When Storm Dixie's career came to an end five years ago, Ed Stanco and his five partners in King of Prussia Stable decided they might want to breed their mare. She had won her first race, but never won again. Their superstar trainer, Todd Pletcher, did not exactly give her a rousing endorsement, Stanco remembering him saying, "I wouldn't put a $10,000 stud fee into her." Pletcher, one of the most intelligent and prudent people in horse racing, got Storm Dixie appraised for about $20,000.
The partners decided to press on anyway, contacting Ron and Betsy Houghton about housing their mare on their nearly 40-year-old Sylmar Farm, maybe 15 miles southwest of Coatesville in Lancaster County, Pa., where their 300 acres and the land around them will forever remain unspoiled and undeveloped as they are, Ron said, "surrounded by Amish." It is decidedly God's country where the roads are quiet, the silos plentiful, the outside world just a rumor.
According to Stanco, they spent hours talking to pedigree consultants before settling on breeding their mare to Kentucky stallion Grand Slam. They dutifully sent Storm Dixie to Kentucky in early 2009 to mate her with a horse that would sire 68 stakes winners before his death in 2012.
Stanco, an actuary in the reinsurance business who lives in Malvern, got a call at 8 a.m. the day the mare was supposed to be bred, saying, "We've got a little bit of an issue."
Turned out Grand Slam had been kicked the day before and was in no mood to breed.
"What do you mean?" Stanco remembered himself saying. "This doesn't happen."
Storm Dixie, however, was in heat, in the breeding shed and ready to go. It was suggested to Stanco that he go with untested sire Majestic Warrior, a son of 1992 Horse of the Year and champion sire A.P Indy.
Stanco asked how long he had to decide.
"Fifteen minutes," he was told.
"All right," he said, "just do it."
They did it.
The mare was brought back to Sylmar Farm, where, in 2010 she had her first foal, a filly. Eventually, that filly shared the five-furlong training track with the other young horses on the farm. Only it was hard to find another horse that could keep up with her.
Last summer, the Houghtons sent the filly to New York to be trained on the track by Pletcher. Providentially, the partners had picked the perfect name. The filly, who was bred to the wrong stallion, would be Princess of Sylmar.
Friday night at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., Princess of Sylmar will go for her ninth win in 11 starts. She will be one of the favorites in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff. The day before the Kentucky Derby, she won the Kentucky Oaks at 38-1. Then, she won the CCA Oaks and the Alabama and the Beldame, upsetting two-time Distaff winner Royal Delta. The three-year-old filly born at Sylmar Farm is quite simply one of the fastest horses in America.
On Saturday afternoon, Stanco, his wife Ina, one of his partners Marty Kelly, Ron and Betsy Houghton and their son Bernie, a longtime trainer at Penn National, gathered in the barn that the young Princess of Sylmar called home, a barn overlooking that training track where she got so many of her early lessons.
"How can I tell you I had that kind of horse?" Ron Houghton said. "Nobody knows that. She always did everything just right. When we would work her, she acted like she had something a little special."
The Houghtons' first farm was just over the Maryland border in Rising Sun about 15 miles from the farm they have had for so long in Christiana, Pa. The first farm was on Sylmar Road, parts of the names of the neighboring states. Thus, Sylmar Farm.
That the best horse ever born on the farm was named for the farm was as accidental as the filly herself. The partners decided their first foal born there might as well be named for the place.
"As it turned out, it's the best thing (Stanco) ever did for us," Ron said.
Inside Pennsylvania horse circles, Sylmar Farm is quite well-known and well respected. Now, everybody in the sport knows about it.
It's been quite the journey from the Princess of Sylmar's first start a little more than a year ago at Penn National, where jockey Harry Vega somehow managed to get her beat in a race she should have won 100 times out of 100, even if it was at a less than optimal distance. She won her second start at Penn by 19 lengths.
She won her next three at Aqueduct by a combined margin of nearly 20 lengths. She finished second to eventual two-time Grade I winner Close Hatches back in April when she was asked to do too much too soon in that race. She has not lost since, winning an amazing four consecutive Grade I races.
When she won the Kentucky Oaks, partners, family and friends all ended up in the winner's circle staring back across the track at 100,000 people. The Stancos' nine-year-old granddaughter kept saying to Ina, whom she calls Mimi, "Mimi, stop saying we won the bleeping Oaks."
"And Ina kept saying that for two weeks," Stanco said.
Stanco desperately wanted to win the Alabama at Saratoga. He grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., and got his first taste of horses when his uncle took him to the harness track across the street from America's oldest thoroughbred track. The Princess owned the Alabama.
Marty Kelly, whose 85-year-old father "lives at Belmont and Aqueduct," had had the same lifelong fascination with horses, calling himself "an Aqueduct kid" and a "racing historian."
Kelly, who lives in Chadds Ford and is also an actuary, had a Great Dane as kid. The dog's name? Damascus.
Princess of Sylmar was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, so they really did not plan to run her there. But she just kept winning, and Pletcher, long since a convert who mapped out a perfect campaign, decided he wanted to try champion Royal Delta in the filly's first start against older horses. After she ran past the two-time Eclipse champion in the stretch, the partners decided to put up the $100,000 to supplement Princess of Sylmar to the BC. They are all in.
Their filly will have to beat Royal Delta again. She will also have to beat 2012 two-year-old filly champion Beholder, racing on her home track. It was Beholder who was second to Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks.
The actuaries considered the risk when they decided to breed their mare. If the foals did not turn out so well, there was always the residual benefit of having them foaled in Pennsylvania. They could probably recoup their investment through breeder bonuses if the foals were competitive at just about any level on the track. They certainly considered an upside, but there was no analysis that could have ever imagined all this.
That mare, Storm Dixie, that America's champion trainer figured probably did not have much residual value is worth at least $1 million today. Very much the prize of Sylmar Farm, she has a yearling filly by E Dubai, the Pennsylvania sire of 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned and a new foal by Pennsylvania sire Petionville. Naturally, Storm Dixie will be sent back to Kentucky in 2014 to be bred to Majestic Warrior.
Are the partners likely to get another horse like Princess of Sylmar? No. But remember they weren't supposed to get Princess of Sylmar. They were trying to breed their mare to Grand Slam and would have gotten who knows what.
The partners want to race Princess of Sylmar next year with the Delaware Handicap as a midsummer goal. When she is retired, she will be worth millions as a broodmare and she has already earned $1.6 million on the track, more than any American-raced son or daughter of Grand Slam has ever earned.
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