Nags to Riches

June 02, 2002

Don't you love it when, just for a change, the salmon eats the
bear? The VW Bug squashes the bus? Radar O'Reilly gets the girl
and George Clooney goes home alone?

It's happening now--with a horse.

This was a slouch of a horse, Mr. Ed's rotten brother-in-law, a
crumb bred from royal stock. His daddy was the leading sire in
history, Mr. Prospector, and his mom an undefeated filly named
Personal Ensign. But this horse got only the slacker gene. If
this horse had been a person, it would've been a trust-fund kid
with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, collar turned up,
hanging out nights at the pool hall.

Born and reared at the Beverly Hills of the horse
world--Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.--this horse should've won
millions at the races but never won a stakes. So he was put out
to stud. Tough job: impregnate mares from mid-February to early
July, then take seven months off.

But this horse couldn't even do that right. Of his first crop of
33 foals, 14 made it to the track and they won only three times
as 2-year-olds, in 2000. The prices for his yearlings at auction
NASDAQed. He was a bum begetting bums.

So his owner dumped him. Sold him for the bloodstock equivalent
of a bag of oats. Sold him for low six figures to a little farm
in Maryland with one tenth the horses, land and reputation of
Claiborne. That's like Frank Sinatra Jr. being sent to Lubbock
Dinner Theatre.

Murmur Farm was run by a sixtysomething couple, Allen and Audrey
Murray, who still deliver their foals themselves and answer
their own phones. Allen worked most of his life as an electrical
engineer for the federal government so he could end up running a
small breeding operation full time.

"Just to buy this horse we had to dig pretty deep into our
savings," says Audrey, who quit working two years after marrying
Allen and raised three children. Financially they were standing
on a limb you wouldn't hang a wind chime from.

But then, in April, something weird started happening with this
horse. His chumps started turning into champs. One of the
horse's sons came out of the blue and won the Illinois Derby.
The next week one of them won the Arkansas Derby. And on the
first Saturday in May the Illinois winner ran away with the
Kentucky Derby!

The winner in Louisville was War Emblem, who made his sire,
11-year-old Our Emblem, worth a trailer full of cash. For the
Murrays it was like finding the Hope diamond in the dented-can
bin. "It was like winning Lotto," says Audrey.

Funny how two minutes can change your life, huh? Then again
maybe not. An hour after the Derby the Murrays were delivering
another foal. Within a week they got an offer of $4.5 million
for Our Emblem.

They thought hard about the offer--the Murrays won't divulge who
they are negotiating with--and decided they'd wait and see what
happened at the Preakness. Good idea. War Emblem won that, too.
Suddenly, Our Emblem was the No. 1 money-winning sire in the
country, King Stud. Head Hoss.

At week's end the standing offer was $6.6 million. "We think
we're going to wait and see what happens at the Belmont," says
Allen, 69. Probably another good idea.

Back at Claiborne Farm the hotshot bloodstock experts were
wondering how IBM got schnogged by Ma and Pa Kettle. "Well,"
grumbles Gus Cook, the head of stallions, "that's the horse
business."

If War Emblem wins the Belmont on June 8, he'll be the first
Triple Crown winner in 24 years. That means Our Emblem could
fetch upward of $10 million. His stud fee would go from $4,000
for a live foal to as much as $75,000. And Allen and Audrey
Murray would have a new lifestyle to ponder.

But here's the best part: They've thought about what they'd like
to do with all that loot and realized something cool. They were
already doing it. "We've got a great life," says Allen. "We live
on a farm, in an old stone house. It's quiet. There's no hassle.
At night we sit on the porch and relax. We're doing exactly what
we want. Makes it fun to get up in the mornings."

Meanwhile, Our Emblem, ex-slacker, is the hottest bachelor in
racing. He's booked to mate with mares every day for the next
five weeks, twice a day, beginning at 9 a.m., breaking the
previous record set by Wilt Chamberlain.

You talk about fun to get up in the morning.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

The hotshot bloodhorse experts were wondering how IBM got
schnogged by Ma and Pa Kettle.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)