BIG HORN—When the dogwood and redbud are in full bloom, and the rolling hills divided with black board fence turn emerald green, you know it is time. Time for hordes of horse racing fans to descend on Louisville, Kentucky. The week before the first Saturday in May is chalk full of traditional festivities—Thunder Over Louisville, the Great Balloon Race, the Great Steamboat Race, the Pegasus Parade and the running of the Kentucky Oaks. All of these events set the stage for what has been called “the greatest two minutes in sports,” a chance to see history unfold in the Kentucky Derby.
Kentucky is not the only state steeped in horse-related history and tradition. Eighteen years after the first running of the Kentucky Derby, the first polo game was played in Wyoming at the Sheridan Fairgrounds on July 4, 1893. Over a thousand spectators witnessed the event.
During the late 1800s, Oliver Henry Wallop and Malcolm Moncreiffe, brought Thoroughbred horses with them when they settled in the area and established breeding operations. By 1948, it was speculated that the bloodlines of six Kentucky Derby winners existed in the breeding operations in the area. According to the Flying H Polo Club website, two teams whose breeding operations are based in Sheridan have won the U.S. Open.
According to the Kentucky Derby and Courier Journal websites, 20 of the finest 3-year-old thoroughbreds will compete May 7 for a chance to make history for the 142nd time. The victor will continue on to the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in hopes of capturing the greatest and most coveted title of all, Triple Crown winner. Last year, American Pharoah did just that, breaking the 37-year dry spell that plagued the racing world since Affirmed captured the title in 1978. American Pharoah is the 12th horse in history to pull off the hat trick. This year’s Derby favorites include Nyquist and Exaggerator with Gun Runner nipping at their heels.
According to Three Chimney’s website, Gun Runner is owned by a partnership between Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC and Three Chimneys Farm. Five Kentucky Derby winners have called Three Chimneys home after retiring from racing and heading to the breeding shed. They include 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and Kentucky Derby winners Silver Charm (1997), Genuine Risk (1980), Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008).
There are no fillies in the lineup this year. Forty fillies have run for the roses since 1875, but only three have won the race–Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988).
According to Blood Horse Magazine, Genuine Risk is special for two reasons. First, she was the only filly to finish in the money in all three Triple Crown races. After winning the Derby, she placed second in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Second, as a broodmare, she only produced two live foals . The first was born in 1993, a chestnut son of Rahy named Genuine Reward. He was born at Three Chimneys Farm when his mother was 16 years old. His half brother, Count Our Blessings, a show horse, was born in 1996.
According to the Jockey Club and Old Friends websites, Genuine Reward never raced. He just didn’t have the speed. In 1997 he went to stud in Virginia from 1997 to 2001, where he sired 47 foals from eight crops, with 24 starters and 13 winners. According to Mike Connell of Perk’s Horspital, he began his journey West, first stopping in Oklahoma where he sired a few horses, then moving on to his destination in Sheridan in 2002. Here he found his niche as a polo stallion for Perk and Mike Connell at Perk’s Horspital.
According to Mike Connell, Genuine Reward’s breeder, Diana M. Firestone is friends with their friend, Tommy Wayman. Firestone was looking for a good home for her stallion and thought he would make a good addition to a polo breeding program. Perk Connell agreed to take him. The 9-year-old stallion was ill mannered and unhappy when he arrived, but after spending some time pasture breeding and socializing with the mares, he became happy and gentle.
Perk Connell said that she has a proven stallion standing at the “horspital” who is one of the top, most sought after stallions in the polo industry, but there are some mares whose bloodlines and conformation are incompatible with his. These mares were taken to Genuine Reward, because his physical attributes complement theirs. He is dependable as a stud to throw big, steady, strong, gentle foals, most of which are colts rather than fillies. Many of his offspring are still playing polo today. They are not athletic all-stars, but they have good bodies and lungs. Perk said her rule is “the best color is gentle.”
At age 22, Genuine Reward retired from the breeding shed. Perk Connell wanted to find a good home for him to spend the rest of his days, so she donated him to Old Friends, Inc., a thoroughbred retirement farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. Thanks to his sponsor, “Seabiscuit” author, Laura Hillenbrand, who paid his shipping costs, he has found his way back to Kentucky. He arrived at the retirement farm in July 2015.
“Genuine Reward is doing great,” Cindy Grisolia of Old Friends said. “We are thrilled to have him. He is in great shape and very happy. He is a great draw from fans of his mother, and is building his own fan-base as more people learn his story. He gets lots of treats and is enjoying his tour circuit. We moved him to a new paddock, a coveted one up front by the office.”
Connell visited one morning, took a tour and visited with her old friend for awhile.
“He still comes running to the fence when you call him and flips up his lip,” she laughed. “He is the head draw at the farm.”