Catching Up With Birdstone

Legends
Birdstone at Gainesway in his second career as a stallion. (Melissa Bauer-Herzog photo)

To say that Birdstone was part of a golden few years for his dam (mother), Dear Birdie, would be an understatement.

The son of Grindstone debuted a few months after his 3-year-old half-sister Bird Town won the Kentucky Oaks, and he won his first Grade 1 race, the Champagne Stakes, two races before she ran her career finale in the Beldame Stakes. But while she was settling into the life as a broodmare, he was blazing his own trail.

Birdstone was off for four months after the Champagne and returned in a one-mile allowance race at Gulfstream Park. The race seemed easy enough for the colt as he coasted to a three-length victory under Jerry Bailey. Birdstone hit a rough patch in his next two starts, finishing fifth and eighth, respectively, in the Grade 2 Lane’s End Stakes and the Kentucky Derby.

But in the Belmont Stakes, everything came back together for Birdstone. Edgar Prado, who had spoiled War Emblem’s bid for a Triple Crown in 2002 with Sarava, was aboard as Birdstone looked to spoil Smarty Jones’ attempt at the historic sweep.

While Smarty Jones spent most of the race pushed on the front end, Birdstone was reserved off the pace and biding his time. Smarty Jones looked home free at the quarter-pole with a 3 ½-length lead, but Birdstone shifted into gear and chased him down. In the stretch, Smarty Jones began to tire but fought on gamely before Birdstone started to reel him in. Nearly the whole stretch was needed for his powerful rally, but Birdstone passed Smarty Jones in the final yards before the finish line and surged past to win by a length.

2004 BELMONT STAKES

Both Prado and the colt’s owner, Marylou Whitney, were apologetic for spoiling Smarty Jones’ bid to sweep Triple Crown. Whitney said in the winner’s circle that she loved Smarty Jones and felt awful for her horse spoiling the Triple Crown during the NBC broadcast.

“We kept telling Prado to run second,” Whitney told the Blood-Horse after the race. “We all wanted Smarty Jones to win the Triple Crown. But this means a great deal to us, winning the Belmont with a homebred.”

For trainer Nick Zito, it was a bit of a sweet win as he had finished second in the Belmont five times before Birdstone gave him his first win in the race. Zito’s Royal Assault completed the trifecta for the trainer, the first time he had hit the board with two horses in one classic race.

Birdstone had won the Belmont Stakes at 36-to-1, the third longest shot in the field of nine, but he proved in the Travers that the win was no fluke.

As the field entered the far turn of that race, Birdstone joined a four-way battle for the lead. It wasn’t until the stretch that Birdstone seized command but it was a tenuous lead with two horses coming after him. Birdstone dug in to pull away from the main challenge of The Cliff’s Edge under urging from Prado to win by 2 ½ lengths and top a Zito exacta in a thunderstorm.

"Those two horses [Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge] were really great today," Zito, told the Blood-Horse. "Birdstone proved how great he is, coming off the layoff. God did me a favor again. It had been raining until the race was on. It didn't matter; it was very fair. They ran slow up front, but we were still able to run them down."

2004 TRAVERS STAKES

Birdstone was given another lengthy break before the Breeders’ Cup Classic but the colt didn’t fire and finished seventh. It was reveled a few days after the race that he had a fracture and Birdstone was retired with five wins in nine starts for $1,575,600 in earnings.

Birdstone moved to Gainesway Farm to stand at the stallion complex, not far from where he was born and where both his dam and his aforementioned older sibling resided. Priced at a $10,000 stud fee, Birdstone had 70 live foals in 2006 and they made for a memorable crop.

Birdstone (Melissa Bauer-Herzog photo)

Birdstone became part of a select group of sires who produced a Kentucky Derby winner in their first crop when the previous year’s Canadian champion 2-year-old male Mine That Bird pulled a 50.60-to-1 upset. Two weeks later, Mine That Bird finished second to future Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness Stakes. But it was the Belmont Stakes that really made Birdstone stand out.

Arkansas Derby third-place finisher Summer Bird was making only his fifth start when he entered the starting gate for the Belmont. Two and a half minutes later, Summer Bird added a Belmont Stakes victory to Birdstone’s sire record while Mine That Bird finished third. After wins in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup, in addition to a runner-up finish in the Haskell Invitational Stakes, Summer Bird added another achievement to Birdstone’s resume when he was voted champion 3-year-old with 225 votes to Mine That Bird’s four, with two others getting one vote each.

Summer Bird and Mine That Bird weren’t the only big winners for Birdstone from that crop. His son Birdrun set a new track record at Belmont going 1 1/16 miles in 2009 before getting a Grade 2 victory in 2011. Livin Lovin represented his fillies with a win in 2008 in the Grade 3 Tempted Stakes. Overall, 46 of Birdstone’s 57 runners from that crop won at least one race with seven of them winning a stakes race.

Birdstone has had 19 stakes winners in his eight crops age 3 years old and older. Among those is 2015 Grade 1 winner Noble Bird and Grade 3 winner Thank You Marylou. Birdstone’s latest star is three-time Grade 1 runner-up Swipe, who finished second to Nyquist in all three of those Grade 1s, including the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

“A lot of people don’t realize this horse was a Grade 1 winner at 2. He won his debut at Saratoga by a dozen lengths, then he won the Champagne,” said Michael Hernon, Gainesway’s director of sales. “Everyone remembers him as the horse who denied Smarty Jones the Triple Crown when he ran him down in the long stretch at Belmont Park, but he came right back and [won the] Travers in a driving rainstorm. He’s a well-balanced, attractive horse. He’s had a Derby winner and he’s had a champion in Summer Bird.”

Each morning at 7 a.m. year-round, Birdstone is turned out next to fellow Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, who won the Belmont the year before him.

Birdstone (Melissa Bauer-Herzog photo)

“Horses do really great if you put them on a routine, keep them in the same stalls, the same paddock by the same horse, they are much better stallions,” Stallion Manager Carl Buckler said.

Buckler says Birdstone is laid back and great to be around, but the stallion surprises him with the strength he shows when he puts his mind to it.

“I call him ‘Little Man’ because when you put a shank on him and get him in the [breeding] shed, he is strong. For his size, it is unbelievable. He is 15.3 and I can see that is why he is such a good racehorse because he is really strong, but he’s great to be around,” he said.

Birdstone is still an active stallion, standing for $5,000 at Gainesway next to fellow Belmont Stakes winners Empire Maker and Afleet Alex.

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