By Bill Heller
Watching the $1 million Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth Park on TV by himself in his Saratoga apartment on July 18th, Brian Culnan could scream as loud as he wanted for Ny Traffic (pronounced as “New York” Traffic), the three-year-old New York-bred colt he bred. As the mile-and-an eighth Haskell developed, Ny Traffic was keeping the pressure on odds-on front-running Authentic all the way from the start to the top of the stretch.
Then Authentic put away Ny Traffic, opening a three-length lead. “Realistically, I was yelling, `Hold on for second,’” Culnan said.
Ny Traffic did more than hold on. Authentic looked home-free at the sixteenth pole, but Ny Traffic suddenly and dramatically charged at the favorite, gaining significant ground with every stride. They crossed the wire in tandem, a nose apart. But which horse had won? “I thought he lost when they went by the wire,” Culnan said. “My reaction was, `Damn, he had him after the wire.’”
Culnan was right. Ny Traffic, now owned by John Fanelli, Cash Is King LLC, LC Racing and Paul Braverman, had lost by a nose. That nose difference allowed Authentic to take the $600,000 winner’s share. Ny Traffic had to settle for the $200,000 second prize.
But Ny Traffic, not Authentic, would seem to relish the stretch out to the mile-and-a-quarter of the rescheduled Kentucky Derby, to be held September 5th.
Ny Traffic now has two victories, three seconds and two thirds in nine starts, for earnings of $565,470. More importantly, he seems to be getting better in every start, quite an adventure for Culnan, a 53-year-old attorney who works in Albany.
“It’s been a big thrill watching him run,” Culnan said. “He’s a hard-trying horse. He just doesn’t give up. He’s gradually improved from race to race. He hasn’t won them, but look who he’s been racing against.”
From day one.
In an open maiden special weight for two-year-olds at Parx in his debut last September 21st, Ny Traffic fought on the front end before tiring to finish third by 5 ¾ lengths at 47-1 odds in his debut to Independence Hall. That colt added a stunning 12 ¼-length stakes-record victory in the Nashua Stakes and a handy victory in the Jerome Stakes on New Year’s Day to emerge as a top early contender for the Kentucky Derby. But like many other early Derby favorites, including the unbeaten Nadal and Charlatan, Independence Hall was forced to the sidelines.
In his start before the Haskell, Ny Traffic finished second by a length to Maxfield in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes. “After he ran second to Maxfield, Ny Traffic was probably not the best horse in the crop, but I think he’s continued to improve and there’s been attrition with the three-year-olds,” Culnan said.
Asked if he was proud of Ny Traffic, Culnan said, “Absolutely. There are 20,000 horses bred on an annual basis. He came a nose away from winning the Haskell, and he’ll be one of 20 in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.”
This is heady stuff for Culnan, who began going to the racetrack with his grandfather Jim and his dad Gene, a former history teacher and athletic director at Cohoes High School and the basketball coach at Siena College. “I grew up going to the Thoroughbred track as a little kid,” Culnan said. “I’d go up to the track with him reading the Form when I was relatively young. I got into the handicapping part of it, but I liked the horse part of it as well.”
While he was in college at Holy Cross, he and a buddy, Bob Testo, started a racing partnership. “I’m Irish, and we went on the Internet and started looking up names,” Culnan said. They settled on Epona Racing Stable. Epona is the Celtic goddess of horses.
In 2003, Epona Racing Stable bought its first horse, Crete, an Australian-bred grass horse who had been racing in Dubai. Reported to be a bleeder, Crete was shipped to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn in New York. Racing with Lasix for the first time, Crete made a spectacular United States debut, winning a $35,000 claimer by six lengths at Belmont Park on June 11th.
Epona Racing Stable purchased Crete privately for $75,000. They entered him in an $85,000 claimer at Belmont Park on July 6th. He battled on the front end before weakening to finish sixth. And he was claimed. “We made a $10,000 profit in a little more than three weeks,” Culnan said. “The bad part was that he won his next start at Saratoga. It would have been big for us.”
Regardless, Culnan had what he wanted: a successful entrance into the challenging world of owning Thoroughbreds. “The neat thing about the game is it’s like our major league franchise, but I don’t need a billion dollars,” he said.
Through mid-July, Epona Racing Stable has compiled 51 victories, 36 seconds and 40 thirds from 270 starts with earnings topping $1.1 million.
But his breeding of Ny Traffic was a solo act.
Epona Racing Stable claimed French Song for $20,000. After catching a sloppy track in her debut for Epona, she won two straight races. “Unfortunately, after her second win, she injured her sesamoid and had to be retired,” Culnan said. “We decided to keep her and breed her.”
She was bred to Graeme Hall, and her first foal was Mamie Reilly. “Mamie Reilly is one of the Holy Cross fight songs,” Culnan said. “She was going to be sold, but developed a sore throat. She couldn’t be scoped, and we had to scratch her from the sale. At that point of time, we decided to keep her and race her. Mamie Reilly broke her maiden in her second start, and after that, she got injured, and we had to retire her. I kept her on my own and bred her.”
She was bred to Cross Traffic, a champion freshman sire by Unbridled’s Song, and her first foal was Ny Traffic. Ny Traffic was entered in a two-year-old sale at Timonium and sold privately.
Ny Traffic was trained by Harold Wyner in his first four starts, winning a maiden special weight, before Saffie Joseph took over. Under Joseph, Ny Traffic won an allowance race at Gulfstream Park by 6 ¾ lengths, then finished third in the Grade 2 Risen Star and second in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby before finishing second in the Matt Winn and narrowly missing in the Haskell.
“You breed a horse, and everyone thought he was nice, but who expects the horse to develop into this?” Culnan said.
He may not be done developing. Now he heads for the Kentucky Derby to take on another New York-bred and likely Derby favorite, Tiz the Law, who will first race in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes on August 8th.
Can Ny Traffic win the Run for the Roses? “He’s a horse who, legitimately, has a shot,” Culnan said.
In the Kentucky Derby. Who knew?
Unfortunately, Mamie Reilly suffered colic, recovered and then suffered colic again. She was euthanized in May 2018 after foaling a colt by Normandy Invasion. Named Purple Hearted, the two-year-old recently joined Chris Englehart’s barn. “We’re going to race him,” Culnan said.
He’s got a tough act to follow.