LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Edward P. Evans's Spring Hill Farm has three homebreds pointing for Breeders' Cup championship races with Quality Road in the Classic, Malibu Prayer in the Ladies' Classic, and A Little Warm in the Mile.
All three have live chances, but the one everyone will be watching is Quality Road.
The 4-year-old Quality Road, a son of Elusive Quality, has had a roller-coaster career: the confident, record-setting winner of the 2009 Florida Derby appeared headed for 2009 Kentucky Derby favoritism, but then was knocked off the Triple Crown trail by a quarter crack. He returned to the winner's circle -- and set another track record -- in last summer's Amsterdam Stakes. He came to the 2009 Breeders' Cup off credible performances behind eventual divisional champion Summer Bird in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. But at the Breeders' Cup, he suffered his most infamous setback when he became so fractious at the starting gate that he ultimately was the race's first-ever gate scratch.
That incident is definitely is his rear-view mirror. Quality Road comes into the 2010 Classic with an almost perfect season. His three Grade 1 victories include a 12 3/4-length romp in the Donn Handicap in track-record time of 1:47.49. His only loss was by a head to Blame in the Whitney.
Quality Road will retire to stud in 2011 at Lane's End Farm in Versailles, Ky., in a deal that was announced a week ago. Evans will retain ownership and likely will breed 20 to 25 mares to Quality Road, according to Chris Baker, the Spring Hill manager, who said the horse's book probably will be around 120 mares. Quality Road's fee hasn't been set yet.
Baker credits three main factors for Quality Road's recovery from the 2009 starting-gate incident: patient handling by trainer Todd Pletcher, careful gate schooling by former New York Racing Association starter Bob Duncan, and the horse's own character.
"When you look at last year's Breeders' Cup and where we are now," said Baker, "it says a lot about Bob Duncan, about the NYRA gate crew, and about the time and effort Todd and his people put in. But it says the most about the kind of mind that Quality Road has and the kind of class he has, that he was able to overcome an event that would have traumatized the average horse to the point you wouldn't get them near a gate or trailer or other confining space again. He had the intellect not only to overcome it, but to excel and run some of the best races of his life after it with no problems at the gate.
"We learned he doesn't have a gate problem, he has no fear of going into or coming out of the gate. It was more that he had a problem with the gate crew, how they handled and communicated with him behind the gate and loading," Baker said. "What we found was, if you push, he's pushing back. What you need to do is get his respect on an individual level with the handler, and then he'll say, 'Okay, I'm willing to do what you're asking.' He's a dominant-type horse who likes to dictate the terms of every interaction he has, so you have to use a little advance and retreat with him."
Quality Road is the result of a Virginia-based homebreeding program that focuses on developing stamina and tactical speed, not sale-ring fashion.
"Several years ago I had a conversation with Mr. Evans when we were planning matings or something," recalled Baker. "We were talking about stallions for a particular mare, and I said, 'That stallion's really more of a commercial sire, and this one is more of a racehorse sire.' Mr. Evans looked at me and said, 'What does that mean? Who doesn't want a racehorse?' That tells you quite a bit about his point of view."
That old-school philosophy is deeply embedded in Quality Road's pedigree. His dam, the Strawberry Road mare Kobla, was a product of Allen Paulson's homebreeding program. Evans paid $1.05 million for her in 1999 at Keeneland's November sale.
"She was from Paulson's breed-to-race, old-style owner-breeder program, and we just extended and built on that," Baker said. "It wasn't that she was from a commercial family that became an owner-breeder family. This family goes back deeper than that.
"In our broodmare band there's a lot of Pleasant Colony, Pleasant Tap, The Minstrel, some Quiet American and Lyphard," Baker added. "There's stamina-based foundation to our broodmare band, and we've tried to cross that well with some of the speedier stallion lines, and you get a little synergy and can end up with good race horses."