Stuart Grant likes to tell folks that he spent time around horses growing up in Brooklyn, N. Y. Thing is, the horses all had cops on their backs.
Grant is the proud breeder of Pennsylvania-bred colt Mor Spirit who was born at Derry Meeting Farm. The dark bay colt is considered one of the top West Coast contenders for the Kentucky Derby. Mor Spirit made his 3-year-old debut with an impressive win in the $150,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (Grade-3) at Santa Anita on Feb. 6. The victory stamped the colt as the dominant 3-year-old in the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
In the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes (Grade-2) on March 12, Mor Spirit uncorked his patented late run, closing strongly in mid-stretch, but couldn't quite get to Danzing Candy who won by two lengths. Mor Spirit earned 20 Derby points to give the colt a total of 44 which should put him into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 7.
“I’m very happy, because he was way too keen in the early part of the race," said jockey Gary Stevens. “He was super sharp. As I was coming into the lane, I knew I wasn’t going to catch the winner, but I knew we had to get some (Kentucky Derby) points. I like where we’re sitting for the Santa Anita Derby. I lost a battle today, but I like our position. He’ll settle a little better for me in the Santa Anita Derby."
Baffert was also pleased with Mor Spirit's performance over 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita. Next up: the Santa Anita Derby run at 1 1/8 miles on April 9. The Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles.
“He ran well, the horse that won is a pretty good horse," Baffert said. "I wanted to run first, second or third. He’s coming on. A mile and an eighth will be more to his liking, but he got a lot out of it today. I’m happy with the way he went. I think with every start, we're learning more about Mor Spirit and figuring out what he wants to do.”
The colt is owned by Michael Lund Petersen, a noted businessman from Demark who brought Pandora Jewelry to the United States. Running low to the ground with long, efficient strides, Mor Spirit is a son of Eskendereya who was the anticipated favorite for the 2010 Kentucky Derby before a swelling in his left front leg knocked him out of the race. Eskendereya was sired by Giant's Causeway, who leads all active sires in North America.
"He reminds me a lot of his sire, a big, strong horse," Baffert said. "He has a lot of tactical speed but you can't let him use it too early. We're teaching him to sit and wait. He's an impressive horse and beautifully made. He’s got a huge stride and beautiful action. He'll be best going a mile and an eighth and further.”
Mor Spirit is a ridgling, a horse that has an undescended testicle. A sharp maiden winner at Santa Anita four starts back, Mor Spirit concluded his juvenile campaign by finishing second in the Kentucky Jockey Club (Grade-2) at Churchill Downs on a muddy track. Then he posted an easy victory of nearly five lengths in the Los Alamitos Futurity (Grade-1) when he delivered a powerful rally late to defeat highly regarded stablemate Toews on Ice on December 19. In the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, Mor Spirit sat third for most of the race. But when Stevens shook the reins at Mor Spirit leaving the furlong pole, the colt pricked his ears and roared through the deep stretch to win handily by 1 1/2 lengths.
Derry Meeting Farm
Located in the rolling hills of Cochranville, Pa., Marshall and Bettina Jenney's Derry Meeting Farm will be forever etched in the annals of thoroughbred breeding as the birthplace of two of the world’s most influential sires, Danzig and Storm Cat. Over the past four decades, scores of George Strawbridge Jr.'s top-flight colts and fillies foaled at the farm went on to win prestigious stakes races in the U. S. and Europe, with a number of his horses earning champion honors as well.
A frisky dark bay colt arrived at the farm in the early morning hours of April 1, 2013. Bred by Grant's Elkstone Group, LLC, Mor Spirit is out of the graded stakes placed Dixie Union mare I’m a Dixie Girl, who Grant owns. The colt's pedigree is a Seattle Slew-line breeding coupled with a Northern Dancer-line breeding. Derry Meeting's longtime farm manager Bobby Goodyear helped deliver the foal.
"You could see his athleticism, even at that early age," Goodyear said. "Horses like him are why you're in this game and why you get up each morning. In his races he seems to like a target to run at. Then you see him finishing up very strong, easily passing other nice colts. To see him run the Derby would be very special."
As part of his young horse development program, Grant ships his mares and their foals to Bev Grovert's Windham Hill Farm where foals are weaned and the prepping begins for yearling sales. Grant, who also owns Camden Training Center in South Carolina, has an interest in Grovert's 350-acre Paris., Ky. farm. Mor Spirit showed up at Windham Hill 17 days after his birth.
"He was a very forward thinking colt, very confident, had his own opinion of what the world should be," said Grovert. "We turn our horses out at night and I go out with them. He was an absolute joy to watch-- fluid, balanced, great motion. He was contained energy until he hit the paddock. He would rear up and then take off so effortless and efficient as he galloped across the field. He moved like a cat, a cougar. He knew he was something and we knew it too."
Prior to working with thoroughbreds, Grovert trained hunters and jumpers. She also raises champion Australian Shepherd show dogs.
"We knew he was quite precocious and I begged Stuart to keep him," Grovert continued. "But if he did who knows if the colt would have gotten the same experience as being in Baffert's barn. How his team reads a young horse and manages them. They are very good at it. Going to Baffert allowed Mor Spirit to be a Derby-quality horse."
One of Pennsylvania's top breeders over the past several years, most of the Grant's Elkstone Group's colts and fillies go to the top sales auctions. Grant purchased Mor Spirit's dam Im a Dixie Girl out of the 2010 Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale for $75,000.
"I wished I could have foreseen that Mor Spirit would be a great racehorse," Grant said with a laugh. "He looked like he had some potential, but he wasn't growing mentally as much as he was physically. He's the one that got away."
Gant is co-founder and managing director of the Wilmington, Delaware law firm Grant and Eisenhofer. He and his wife Suzanne endowed an Equine Studies Program in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) at the University of Delaware.
"We always thought highly of him, but he was always full of himself," Grant related. "The morning of the Fasig Tipton July sale he walloped the stall and came up dead lame. Kicking the stall was pretty typical of him. We scratched him from the sale and had to wait until their October sale. We thought he could bring $150,000 to $200,000. But he only brought $85,000 and I said goodbye."
Five months down the road Mor Spirit was entered in the Fasig sale for 2-year olds in training at Gulfstream Park. Petersen, in partnership with Bernard Schippa, paid $650,000 for the colt.
"He had grown and matured quite noticeably and breezed a 10.1 there which sparked a lot interest," Grant said. "At the time I thought the sale price was high, but it turns out they got quite a bargain."
Grant had kept his string of broodmares at Derry Meeting for four years when Bettina Jenney decided to retire from the breeding and boarding business. The farm was sold in 2014.
"I looked in Chester County but I couldn't find a property I really liked," said Grant, who lives in Greenville, Delaware. "I ended up buying Cynthia Rickman's farm in Chesapeake City, Md. I've named it C-Dog Farm and I've put a lot of work into renovating the farm. I'm not an absentee owner. I'll get a heads up call when a foal is coming and I head off down to the farm to be there. I have a great staff and I'm very happy with how things have gone."
When Derry Meeting was sold Grant brought Bobby Goodyear down to be his farm manager. This year is C-Dog's second breeding season. There is an increased interest in homebreds. They anticipate foaling 20 this season.
"This is a long-term commitment for me, so the ten-year deal that Maryland breeders put together really influenced me," Grant related.
Grant got into the thoroughbred game in 2002 when he claimed a horse named Mt. Moran that won a couple of allowance and claiming races for the fledgling Elkstone Group. In 2006 he won his first stakes races with Phoney Exchange, Daisy for Rubiano and Hungarian Boatbaby, who came back to win three stakes for him in 2008. In recent years Grant's multiple stakes winners have included Duff, Edge of Reality and Kawfee Fa Marfa. His colt J W Blue (at 33-1) finished third in the $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga in 2011.
"We partied like there was no tomorrow at Siro's that night," Grant recalled. "But I've been on the other end with Grace Hall (a multiple Grade-2 winner) who was favored to win the Kentucky Oaks and came in third. You would have thought someone died. All the expectations, it didn't happen. But I'll always remember leading her over from the barn to the paddock. Hey, I'm a Jewish kid from Brooklyn and I got to go to Royal Ascot with Back at the Ranch. We beat 11 horses, trouble was there were 18 in the race. Back home if you beat 11 horses, that probably puts you in the winner's circle, over there I didn't pick up a check."
In partnerships with Michael Dubb and Bethlehem Stables, Grant has owned stakes winners Abraham, Good Luck Gus, Native Bombshell and Condo Commando, who gave Grant his first Grade-1 victory when she won Saratoga's Spinaway Stakes in 2014. Grace Hall competed for the same partnership.
Im a Dixie Girl is currently in foal to Eskendereya, so Grant anticipates having a full sibling to Mor Spirit. The mare has been booked to American Pharoah in 2017. As for Mor Spirit and the colt's journey on the Derby Trail, Grant is dreaming the dream.
"When you sell a horse you don't get to choose the buyer," Grant remarked. "That said, I'm not sure Mor Spirit could be in better hands than with Bob Baffert. Every now and then I'll let my mind wander and imagine Mor Spirit winning the Derby. This is Derby 142, so there may have been, what 130 people that have bred a Derby winner. That would be such a cool group to join. But, it's up to Bob and his team. I'm just along for the ride."