The ever-active Zandon stood still just long enough to get his picture taken (Airdrie Stud)
As Airdrie Stud marks the 50th anniversary of its founding, Zandon
can furnish an appropriately golden gift – in the form of the 2022 Kentucky Derby
(G1) trophy. His success would be all the more special, for his pedigree features Airdrie stallions and a female line cultivated by proprietor Brereton Jones.
Jones, who served as Governor of Kentucky from 1991-95, and his wife, Libby, established Airdrie in 1972. Yet the creation of the farm was also a restoration, bringing the land near Midway, Kentucky, back to its roots as a Thoroughbred nursery.
Airdrie encompasses much of the property that had belonged to the great 19th-century stud farm, R.A. Alexander’s Woodburn. Home to breed-shaper Lexington, who topped the American sires’ list for an incredible 16 times despite the Civil War, Woodburn kept churning out classic winners. A total of 10 Belmont S. heroes hailed from Woodburn, along with four winners of the Preakness. Moreover, Alexander had bred the horse Preakness, who became the race’s namesake.
Four Kentucky Derby winners were bred by R.A.’s brother and heir, A.J. Alexander – Baden-Baden (1877), Fonso (1880), Joe Cotton (1885), and Chant (1894). His Eminence (1901) could be counted unofficially as A.J.’s fifth Derby winner, since he was in utero when his dam was sold at an Alexander dispersal.
That’s emblematic of the passing of Woodburn from the annals of racing by the early 20th century. The farm was no longer employed in raising Thoroughbreds, but cattle.
The renaissance came when Brereton and Libby, an Alexander descendant herself, set up Airdrie. The name is in homage to the Alexanders’ ancestral estate in Lanarkshire, Scotland. The Joneses added more of the old Woodburn acreage to their holdings in 2002, reinforcing the farm’s historic association.
Although Jones has yet to breed a Derby winner, he bred and sold Littleprincessemma, who would become the dam of 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah. Jones came closest to the roses when Desert Wine, whom he co-bred with Warnerton Farm, was runner-up in 1983. Another Jones-bred, Dansil, finished fourth in the 1989 running to all-time greats Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.
Jones has bred and raced two Kentucky Oaks (G1) winners, Proud Spell (2008) and Believe You Can (2012). And he campaigned a third Oaks victress, bargain-buy Lovely Maria (2015).
Another Jones acquisition, Witness Post, would turn out to be inspired. By the influential Mr. Prospector stallion Gone West, and out of a full sister to Grade 3 winner With a Twist, Witness Post had a promising pedigree. But she never raced, and the only clues to her ability were a pair of bullet works at Belmont Park as a juvenile in the fall of 2000.
When Witness Post entered the 2001 Keeneland November sales ring, she would be easy to overlook among the myriad of well-bred breeding stock with stronger resumes. Jones didn’t overlook her, thanks to a word from the greatly esteemed Bill Graves. The late horseman, renowned for being a keen judge, had insight into the filly through his role with her owner/breeder, Angus Glen Farm. Graves believed that Witness Post had a lot of talent that she didn’t get the chance to demonstrate on the racetrack.
Trusting Graves’s assessment, Jones purchased Witness Post for $15,500. She paid dividends with her first registered goal, Grade 2 winner Hello Liberty, who placed in the 2006 Acorn (G1). Witness Post would also produce Grade 3-placed stakes scorer Pious Ashley. She extended her influence through other daughters Church by the Sea (dam of graded turf winners Significant Form and Hay Dakota) and Incarnate Memories, the granddam of Zandon.
Incarnate Memories, by Airdrie’s outstanding stallion Indian Charlie, had a history similar to her own dam. Like Witness Post, she was initially offered as a Keeneland September yearling, and failed to sell for ironically the exact same price ($95,000). Incarnate Memories was retained by Jones, who sent her to trainer Larry Jones (no relation). Again like her dam, she displayed above-average speed in training, but misfortune prevented her from fulfilling her potential.
“Larry had been unbelievably high on her,” Airdrie’s general manager, Ben Henley, revealed. “He said she was one of the fastest horses he ever sat on.”
Incarnate Memories made it to the races, going off as the 7-10 favorite in her debut at Fair Grounds, only to sustain an injury when fourth. She ended up not running again.
Jones kept her as a broodmare. Sending her to Airdrie’s highly-regarded freshman stallion Creative Cause, she had the distinction of producing his first foal on Jan. 29, 2014. The farm commemorated the moment with a photo of Jones and the newborn filly, who would be named Memories Prevail.
Unfortunately, Memories Prevail met with a setback and never raced. She was slated to sell at the 2017 Keeneland January Sale, but few were interested, and bidding stalled at a paltry $2,500. Jones couldn’t part with her, and bought her back.
“It was a last-second decision, a gut feeling,” Henley said of Jones’s bringing her back home to Airdrie.
“Brere absolutely loved her and had a lot of faith in her, more than some other people had.
“It’s a family he always had a lot of faith in.”
Jones’s faith would be rewarded, as Memories Prevail became the dam of Zandon. Also, two of her younger half-sisters have had success on the track. Incarnate Memories’ 2016 foal, Cariba, captured the 2020 Caress S. at Saratoga, and her current three-year-old, Cairo Memories, recently romped in the Providencia (G3) at Santa Anita, just about the time her “nephew,” Zandon, won the Blue Grass (G1). Although she’s blossoming on turf, Cairo Memories was also runner-up in last December’s Starlet
(G1) on the Los Alamitos dirt – about four hours after Zandon nearly won the Remsen (G2).
Zandon, by Airdrie’s up-and-coming stallion Upstart, was foaled on March 21, 2019. The dark bay colt took the eye from the start.
“He always kind of stood out as a foal,” Henley said. “He always had that presence among the herd. He was quite nice, especially when he filled out his frame.”
The colt was also brimming with energy, even as a baby in the stall with his dam, as Henley recalled.
“He would give his dam a hard time, jumping up and trying to climb up on her back.”
Zandon’s high-spirited behavior carried over into his interactions with his buddies in the field.
“He definitely wanted to be in the middle of the action. He was always one to go in for fighting, playing, carrying on – a very active horse.
“He was a boisterous, almost rambunctious type,” so much so that during his yearling sales prep, he needed to have an experienced handler keep a lid on him.
The yet-unnamed colt was initially cataloged as a weanling at Keeneland November, but ended up withdrawing to give him more time. A fellow Airdrie weanling who did go through the ring as planned was a Summer Front colt; he would turn out to be Derby rival Summer Is Tomorrow (pictured below).
While most of Airdrie’s foal crop points for the yearling sales, some are offered as weanlings if the market could be receptive. Buyers involved in “pinhooking,” purchasing youngsters to develop for re-sale, are on the lookout for likely prospects.
“One of the great angles is trying to buy foals off Airdrie to pinhook,” Henley said.
Summer Is Tomorrow was bought
for $25,000 by Nicholas Malhouitre for the Runnymede-affiliated Magna Carta. Although he didn’t sell for $14,000 when re-offered as a Keeneland September yearling, he would turn a profit at the next stage, in Europe. Micky Cleere’s Irish-based M.C. Thoroughbreds sold him as a two-year-old in training at Arqana for approximately $170,000.
The decision to await the yearling sales with Zandon was wise. He was thriving come August of 2020 when bloodstock maven Mike Ryan visited Airdrie as part of his advance work for Keeneland September.
The co-breeder of 2017 Kentucky Derby star Always Dreaming (with the late Gerry Dilger), Ryan has discovered such standouts as 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam and 2016 Derby champ Nyquist as yearlings. He was well-disposed to progeny of Upstart, having recently bought Reinvestment Risk and Founder from his first crop at the OBS Sale. Both would distinguish themselves at the 2020 Saratoga meet, just as Ryan was scouting out his latest yearlings.
“I took a bit of affinity to Upstart at the two-year-old sales in 2020,” Ryan said. “He really caught my eye.”
So did Zandon upon inspection at Airdrie. Cataloged as Hip No. 2686, buried deeper in Book 4 of the sale, he might have been missed on the grounds at Keeneland.
“That’s the beauty about going to the farms,” Ryan revealed.
“I know that the guys at Airdrie really liked him. He was a Book 2 yearling in quality.
“I saw a big, good-looking, well grown horse, a lot of quality. He needed to furnish, but it was only August. A most gorgeous head on him, beautiful – he had an aura about him.”
Four weeks later, just before Ryan entered quarantine for a trip to Great Britain’s Tattersalls auction, he was able to get another look at Zandon on the sales grounds.
“He had done extremely well in that four-week period,” Ryan said. “Four weeks is a lot of time for yearlings, and for two-year-olds.
“I found another good Upstart,” he recalled, and thought of contacting Jeff Drown, for whom he’d acquired Founder.
“Jeff, we need to buy this horse,” Ryan told Drown.
“He had a great temperament, a great demeanor. One of the standouts.
“He had an aura, a great mind. He was completely relaxed (in the sale environment). He had a very clean shoulder and neck to him.
“He’s very light on his feet, very easy in his movements. He hits the ground very softly.”
Unlike some who are hyperfocused on finding any possible flaw, Ryan’s philosophy is to size up the forest as a whole rather than get bogged down by the trees.
“I look at the big picture, and the big picture was really positive for me. He’s an eyeful, a handsome horse with a lot of style and presence.
“I’m looking for the athlete, and they can come in every color, shape, make, and size.”
Ryan secured the handsome colt, on Drown’s behalf, for $170,000. Sent to Travis Durr’s South Carolina training center, the Webb Carroll facility, he was the type to come into his own with more time.
“He was a big, gangly two-year-old that you could tell was going to change a lot,” Durr said.
Zandon never had a setback in his early training, but once it was apparent that he wasn’t going to be an early juvenile, it made sense to back off him. Durr credits Drown with letting him proceed at that leisurely pace, and allowing the colt to set his own timetable.
Accordingly, Zandon stayed longer in South Carolina until Durr felt ready to send him off to trainer Chad Brown in early July. By that point, he had touted himself, especially with his stride mechanics.
“He had that big, beautiful, long stride,” Durr said. “He just floated over the racetrack.
“He really showed he had ability, just the way he moves and that turn of foot.”
Drown’s patience was rewarded because once Zandon graduated and joined Brown, he was able to run two strong races in the fall of his juvenile year. Had he been pressed when at that big, immature stage, that could have compromised his chances of making it on the Derby trail.
Zandon didn’t look the sort to win first time out sprinting six furlongs, so that successful debut at Belmont Park Oct. 9 stamped him as one to follow. Overcoming a slightly hesitant start, he advanced into good position on the inside, but appeared to be going nowhere when he felt the kickback in his face. As soon as he steered outside into the clear, though, he took off to win going away.
The original plan was to try the Nashua (G3), until Zandon spiked a fever and had to miss the race, his intended bridge to the Remsen. But Brown believed that the colt was up to the stiffer task of jumping up from a sprint maiden to the Remsen’s 1 1/8 miles.
Zandon nearly pulled it off. The more experienced Mo Donegal outdueled him in a rough stretch run, surviving a stewards’ inquiry and an objection. It was a controversial Remsen finish that might have resulted in a disqualification. Although Zandon lost the decision, he performed with great credit, never yielding despite the physical contact with Mo Donegal, and he was coming again at the wire.
In his sophomore bow in the Feb. 19 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, Zandon again ran admirably in defeat. He lost any meaningful chance with a poor start, then endured a wide trip, but still closed well for third.
Zandon enhanced his Derby credentials with a last-to-first victory in the April 9 Blue Grass at Keeneland. Impressing observers as he scythed through traffic and overpowered Smile Happy in the stretch, he scored a particularly meaningful win for the Airdrie team on hand.
If Zandon can follow up on the first Saturday in May, he would forge anew the link between the ancient Woodburn land and the Triple Crown. And Airdrie’s golden anniversary would take on a rosy glow.
Foal photos and image from press release courtesy of Airdrie Stud
Photo of Zandon as a two-year-old courtesy of Travis Durr