Josephine Abercrombie always figured if she couldn't own a Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (gr. I)-winning racehorse, the next best thing would be owning the father of one -- let alone the father of two.
Yet after WinStar Farm’s homebred Super Saver became the second colt by Abercrombie's late stallion Maria's Mon to win the Run for the Roses, her emotions were mixed.
``It was sad and joyous at the same time,'' said Abercrombie, 83, who cheered on the Todd Pletcher-trained colt while watching the race on television from her home at Pin Oak Stud farm where Maria's Mon once stood.
Abercrombie's beloved gray stallion, who also produced 2001 Derby winner Monarchos in his first crop of foals, was just 14 when he died from a sudden illness three years ago.
Just as his once-promising racing career was cut short by a freak injury that derailed his own Derby hopes, Maria's Mon was beginning to reach his peak as a breeder when his life ended prematurely.
Before he died, his stud fee was as high as $60,000, and that likely would have spiked with a second Derby winner.
``For a young operation here, he kind of put us on the map,'' said Clifford Barry, Pin Oak's farm manager. ``For the Thoroughbred breed, it was a big loss.''
No stallion had produced two Derby winners since Alydar, who sired 1987 winner Alysheba and 1991 winner Strike the Gold. Maria's Mon produced champions at various distances, including former top 3-year-old filly Wait a While, who finished third in the 2006 Kentucky Oaks (gr. I).
Abercrombie's farm is diverse with four stallions, 40 mares, and numerous racehorses. Maria's Mon was among her favorites, even before he became one of the industry's great breeders.
She would sometimes feed him sugar cubes, which he would eat out of her hand -- careful not to nip any fingers as other horses often would. And, as a gray horse -- rare for one of that caliber -- he always stood out.
The camaraderie between the stallion and staff made his passing all the more devastating at Pin Oak.
``Everybody on the farm was just sick,'' said Abercrombie, who is from Houston and moved to Kentucky 25 years ago when her father bought a different horse farm in the area. ``He was a star, and he'd shine brighter every year. When you get a horse like that and get attached to him, it's very hard when something happens to him.''
Richard Schosberg trained Maria's Mon as a racehorse. He understands the attachment and the heartbreak.
As a 2-year-old in 1995, Maria's Mon won three graded stakes races and earned the Eclipse Award as the year's top juvenile despite an injury that kept him out of the Breeders' Cup.
``You could see practically from the day he walked onto the racetrack that it was a classy individual,'' Schosberg said. ``He acted like he'd been here before. That's the difference between a horse like him and an ordinary 2-year-old. An ordinary 2-year-old would think everything that goes on around him is an emergency, but this horse soaked it all in.''
But the next year was a different story.
His injury, a small fracture in his left front leg, required screws and several months of rest to repair. By the time he returned, it was too late to enter him in the Triple Crown races. He raced just twice more with little success, then was retired to the breeding shed.
``The horse just wasn't happy on the racetrack,'' said Pug Hart, who had Maria's Mon in Ocala, Fla., before he shipped to Schosberg's racing barn in New York. ``He just needed a new home.''
Abercrombie had already bought a share of Maria's Mon from his previous owners, Morton and Rosalind Rosenthal. After he struggled as a 3-year-old, Hart and his wife, Suzie, convinced Abercrombie this could be the stallion to help get her horse-breeding operation off the ground.
``She said, 'I want to step up. I want to play in the big leagues,''' Suzie Hart said.
Maria's Mon certainly helped Abercrombie do that. Now that he has passed, the farm's top stallion is Broken Vow, who sired six stakes winners this year and stands for a $25,000 stud fee.
Abercrombie has written two children's books, one of them about a horse. She says the only major career goal that has eluded her is owning a Derby winner.
Although Maria's Mon has died, his final crop of foals are 2 this year, meaning they are on pace for one last Derby appearance in 2011 should any progress to that level. While most of them are owned by other farms, three colts and three fillies still belong to Abercrombie, and two of them were recently shipped out of state to train.
She sighs and shakes her head when pondering what a third Derby win by a Maria's Mon offspring would mean.
``It would be bittersweet,'' Abercrombie says.
Then, after a long pause, she adds: ``But it would be awful sweet.''