It's been a long time coming for Alice Chandler, who took the reins at Mill Ridge Farm in 1962 after the death of her father, legendary horseman Hal Price Headley.
For more than 100 years, owning, breeding, or raising a Kentucky Derby winner had eluded both father and daughter, but not for a lack of trying.
In 1897, at the ripe age of seven, Hal Price Headley felt Derby disappointment for the first time when Ornament, a horse bred by his father, Hal Pettit Headley, finished second, beaten a neck by Typhoon II. Seven years later, Hal Price Headley took Ornament and 16 other Thoroughbreds to a horse show at the World's Fair in St. Louis. He returned with a blue ribbon and $4,600 in prize money.
That was only the beginning of a lifetime of achievement in the Thoroughbred industry for Headley, the man Alice Chandler still calls "Daddy." He was a bold gambler and achieved great success in racing and breeding, but may be best remembered as a founder of Keeneland and the track's president from 1935-51.
Headley wanted badly to win the Derby but never came closer than Ornament's runner-up effort. Subsequently carrying Headley's navy blue and white silks were Planet, who finished 10th in the 1921 Derby; Almadel, 13th in 1925; Paraphrase, 21st in 1929; the filly Alcibiades, 10th in 1930; Whopper, 13th in 1935; Menow, fourth in 1938; Pellicle, eighth in 1946; and Lotowhite, seventh in 1950. He bred but did not own another five Derby starters, including 1917 runner-up Ticket.
All those years and all those fruitless attempts to win the roses raced through Alice Chandler's mind as she sat home with her husband, Dr. John Chandler, and watched on television as Giacomo, the gray son of Holy Bull who was born and raised at Mill Ridge, scored one of the most improbable victories in the Kentucky Derby's 131-year history. She's not afraid to say that the tears flowed.
"It was so emotional," she said. "It was the Derby, and I know how hard it is to win. It felt awfully good."
Jerry and Ann Moss, who bred and own Giacomo, stopped by Mill Ridge two days before the Derby with John Shirreffs, the Derby winner's trainer who is seldom seen without a Mill Ridge baseball cap on his head. Shirreffs wore the cap into the Derby winner's circle and later paid tribute to Chandler.
"I just have tremendous admiration and respect for Alice Chandler," he said, "for what she's done in the business as an individual, and just for her position in the community."
In addition to Giacomo, Mill Ridge's 2002 foal crop also produced last year's champion 2-year-old filly, Sweet Catomine. The Storm Cat filly recently returned to the farm after being retired following her poor effort in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). Sweet Catomine finished fifth as the heavy favorite, just behind Giacomo, who ran fourth.
Don't forget, this was the same foal crop devastated by mare reproductive loss syndrome, which struck just before the 2001 Derby, causing many mares to produce dead foals that year and abort their pregnancies for 2002. Among the farms hit hard was Mill Ridge, where more than 25% of the mares aborted their 2002 foals. "We got hurt," Chandler said. "We suffered, and our clients suffered. We lost some of our European clients because of it, but all of our long-term clients were very understanding." Among those clients who stayed were Jerry and Ann Moss.
"Everyone who keeps mares on the farm is a friend, and that's important," Chandler said. "There are two reasons we do what we do: one is the land, and the other is the people. The people who won the Derby are class people."
And so is Alice Chandler, whose name may not be part of official Derby history for this 131st running. But it's good enough for her.