From N.Y. to Va., 'Gin' has big post parade of support

May 19, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

At a place called Hare Forest Farm, outside Orange, Va., Ellen Wrenn is still not over the shock.

At a place called the New York Stallion Station, in Old Chatham, N.Y., Jerry Bilinski is mad that he didn't get to bet.

At home in Boyce, Va., Jim Simpson is just glad to see his favorite 20-year-old horse finally getting some national pub.

This is the way it works with the Kentucky Derby now that the old racing dynasties are dead and so many of these horses get passed around, sold once or twice, sifted through a maze of bloodstock agents, vets and trainers and grooms. The Derby win winds up belonging to a lot more people than just those who own the horse on the day of the race.

"Everyone here is floating rather high at the moment," said Wrenn, the manager of Hare Forest Farm, a 175-acre spread that Go For Gin called home for 10 months. "We're all trying to get to the Preakness."

The horse was an unnamed weanling when Hare Forest owner Richard Poulson bought him for $32,000 from the breeder, Pamela Darmstadt duPont, at a sale in Lexington, Ky., in 1991.

"When we first got him, he was rather awkward and not the prettiest thing," Wrenn said. "We referred to him as an ugly duckling."

But there were reasons to hope he would improve. His sire, Cormorant, had recently fathered a champion filly named Saratoga Dew. His half-brother, Pleasant Tap, had run third in the 1990 Kentucky Derby and become a champion older horse.

Sure enough, the ugly duckling soon developed into a handsome, athletic yearling.

"Mother Nature just took over," Wrenn said. "You can tell at that age whether a horse is going to be athletic or not. [Go For Gin] loved to run. He was very playful, very active. We tried to calm him down by pairing him off with a baby sitter, an older horse that wouldn't run with him."

Poulson sells all of his horses that command a decent price, so there never was a doubt that Go For Gin would leave the farm.

"In hindsight, of course, it would have been nice to have him now," Wrenn said, "but who knows if he would have ended up like this if we'd kept him? We're just excited that it worked out this way."

This way, William Condren and Joseph Cornacchia bought him for $150,000 at a Saratoga, N.Y., yearling sale two years ago, acting strongly on the advice of trainer Nick Zito. They bought four horses at the sale for a total of $660,000. Two cost more than Go For Gin.

"But he was our No. 1 choice out of the 12 I gave Mr. Condren to pick from [before the sale]," Zito said. "It was a no-brainer."

All of this became the stuff of racing history 12 days ago, when Go For Gin won the first sloppy-track Kentucky Derby in 46 years.

No one was happier than a 74-year-old, still-active Maryland trainer named Jim Simpson, who trained Cormorant, the sire, back in the '70s.

"I was rooting big for Go For Gin," Simpson said. "I knew he had an excellent chance in the mud. Cormorant himself was a super mudder, too."

Cormorant was based in Maryland during his two-year career, in which he won eight of 12 starts, including the Jersey Derby, and finished fourth as the second choice behind Seattle Slew in the 1977 Preakness.

"The horse had a ton of talent," Simpson said. "He ran most of his races at the front. He had a lot of injuries, but when he was healthy, he was probably the second-best 3-year-old in the country that year."

Now 20, Cormorant has been the top New York-based sire for years, producing close to 40 stakes winners in a 15-year career at stud.

"It's not like this came out of the blue. He's had some real nice horses," Simpson said. "But this is the big one. There's nothing like the Derby. I'm tickled to see it."

Almost as ticked as Simpson was Jerry Bilinski, who stands Cormorant at his farm in New York.

"This is what you shoot for when you get into the game," Bilinski said, "to be involved with a Derby winner."

Bilinski is a veterinarian who used the profits from his practice to buy a farm and start a stallion operation. He has overseen too many breeding sessions to count over the years, but remembers the day when Cormorant was bred to Go For Gin's dam, a mare named Never Knock.

"I recall it vividly," Bilinski said. "It was three weeks before the Derby in which [Never Knock's son] Pleasant Tap ran third. I commented to the farm manager that we better get her bred now, because if Pleasant Tap wins the Derby she'd be moving to Kentucky [to breed to better sires than his]."

Four years later, Bilinski was so busy preparing a mare for breeding on Derby Day that he was unable to get to a betting window to play the hunch in his heart.

"I had cash in my pocket to bet Go For Gin [at an off-track betting parlor], but I was too busy to get away," he said. "I did get to see the race on television. Then we went out to celebrate. He's always been a good sire. I hoped that someday there'd be a colt by him that could do this. But you never know. I'm just excited that it really happened."

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