Bullet Train presents Derby Dreams: Falling Sky
Behind every Kentucky Derby contender, there's a story of people chasing a dream.
As part of its coverage of Kentucky Derby 139, the Paulick Report is pleased to unveil a new feature that will take readers on the difficult, passionate, and uplifting journey so few get to experience. Each week leading up to the May 4 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Bullet Train presents Derby Dreams will share the story behind one of the contenders striving for a spot in the field of 20. This is the first piece in the series.
By her own admission, Alina Muther was one of those “horse-crazy” girls always hanging around barns, riding whenever she could, dreaming big dreams for her future.
“Whenever people asked me, ‘If you could do anything in your life, what would it be?'” Muther recalled. “I said I wanted to breed Thoroughbred racehorses.”
That was back in her suburban Detroit childhood in the early 1960s. She went on to attend the University of Michigan, made a springtime trip to Kentucky with college friends and watched from the Churchill Downs infield as Riva Ridge won the 1972 Kentucky Derby.
But then life showed up. Marriage, a career, family. Her dreams would have to wait. “I stayed on the periphery,” said Muther, who now lives near Philadelphia with husband Stephen.
Seven years ago, after her husband divested a large piece of his business holdings, Alina finally said, “Let's do this.”
She began slowly, bought a few mares off the track, and planned the matings. Then, on her first trip to a Thoroughbred auction, the 2007 Keeneland November breeding stock sale, she purchased a Sea Hero mare named Sea Dragoness for $48,000. Three years later that mare, pregnant to Lion Heart, foaled a colt, Falling Sky, who would go on to win the 2013 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and give Muther her first case of Kentucky Derby fever.
“I was really impressed by his will to win,” she said. “When a horse gets headed and fights back like he did, that tells you something.”
By the time Falling Sky defeated favored Dynamic Sky in the Grade 3 race, he'd long since been sold by Muther, having gone through the ring as a weanling at the 2010 Keeneland November sale and selling for $16,000. Earlier this year, Justin Casse signed the ticket after a winning bid of $425,000 on the newly turned 3-year-old when he topped the horses of racing age portion of the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's winter mixed sale.
“I try to follow the kids that I sell,” Muther said. “It harkens back to some of my sentimentality about the business. I look at all these horses as my kids, and I want nothing more than for their owners to do well.”
In December, she followed Falling Sky right into the Gulfstream Park winner's circle after he won an allowance race for Armachan Stable and Off the Hook LLC.
“I barged my way in,” she recalled with a laugh. “He still had the heart-shaped star on his head: a Lion Heart with heart.” Muther was at Gulfstream Park that day because one of the horses in her small racing stable, Laurel Futurity winner Tates Landing, was running in the Dania Beach Stakes.
“In the winner's circle, one of the owners of Falling Sky said, ‘I need more horses like this one.' That's exactly what you want to have happen when you're a breeder.”
Selling a horse who goes on to win a Kentucky Derby prep race can lead to a lot of second-guessing, but Muther understands that's the nature of the business.
“Those decisions are hard for everybody,” said Muther's Kentucky-based bloodstock adviser Davant Latham. “Who are you going to sell, who are you going to keep? It's a continual process.”
Falling Sky was foaled in Pennsylvania, where Muther keeps several mares. She has a few in New York and Kentucky as well. “Alina takes advantage of the New York and Pennsylvania (incentive) programs,” Latham said. “She operates this as a business and is very realistic. She is a big believer of making hay when the sun shines, putting the horse in the right place. She understands horses, understands they are not machines. She's fair, intelligent and realistic.”
In addition to her breeding stock of about a dozen mares, Muther maintains a racing stable of mostly homebreds, using several trainers, including Michael Pino, Gary Gullo, Chuck Simon, Bob Tiller, and James Kasparoff.
She no longer owns Falling Sky or her dam (who sold at the same November sale as the Davis winner), but Muther has an Ontario-bred older half sister, Lemon Splash (by Lemon Drop Kid), who will join the broodmare band when her racing career is over. “I got the Lemon Drop Kid filly when I bought Sea Dragoness in foal,” she said. “She's been a solid racehorse – one of those ATM horses. She keeps her conditions but keeps running third or fourth.”
The first Saturday in February was a big day for horses bred in the name of Muther's Copper Penny Stables. In addition to Falling Sky winning the Sam F. Davis, Winchell Thoroughbreds' Tapit colt Tritap was running in the G2 Strub at Santa Anita. Previously second to Fed Biz in the G2 San Fernando, Tritap wound up fifth to Guilt Trip.
“It was a big weekend for my little operation,” she said.
The Seitz family's Brookdale Farm sold Tritap for Muther as a yearling for $450,000 at the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale after Muther purchased his dam, Victory Road, for $75,000.
“Tritap was a big score for me,” she said. “I love the Tapit pipeline. Pete Siegel, a pedigree adviser in New York, felt when I bought Victory Road that Tapit was going to be an epic sire.”
Unfortunately, Victory Road developed laminitis and was euthanized last March.
“There are a lot of ups and downs in the business,” Muther said. “And this was one of the downs. I had her with (Rood and Riddle veterinarian) Scott Morrison for a year. We were trying to save her life – not to breed her again, but just to save her.”
Muther lost her own mother when she was 25 years old, and her racing and breeding operation, Copper Penny Stables, is named in her honor.
“I always think about her,” she said of her mother. “When I was toying with the idea of buying a couple of broodmares and doing this, I would hesitate and say, ‘Do I really want to do this?' For months, every time I'd look up I'd see a heads-up penny, and thought, ‘Mom, are you trying to tell me something?'”