While his contemporaries were walking between classes on the university quad, Farm Manager Larry King continued his post-secondary education under his father at Florida's Waldemar Farm. His studies included everything from the day-to-day operations of a top-flight breeding farm to a 1975 Kentucky Derby victory with Waldemar-bred Foolish Pleasure.
Forty-six years later, King was thrilled to see homebred 3-year-old Well Defined storm to the lead and never relinquish it in Saturday's G3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The Florida-bred son of With Distinction firmly stamped himself a candidate for the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
“I want to see him perform like that back-to-back,” King said. “The talent and the grit are there, he's just got to figure out how to use it.”
King watched over Well Defined from the moment of his first breath through his early training under saddle at the re-christened Stonehedge Farm, which has been owned for the past 31 years by Gilbert and Marilyn Campbell. He was never an easy horse to manage, King recalled.
“There's a difference between being tough and being a renegade,” King said. “He was real tough from the beginning, just rank, but not an outlaw… We had to geld him.
“He didn't want to go around the track, or want the pony around him. He wasn't mean or an outlaw, just gritty… But they've got to be tough to win at that level.
“It's taken a little time, but (trainer) Kathleen (O'Connell) really spends the extra mile.”
Well Defined won his first start in June at Gulfstream Park by 3 ¾ lengths, then ran third in an allowance and second in the FTBOA Florida Sire Affirmed Stakes. In his fourth start, the gelding blew away to dominate the $400,000 FTBOA Florida Sire In Reality Stakes by 7 ½ lengths, earning a shot at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Things in Kentucky, however, did not go as planned. Well Defined was worked up before the race by the crowds, then did not make the lead and was bothered at the five-sixteenths pole before fading to finish 12th beneath the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
Well Defined again missed making the lead in the Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 5, his sophomore debut, and finished fifth that day. It can be frustrating to watch, King admitted, because as much grit and stubbornness as the gelding displays in the mornings, he has yet to figure out how to transfer that attitude to the afternoons.
Everything worked out better in the Davis, of course. Despite breaking from post eight of nine starters, Well Defined cleared the field to make an easy three-length lead heading around the clubhouse turn.
“Some people might get nervous when they see a horse do that, because they think he's going too fast,” said King. “But if you watch, he was striding so easy down the backstretch and pricked his ears up… If that's how he likes to run, that's the way you let him do it.”
His long stride and front-running style remind King of other talented Medaglia d'Oro-related runners, like Songbird. In fact, the Campbells bred and raced Songbird's dam Ivanavinalot (West Acre), and she had a similar running style.
“Medaglia d'Oro is an awesome, awesome stud,” King said. “He's been good to our farm… he's made us a believer.”
The Campbells purchased Well Defined's dam, the unraced Fru Fru (Medaglia d'Oro), for $18,000 at the OBS Winter sale of 2013. Her first two foals on the track didn't have much memorable success, but the mare has a daughter of Khozan, the Distorted Humor half-brother to Royal Delta, on the ground, and is currently in foal to Greenpointcrusader.
It may still be a bit early to start “Derby dreaming” with Well Defined, King insisted, acknowledging several pundits' accusations that the gelding may have distance limitations.
“We need to see him perform like that one more time,” he said. “And he'll get tested in his next start… Mr. Campbell told me after the race, 'Well, we got something to talk about again.'”
The Campbells have been to the Kentucky Derby once before, with G2 Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go in 2011. Also by West Acre, the damsire of Songbird, Watch Me Go had enough points to make the Derby field but did not run well in his final prep race. Campbell decided to take the shot anyway, and the horse finished 18th.
“That was still a bucket-list kind of thing,” said King. “I got to do the walkover with a horse bred and raised on the farm, and that was incredible. I've also been to the Breeders' Cup with the Campbells… I've gotten to go to everything.”
Asked what else is on his bucket list, King laughed and said, “just a little fishin'.”
“It's gratifying to see the Campbells have success after all they've put into the game,” said King. “I've been very fortunate with my job, and with my wife… I've been married 40 years, and had the same job for 46.”
Despite a leading breeder title in Florida in 2016 and numerous other successes, King can still be found running the weed-eater or fixing fencing on the 500-acre Stonehedge property. With a 5/8-mile training track and a therapeutic swimming pool, the farm houses more than 200 horses and will foal out more than 50 mares this year.
The farm's historic roster boasts runners like $2.4 million-earner Marlin, millionaire Blazing Sword, graded winners Always Sunshine, Friel's for Real, and more recently, 2016 Preakness starter Abiding Star. The Campbells also usually have a stallion or two standing, the most successful including Sword Dance and West Acre.
“Somebody once said it was the water, somebody else said it was the limestone in the soil,” said King, asked to explain the farm's success. “I wouldn't dare say we're better than anyone else. It's just excellent land, and we try to breed using common sense… But I'm proud of what we've done because we haven't had half-million-dollar mares or big sires. We just raise them right, and start them right, and we get a little lucky.”
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