Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko, may not make his first 2005 start until the March 19 San Felipe.

Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Wilko, may not make his first 2005 start until the March 19 San Felipe.

Skip Dickstein

Kentucky Derby Trail: Birds of a Feather

You could say that So Long Birdie has some awfully big wings to fill. Last year, his half-brother, Birdstone , won the grade I Belmont and Travers, and the year before, his half-sister, Bird Town, captured the grade I Kentucky Oaks and Acorn on her way to an Eclipse Award.

Now comes another sibling, whose journey on the Triple Crown trail could be called "American Dream Derby" meets "Northern Exposure."

So Long Birdie, unlike his distinguished family members, came up the hard way. Hampered by a crooked leg and other physical issues, So Long Birdie began his career in a claiming race.

But, now here he is, owned by a "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," made up of some of the most affluent and accomplished men in Alaska. How accomplished? Well, one of them is third in line for the Presidency of the United States. Some may consider the Alaskas Great Eagle partnership the anti-Sackatoga Stable, but they still have the same dream. And that dream now rides on the back of So Long Birdie, who is slowly but surely making a name for himself in the 3-year-old division.

Regardless of whether he makes it or not, he's already proven to be a bargain. Claimed for $40,000, he immediately brought dividends by winning a maiden special special weight race at Hollywood by 11 lengths in a brisk 1:02 4/5 for 5 1/2 furlongs. He went right into the six-furlong San Miguel Stakes and was beaten a nose by Going Wild in 1:09 3/5. Not only did Going Wild come off that race to win the nine-furlong Sham Stakes, but the third-place finisher, General John B, went on to romp by six lengths in the Turf Paradise Derby.

Stretching out to a mile in his next start, So Long Birdie could do no better than third as the 4-5 favorite. But that didn't deter his owners, who were still confident the son of Pioneering could move forward off that race, especially being a May 5 foal and still learning. He did get back in the win column, capturing a starter allowance race at Bay Meadows Feb. 20, going a mile in the mud.

He's already come a long way since being sold for a mere $20,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale. He had been consigned by Three Chimneys Sales, agent for the colt's breeder Leverett Miller, a nephew of C.V. Whitney, who owned Dear Birdie at the time.

So, just who is Alaskas Great Eagle? Well, first off, the name is in honor of one of the partners, Alaska senior Sen. Ted Stevens, a decorated World War II hero and member of the Senate for 36 years. As senior senator of the Republican party, Stevens is third in line for the presidency behind Vice President Dick Cheney and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert.

The other members are Bill Allen, Bob Penny, David McGuire, Carl Marrs, Leonard Hyde, Sherron Perry, and managing partner Bob Persons, who put the partnership together. Persons owns the Double Musky restaurant in the ski resort community of Girdwood that was praised by the "Food Network's Best of the Best ..." book as their favorite restaurant in the United States and best place for steaks. Esquire magazine called Double Musky the "last great American roadhouse."

"They're all wonderful people, and they're all good friends of mine," said Alaska native John Hendrickson, husband of Marylou Whitney, who owned and bred Birdstone and Bird Town. "All of them are well-known and affluent; they're not the Funny Cide partnership. You won't see them getting off a yellow school bus, but they're having a lot of fun."

Persons has owned horses since 1985 and was part-owner in Alyrob, who was second in the 1996 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).

"We had tried in 1992 with a group of friends but were not successful and had indifferent success with a filly we claimed for $50,000 and another we bought when that one was claimed," Persons said. "We had a different group then and one of them encouraged me to stay with it and I wound up with a piece of Alyrob and went to the Kentucky Derby.

"Ted suggested that we try again a couple of years ago and I contacted eight of our friends and we put up $7,500 each and claimed a colt named Mr Joe B through Darrell Vienna. He was not the one and unfortunately died of colic last year. Afterward, Ted said lets try again to get a Derby horse. I started contacting the partners and most of them did not want to do it since I was asking for $10,000, and we had not been successful with the last one, so I was only able to interest six other friends."

Persons contacted Craig Dollase, whom he had known through his father, Wally, who had trained Alyrob. Dollase put him in touch with Joe Messina of Class Racing. "I wound up buying 10% of two 2-year-old colts and 20% of another one," Persons said. "I had a little over $40,000 left. A couple of months later, in May of 2004, I was still looking for another opportunity and was studying the Daily Racing Form when I noticed a colt whose dam was named Dear Birdie and the name rang a bell. My wife was sitting in the other room and I said, 'Why do I know the name Dear Birdie?' and she said, 'Isn't that Marylou Whitney's mare?' I damn near fell off my chair when I realized I was looking at the little brother of Bird Town and Birdstone. I immediately called Craig and got him to go look at the colt and I called the bank to get the money wired to California for the claim.

"Craig called while Birdie was being saddled and described him to me. He said he was a bit crooked in the right front but doesn't seem to 'hit himself' and seems to go alright, so I told him to claim him. I was watching the race and got sick when he ran up the track. I just knew I had thrown the partners' money away. Craig called me and said, 'Relax, we're not lost yet. This is a sick colt; he has pharyngitis and he has bucked both shins, plus he is a late foal and is just now turning two years old. I'll turn him out, treat him for his ailments and let him grow up.' Shortly thereafter, Birdstone won the Belmont and Ted and I began to dream the impossible dream, along with our partners.

"When So Long Birdie won his next start by 11 lengths, we really began to dream the dream. And it got more intense after he almost won the San Miguel. His Beyers were 90, 98, and 91 for his three starts prior to Sunday, and those stack up against many of the top 3-year-olds in the country. Ours may be a compelling story about eight guys from this land of ice and snow dreaming about our day in the sunshine on a warm May afternoon in Kentucky."

Derby Doings

-- The Feb. 19 Southwest Stakes provided little light to the Derby picture, as Greater Good, as expected, closed fast in the final furlong to beat a weak field by three-quarters of a length. Even after a slow six furlongs in 1:12 3/5, the pace-setting Munificence still crawled home in :26 1/5, so it was really no surprise that Greater Good, a dual graded stakes winner, was able to run him down, with a final furlong in about :12 2/5. The race didn't prove much, other than Greater Good has at least returned to his 2-year-old form, and now has three stakes wins under his belt.

-- It looks as though the rematch between Declan's Moon and Wilko in the March 5 Santa Catalina Stakes (gr. II) will have to wait. Wilko's trainer Craig Dollase said there is a good chance the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner will wait for the March 19 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), giving him three weeks to the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and then four weeks to the Derby. Wilko has had only two works this year and is behind Declan's Moon in his training. The three weeks from the San Felipe to the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and then another four weeks to the Kentucky Derby actually seems better for a tough, sound colt like this. Once he gets started, you want to keep going with him and let him get on a roll. The five weeks off after the Santa Catalina might just be too long for him. This colt really isn't getting the respect he deserves. There is no reason why he should not be considered one of the early Derby favorites.

-- Bob Baffert said his newly acquired Sort it Out will be pointed for the March 12 Louisiana Derby (gr. II), and Jerry Bailey will ride. Baffert also said he's considering the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) for Roman Ruler, who was scratched from the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) due to the wet track combined with a month-old quarter crack. But those plans are still subject to change.

-- Nick Zito sent out Sun King for a sharp 1:00 1/5 drill at Palm Meadows Feb. 19. The newly acquired High Fly, winner of the Aventura Stakes, went the same distance in 1:00 2/5. Sun King likely will make his 3-year-old debut in the March 5 Swale Stakes (gr. II), while High Fly will try to atone for his defeat in the Holy Bull (gr. III) in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) the same day. A nine-furlong allowance race on the card could attract Zito's recent maiden winner Noble Causeway, a promising son of Giant's Causeway , and/or Andromeda's Hero, a son of Fusaichi Pegasus  who should improve big-time stretching out to two turns.

-- Defer turned in a sharp five-furlong drill in :59 4/5 at Gulfstream Feb. 20. "He was just breezing around there nicely, but he got it in :59 (and change) and galloped out the last quarter in :23," said trainer Shug McGaughey. "It was just the way we wanted it to go. He galloped out in 13 seconds. He's telling us he's going to get better (when) going long."

Defer was my early Derby horse right from the beginning, and I was expecting him to show a little more in the Hutcheson (gr. III). But if he can bounce back in the Fountain of Youth, he will catapult right back near the top.

I'm also looking for a big effort from stablemate Survivalist in the nine-furlong allowance race on Fountain of Youth day. With Survivalist, Andromeda's Hero, and Diamond Isle among what promises to be a big, competitive field, this should be a very telling race. Diamond Isle's stablemate, Kansas City Boy, who is being pointed for the Fountain of Youth by Kenny McPeek, breezed five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 on Feb. 20.

-- Stay tuned for further prognosis on Rockport Harbor's foot bruise, which now doesn't seem as bad as first thought, according to John Servis. But everything still has to go perfectly now that he's missed at least one important work. And that's just to get two starts in before the Derby.