The photo's colors are muted, taken as it was just before dusk on a late July day in 1979 following the last race on the card at Monmouth Park. A young, shaggy-haired groom dressed in bell-bottom jeans, a dirty towel hanging from his back pants pocket, holds Stockton in the winner's circle following the horse's victory in a six-furlong contest. The jockey, perched aboard his mount, gives a thin smile to the photographer.
On June 8, that jockey-turned-trainer, Tom Albertrani, will send out Freedom Child, owned by that groom, Terry Finley, now head of West Point Thoroughbreds, to try and win a bigger race, the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Finley got his start at the racetrack rubbing horses in his native New Jersey, but would soon after trade in the long locks for a West Point buzz cut. Finley spent eight years in the military, going through Airborne and Ranger schools and making captain before deciding to return to civilian life and starting a family. In the early 1990s he formed West Point Thoroughbreds, which forms syndicates for racehorses. In the memorable summer of 2007, West Point won its first three grade I races in rapid succession when Flashy Bull took the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) and Dream Rush scored in the Prioress Stakes and Darley Test Stakes (both gr. I).
Albertrani is best known for his training Preakness and Travers (both gr. I) winner Bernardini . About six years ago, the two men found themselves at a party together and Finley mentioned to Albertrani that he had "won a race on one of my favorite horses, but I forgot his name." Without missing a beat, Albertrani answered, "The horse's name is Stockton," and he sent Finley the win photo the following day. Shortly thereafter, Finley began sending horses to Albertrani.
Thus the Malibu Moon ridgling Freedom Child found his way to the Albertrani barn. The $350,000 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling is co-owned by a West Point syndicate, Spendthrift Farm, which stands Malibu Moon; and Vinnie and Teresa Viola, West Point clients and Brooklyn residents who wanted to step up and take a sizable slice of Freedom Child.
Freedom Child is named for another West Point client who is a rock singer in the Cleveland area whose band is named—wait for it—Freedom Child. In his second career start last November at Aqueduct, Freedom Child ran second in what has turned out to be one of the best maiden races in years. The winner of that heat was Orb , who would go on to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and the third-place finisher was Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner and Kentucky Derby third Revolutionary .
After getting off to a slow start last winter in Florida, Freedom Child broke his maiden going two turns in early March by an impressive 5 1/4 lengths.
"It was a blessing in disguise that we got a late start with him this year," said Finley, who has recently moved his home and office from New Jersey to Saratoga. "Everything fell into place. Tom and I think a lot alike. These are the kind of horses that you can give time to and develop them. While everyone wants flashy and precocious horses that will light up Saratoga, these are the kind of two-turn horses we think about when we're at the sales."
Unfortunately, Freedom Child didn't get much out of his next start in the April 6 Wood Memorial (gr. I), as an assistant starter continued hanging on to him when the gates opened and he ended up running last of 10 and being declared a non-starter. But in the May 11 Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II), Freedom Child put it all together in the slop at Belmont, drawing off by 13 1/4 lengths to punch his ticket to the Belmont Stakes.
Although his pedigree doesn't scream 12 furlongs, Finley and partners can take solace that Freedom Child's paternal grandsire, A.P. Indy, won both the Peter Pan and Belmont Stakes.
"It's funny, when you're faced with going a mile and a half," said Finley, "you study the pedigrees, and if they give you an indication for distance, you say the pedigree helps him, and if not, you say the pedigree doesn't matter and it's all about the individual. He's out of a Deputy Minister mare who wasn't a sprinter or a distance horse, but we have as much right as any of the others in this race to get the distance."
And why not? Finley and Albertrani have already covered quite some distance from that 1979 day at Monmouth Park.