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Early last Saturday evening, three hours after he had won the 117th running of the Kentucky Derby, Strike the Gold stood at the door of his stall and gazed with yawning detachment at the commotion taking place down at the end of the barn.
There was the colt's veterinarian, Mark Cheney, bearing an open bottle of bourbon from one celebrant to the next as if it were an elixir. "Take a swig of this," Cheney said. "It's special." In the middle of the shedrow, B. Giles Brophy, one of the owners of Strike the Gold, looked suddenly overwhelmed as he beheld the massive blanket of roses hanging across a stablehand's shoulders. Opening his arms, Brophy pleaded, "What do we do with that? What's the lucky thing to do?" Trainer Nick Zito, meanwhile, stood quietly and celebrated the passing of the hex, the end of the genetic voodoo he had been railing against all week. "No more witchcraft," he said.
Not far away, Strike the Gold's groom, John Ginn, recalled how the colt not only had barely survived his birth but also had then grown into the toughest, most aggressive yearling in the fields of Calumet Farm, where he had been foaled, orphaned and raised. "You saw him out there today," Ginn said. "Ever since this colt was born, he has been a fighter."
To be sure, in the final half mile of one of the most unwieldly Kentucky Derbies in years, with the 16-horse field fanned out seven wide on the turn for home, no 3-year-old mustered more fight than Strike the Gold. Taking the high ground around the final bend in the 1¼-mile classic—a move that carried him out to the center of the racetrack—the striking chestnut son of Alydar swept to the lead coming to the eighth pole and then held off the late charge of Best Pal to win by 1¾ lengths. If Strike the Gold's final time of 2:03 was uninspiring (it was the third slowest running of the Derby on a fast track in the last 20 years), it was clearly enough to handle this bunch and to establish the Gold as this year's dominant 3-year-old.
It is a wonder Strike the Gold even made it to his 3-year-old year, much less to Churchill Downs in May. The colt was born a so-called dummy foal, a condition resulting from oxygen deprivation at the time of birth that often renders a newborn nearly comatose and can be fatal. "For three days we had him on oxygen and fed him by tubes through the nose," said Ginn. Strike the Gold survived, but when he was four months old, his dam, Majestic Gold, died of colic. So he was turned loose in a field with two other orphans of the farm before finally joining the other youngsters at Calumet.
"He was special from the git-go," said Ginn. "When he got to be a yearling, he'd race in the fields, and none of the others could catch him. He'd run along in front, and then he'd turn and whup on them. He'd come back all cut up from fighting."
When the head of Calumet Farm, J.T. Lundy, sent Strike the Gold to Zito in New York, Zito liked him right away, on appearance alone. "He looked just like Alydar," Zito says. "A spittin' image."
In Calumet's glory years—between 1941 and '68, it produced eight Kentucky Derby winners, more than any other breeding farm in history—it would have been unthinkable for Calumet to sell a promising 2-year-old. By '90, however, the farm faced acute financial difficulties, so Strike the Gold went on the block along with Calumet's other well-bred babies. Lundy offered the colt to Brophy in a package deal with seven other youngsters, but the price was way beyond Brophy's means. "A few million dollars," says Zito.
"That's too much money," says Brophy, a Wall Street securities trader and cattle breeder from New York City who spends $800,000 a year on horses. Rather than turn down the deal, Brophy took on two equal partners. One partner, Joseph Cornacchia, publishes games such as Pictionary. The other, William Condren, is involved in real estate and oil and gas drilling. Less than six months after they made the deal last September, the three men looked like geniuses.
Strike the Gold broke his maiden in his third and final start last year, winning a mile race on Nov. 15 at Aqueduct. For months Ginn had been telling friends and colleagues that Strike the Gold was his 1991 Kentucky Derby horse. He became even more convinced when that first victory came on the same day that Alydar, one of America's leading thoroughbred stallions, had to be destroyed after breaking a hind leg in a stall accident at Calumet. Racetrackers are a superstitious lot, and for those who knew what the Gold had been through, the timing of the two events was eerie. "We were all pretty somber that night while listening to the race results on the radio," says Ginn, who was at Calumet. "Then they announced that Strike the Gold had won in New York."