Buddy Gil making papa, Marylanders proud

Three California victories transform castoff's son into Ky. Derby contender

April 29, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - You know the old saw about lightning never striking twice? Forget it. Consider this copycat thunderbolt that has struck Maryland.

Two years ago, Audrey and Allen Murray bought the castoff stallion Our Emblem from a prestigious Kentucky farm and moved him to their farm in Maryland. One year ago, the stallion's son, War Emblem, won the Illinois Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness, bringing fame to Our Emblem and fortune to the Murrays.

Last year, Don Litz and two silent partners began standing the stallion Eastern Echo at a farm in Maryland. They had bought the castoff sire from a prestigious Kentucky farm.

This year, the stallion's son, Buddy Gil, won three straight stakes in California. His fun-loving owners and their friends, traveling in a bus to the Santa Anita Derby, watched replays of his victories and played the theme from Rocky in deference to their hard-fighting, under- appreciated gelding. He won the Santa Anita by a head.

Buddy Gil reaffirmed in a workout yesterday at Churchill Downs that he should be one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. The overachiever is doing for Eastern Echo what War Emblem did for Our Emblem.

"It's been amazing," said Litz, referring to the intense interest in the sire. "Ever since the San Felipe, it's gotten crazy. And then the Santa Anita Derby ... it's just been nonstop."

Litz bought a controlling interest in Eastern Echo from Lane's End Farm in Kentucky and moved him to Shamrock Farms in Woodbine in Carroll County. Lane's End retained a minority share.

Before Buddy Gil won the San Felipe Stakes on March 16 at Santa Anita Park, Eastern Echo was booked to about 50 mares. Then on April 5, Buddy Gil won the Santa Anita Derby, California's top Kentucky Derby prep. Now, Eastern Echo's book has soared to more than 90 mares.

The Murrays, who own Murmur Farm in Darlington, saw the same thing happen to Our Emblem. Seven months after they bought the stallion from Claiborne Farm for an undisclosed, bargain-basement price, they sold him to another premier Kentucky farm for $10.1 million. His stud fee jumped from $4,000 in Maryland to $35,000 this year in Kentucky.

Litz, 56, who lives in Butler, said he doesn't plan to sell Eastern Echo. The stallion's fee at Shamrock has risen from $3,000 before the San Felipe to $5,000 on the eve of the Kentucky Derby. However, Litz added, "the success of any business is the bottom line."

If Eastern Echo had sired Buddy Gil earlier in his stud career, then he probably would still be standing in Kentucky. He is 15 and has bred for 12 seasons. Until Buddy Gil, he had sired one Grade I winner, the swift juvenile Swiss Yodeler.

Eastern Echo retired undefeated at the end of his 2-year-old season because of injury after easily winning all of his three races, including the Grade I Futurity Stakes at Belmont Park. A royally bred son of Damascus and the Northern Dancer mare Wild Applause, Eastern Echo never got the chance to prove how good he could be.

Now, as a stallion, he has gotten a second chance. He is a strikingly handsome bay horse with proper conformation and an easygoing manner.

"OK, what do you want me to do now?" is the way Shamrock's stud manager describes Eastern Echo's attitude. Added Craig Thompson, "He ain't nothing but right."

Said Litz: "Eastern Echo has a poise about him. He has so much quality in his disposition. Buddy Gil seems the same way. He just keeps doing his job. Nothing seems to bother him."

Ah, Buddy Gil, the son ... Now there's a story. He was born in Kentucky but raised in Idaho. Yes, Idaho.

His breeder, Donnie McFadden, 64, owns the 715-acre Billingsley Creek Ranch in Hagerman, Idaho, population 800. McFadden, his wife and their four children, two Labrador retrievers and one Siamese cat moved to Idaho for its family environment 32 years ago from California. There, McFadden had worked at a bank, built houses and owned beach bars.

Soon, in Idaho, he began buying horses, first for his children's enjoyment, later for his own. He raced quarter horses. Then he began buying, breeding and racing thoroughbreds. McFadden gelds his racehorses on the theory that that makes them more manageable.

In 24 years in the thoroughbred business, he has never had a horse close to his homebred Buddy Gil. Like all his horses, the gelding was raised among sagebrush and spacious paddocks. As soon as Buddy Gil would accept a saddle, he was ridden up and down hills and across streams.

"Anything was liable to happen," McFadden said. "Phea- sants might burst out from under the horse out on the trail. Or deer might spring out of the brush, or geese and duck might explode off their nest."

Buddy Gil learned to accept it all. He carried that manner to the racetrack.

McFadden formed the partnership that owns Buddy Gil while duck hunting in Idaho with four longtime friends from California. He said they've adopted the Rocky Balboa-Rodney Dangerfield theme because Buddy Gil never gets any respect. But he continually defies his long odds.

"He's pretty bulletproof, this horse," said his trainer, Jeff Mullins. "Nothing much bothers him."

Mullins yesterday sent Buddy Gil out for his final serious workout before the Derby, and the pent-up gelding sizzled through five furlongs in 59 3/5 seconds. Back at the barn, Mullins and his jockey, the three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens, slapped palms and erupted into smiles.

"I think this is a more athletic horse than Silver Charm," Stevens said of the horse with whom he won the Derby in 1997. "And he's got the same kind of heart. ... He's ready to roll."

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