If Ken and Sarah Ramsey can transport their recent success at Keeneland 60 miles west down I-64 to Churchill Downs, the rest of the field for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) is in trouble.
The Ramseys, who will send out homebred Charming Kitten in the May 4 Run for the Roses, absolutely shattered Keeneland's mark for victories by an owner at the recently concluded spring meeting. They went to the winner's circle 25 times, doubling the previous record.
One of the greatest success stories in the breeding world over the past decade has been the ascension of the couple's Kitten's Joy , a talented turf performer who has thrived while standing at the Ramsey Farm near Nicholasville, Ky. He has punched out a continuing succession of talented turf runners who have also excelled over synthetic surfaces, hence the gaudy numbers for the Ramsey runners at Keeneland.
But Charming Kitten will have to adapt to dirt if he is to deliver the Kentucky Derby to his owner/breeders. He finished strongly in Keeneland's April 13 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) to nab third, a half length back of winner Java's War. Charming Kitten won the Kitten's Joy Stakes on turf at Gulfstream Park in January, but is yet to try a conventional dirt surface.
"Most of the Kitten's Joys don't run as well on the dirt, but he does have four stakes winners on dirt, including Politicallycorrect," noted Ken Ramsey. "However, if it rains, that moves up those horses that run well on synthetic. It could be another Mine That Bird, only he won't be skimming the rail because Calvin Borel ain't riding him. Let the track be sloppy and the sun be shining."
Ramsey, who always projects an upbeat excitement around the racetrack, and his family have had to weather some rough going recently. Sarah suffered a stroke several years ago, and 10 days before the Derby had to be taken back to the hospital for treatment. Speaking the day before that, Ken Ramsey acknowledged his advancing years and hoped the Derby gods may have something special in store for the family.
"I've tried to do this for so long," he said of winning the Derby. "At least it seems a lot of Derbys are won by people who are getting a little long in the tooth. Mr. (Paul) Mellon won in his senior years (with Sea Hero); Mr. Partee (with Lil E. Tee); the Smarty Jones people (the Chapmans); and Mrs. Genter with Unbridled; who can forget that little smile on her face. It would be special for me and my wife. This would be a great year to pull it off."
Ramsey, in his mid-70s, is taking his fourth crack at the Derby, and his third with a son of Kitten's Joy. Ten Cents a Shine checked in eighth in 2003, Dean's Kitten finished 14th in 2010, and Derby Kitten, though named correctly, could manage only a 13th in 2011.
"Maybe the fourth time will be the charm," he said.
A victory by Charming Kitten would mean a lot for the stallion career of Kitten's Joy as well as for his owners, who hail from Artemus, a speck of a town in the coal mining country of southeastern Kentucky.
"Forget about the money and financial deals," Ramsey said. "This is about the emotional rewards. We're not in this for the money. Hell, I've made enough money in my lifetime where I can sit under a palm tree and twiddle my thumbs. I didn't get in the horse business to make money, but it's nice to at least break even, which we're doing."
Ramsey, who gets excited when one of his horses wins a cheap claiming race, figures he'd be over the top with a Derby victory in his portfolio.
"I'd probably break down and get very emotional, like when Jack Van Berg did when Alysheba won it," he said. "It would change the epitaph on my tombstone and in my obituary they'd have to add the Kentucky Derby to whatever I've accomplished."
With a 50-50 chance of rain looming for Derby Day, the Ramseys will be hoping for a rainbow out on the horizon.