I was one of the fortunate few who were asked to go to the new Daily Racing Form plant in Hightstown, N.J. Had I stayed in the statistical department I would have been the first to be let go. Several years of freelance writing for various publications followed, including the new Thoroughbred Times, until the Racing Times came along, after which I finally was released from the library after 20 years and became a feature and news writer for the DRF to help bolster the force to combat this new threat. I eventually became national correspondent and replaced the legendary Joe Hirsch as the author of “Derby Doings.” Then came a move to the Blood-Horse in 1998 to work for my old Thoroughbred Times managing editor Ray Paulick, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

So, if it were not for Graustark and asking for his past performances I would not be writing this blog. That’s because I would not be writing for the Blood-Horse, because I would not have worked for the Daily Racing Form for 29 years or written for the Thoroughbred Times for five years or the Thoroughbred Record on and off for many years. And I would not have met the most beautiful, magnificent woman in the world while at DRF and fathered the most beautiful, magnificent daughter in the world.

So, all I can say is, thank you, Graustark. Thank you, Darby Dan. And welcome back to the Derby trail.

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