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A Classic Heartbreaker: A Look Back at Birdstone
By Amy Nesse
When it came to the 3-year-old crop of 2004, almost all eyes were on one particular horse. Smarty Jones was one of the most popular equine celebrities in recent racing history. He was doted upon as “The people’s horse” and considered possibly the next Triple Crown winner for American racing.
As there so often is, while Smarty Jones was claiming glory, another horse was being carefully prepped for battle heading into the Belmont Stakes. This horse gave the performance of a lifetime, claiming an upset victory and causing national heartbreak in the racing world in the third jewel of the 2004 Triple Crown. Despite vast disappointment, it was no average horse that beat Smarty Jones that day and few now would claim his memorable upset a fluke.
Though on the smaller side, he was mighty. Possessing the perfect blend of speed and stamina, Birdstone had the fiery determination and will to win establishing himself as a Classic horse. He continued to prove he was no one-hit-wonder with further success on the track and in the breeding shed. So let’s take a look back at the career and influence of the mighty Birdstone.
Bred and owned by Marylou Whitney of the prestigious Whitney racing family, Birdstone emulated class before he took his first breath. He was sired by the 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone, a well-bred, but unproven sire at the time.
His dam, Dear Birdie was a daughter of the great Storm Bird and was living royalty among broodmares. She would ultimately go on to produce an incredible 12 stakes winning foals. She was named Broodmare of the year in 2004 with her daughter Bird Town (by Cape Town) taking flight just as Birdstone was getting started, by winning the 2003 Kentucky Oaks.
As the young colt began training under trained Nick Zito, Birdstone’s connections had an uncertain, but hopeful outlook on the bay son of Grindstone.
Just months after Birdstone’s ½ sister Bird Town won the Kentucky Oaks, Birdstone made his racing debut at the prestigious Saratoga Racetrack in a 6 furlong Maiden Special Weight under Edgar Prado. The young colt encouraged his owners with a spectacular 12-length romp under a hand ride from Prado on a muddy track. With that performance, it was immediately on to Grade 1 competition in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, again at Saratoga, only to hit the gate at the start and make a labored 5-wide rally at the wire to finish 4th. With the unfortunate trip, his connections were confident he would return to his debut-winning form and entered him into the 1 1/16m Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont. To the expectations of trainer Nick Zito, Birdstone flourished over the fast track and won going away under Jerry Bailey claiming his first Grade 1 of his career and ended his juvenile campaign as a Eclipse award finalist and a colt in the public’s eye heading into the Triple Crown season of 2004.
After some time off, Birdstone traveled to Gulfstream to make his 3-year-old debut in an allowance, which he won by 3 lengths in a hand ride. Hopes were high for the upcoming Sophomore season. Oddly enough, Birdstone would go on to finish well out of the money in his next start, the G2 Lanes End Stakes at Turfway, his final prep for the 2004 Kentucky Derby.
Come Derby day, Birdstone wasn’t a particular factor after he was shuffled at the start and lacked a strong response, finishing 8th while Smarty Jones surged to victory over the sloppy track. The decision was made to skip the Preakness and train up to the Belmont Stakes. As Smarty Jones captivated the nation with another thrilling win in the 2nd jewel of the Triple Crown, all, including Birdstone’s connections, wondered “would he be the one?”.
As the media solely focused on Smarty Jones and his team heading into the 3rd jewel, Birdstone was quietly working up a storm over the Belmont track, but even to those who noticed, few wanted to believe he was capable of spoiling Smarty Jones’ chance of the Crown. With his 5 previous runner-up finishes in the Belmont Stakes, Nick Zito was in full belief that he was likely in for another. Marylou Whitney even later stated to Bloodhorse that they encouraged Prado to “just run 2nd”…little did they know what they were in for.
Come Belmont day, Birdstone was sent off at odds of 36-1 as the media frenzied around the possibility of another Triple Crown winner as Smarty Jones looked to be in perfect form for the challenge before him.
As the gates opened, Smarty Jones surged to the front to take control early as Birdstone stalked unhurriedly under Edgar Prado. After what seemed like an eternity, coming for home, Smarty Jones remained in control and as the field approached the quarter pole, the crowd began to roar in anticipation of a pivotal scene in racing history as the 12th Triple Crown winner looked prime to cross the wire alone; but Edgar Prado was carefully plotting out his move as he and Birdstone surged 5-wide along the backstretch to find the needed outside position to catch the chestnut colt. As the wire approached, Smarty Jones looked home and with just a few tiring strides left, Birdstone and Prado grasped the opportunity and surged late in a dramatic upset win by a length over the defeated champ.
The shock among Birdstone’s connections was almost as profound as the crowd’s. Amazingly, Edgar Prado and Marylou Whitney, both personal fans themselves, publicly apologized for spoiling Smarty Jones’ bid for the Triple Crown during the NBC broadcast. For trainer Nick Zito, this was a moment of victory and redemption, as his other horse, Royal Assault ran third. He accomplished the rare feat of having two horses finish in the money in a classic race. It was a heartbreaking day for many and Smarty Jones received solemn pats from his connections. There was no shame in his Triple Crown attempt and he remains one of the most memorable “almosts” in Triple Crown history.
In his next start, Birdstone was out to prove his Belmont victory was no fluke in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes. With little faith from the public, he was sent off as the 4th betting choice in a 7 horse field that did not include Smarty Jones. Nick Zito was out to win his first Travers Stakes and entered Cliff’s Edge along with Birdstone.
After a preferred stalking trip, Birdstone had to fight for command as the field approached the turn and as they approached the wire, he dug deep to fight off The Cliff’s Edge under a strong ride from Prado, winning by 2 ½ lengths and giving Zito his first Travers win in an exacta finish! The Travers was a pivotal race in Birdstone’s career as he established himself a true star among his crop and proved he was no fluke in winning the Belmont.
After a lengthy layoff, Birdstone returned as a well-regarded contender heading into the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but to the surprise of many, finished a dismal 7th. Questions were put to rest the day after as a leg fracture was revealed in an x-ray.
Following the unfortunate diagnosis, Birdstone was retired to Gainesway Farm for the reasonable fee of $10,000. The son of Grindstone further proved his class by having immediate success at stud.
Out of his 70 foals from his first crop, Birdstone accomplished the amazing feat of producing 2 Classic winners in not only one crop, but his very first! His Mine That Bird pulled a 50-to-1 upset in the 2009 Kentucky Derby in one of the most thrilling performances in Derby history. 2 weeks later, he would finish 2nd to Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes.
In the Belmont Stakes, Birdstone established himself as one of the most prominent sires of the year as his son Summer Bird surged to victory in the 1 1/2 Belmont with Mine That Bird finishing third. Summer Bird would later add the Grade 1 Travers Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Championship title to Birdstone’s increasingly impressive resume. His first crop also included Birdrun, who set the Belmont track record for a 1 1/16m. Ultimately, Birdstone sired 7 stakes winners from 57 runners and 46 winners from 67 named foals, which is a bit more than 10 percent stakes winners to foals for his 2006 crop and ranked him as one of the leading young sires in the country.
(It was a pleasure to visit him a few months back and the Gainesway staff were quick to say “You just gotta love Birdstone.” )
With his early success at stud, Birdstone’s stud fee raised to $30,000 for the 2010 season, but to the surprise of many, Birdstone has yet to duplicate anything similar to his first-crop success and his stud fee is now listed at $5,000. Birdstone has sired 30 black-type runners, 19 stakes winners, 8 graded stakes winners, 3 millionaires, and has amassed progeny earnings over $21 million. His more recent notable progeny include – Noble Bird, Stoneware, Blue Tone, Thank You Marylou, Florida Won, Swipe, Testosterone, Ring Knocker, etc. Though perhaps his early success didn’t continue on as hoped, Birdstone is probably the classiest stallion you will find with a stud fee of $5,000. He has proven his bloodlines provide an attractive blend of speed and stamina, and though he may not have as praised a reputation as some of the stallions a few stalls away from him at Gainesway, he continues to prove that he’s a horse that may go overlooked, but always proves his quality in the end.
Interestingly enough our own Jonathan Stettin was very fond of Birdstone and for good reason. Not only did he result in a big score and another Pick 6 for The Pick 6 King, but his column which first appeared on Danonymous Racing’s website, was the first Past the Wire column and ultimately started this site. If you’ve never read it you can do so here, a classic racing story …..
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