By Bill Heller
These are great days for New York-breds.
A week before three-year-old New York-breds Tiz the Law and Ny Traffic step into the starting gate in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs, two older New York-breds, Funny Guy and Cross Border, each went off a slight 3-1 favorite in the Grade 1 Forego and Grade 1 Sword Dancer Stakes, respectively, at Saratoga Race Course. Funny Guy finished fourth as a thunderstorm pelted the sloppy main track in the Forego, a half-hour before six-year-old Cross Border finished a clear second on the soft turf in the Sword Dancer.
That’s four New York-breds contesting three Grade 1 stakes in a span of eight days. Their low odds are a testament to how far the New York-bred program has come.
Tiz the Law, seeking to add the Kentucky Derby to his incredible resume in pursuit of the Triple Crown, is in a class by himself and will go off a heavy favorite in the rescheduled Run for the Roses, while Ny Traffic is a legitimate contender.
Funny Guy and Cross Border are writing their own success stories.
Bred by Hibiscus Stable and owned by Gatsas Stable, R. A. Hill Stable and Swick Stable, Funny Guy is a four-year-old colt by Big Brown out of Heavenly Humor by Distorted Humor. He is trained by John Terranova, who has done a fantastic job managing his career. Funny Guy has earned more than $520,000 off of five victories and four seconds from 13 starts.
He is the latest in a long line of top horses for Hibiscus Stable, which began organizing successful partnerships in 2003. That’s when three racing fans, Mike Olivetto, Doris Ann Hayes and Al Schwab, decided to get more involved. “The original three were just a group of friends who loved going to the races and coming back to Saratoga every summer,” said Jon Taisey, who does sales and client relations for Hibiscus. “They were initially involved in West Point Thoroughbreds.”
Taisey, a 36-year-old native of Ballston Spa, has loved horses his whole life. His grandfather had roots in harness racing at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. “I stumbled onto one of Hibiscus’ commercials, and I became a partner in 2008,” he said. “They took me into Hibiscus when Al died from cancer in 2012. I’m trying to do the best I can to replace him. He was a great guy and everyone loved him.”
Hibiscus’ first partnership was with trainer Steve Klesaris. “They bought a two-year-old, Salt Water Reign,” Taisey said. “She did really well.”
The daughter of Salt Lake out of Top Ruhl by Ruhlmann won six of 28 starts, earned $220,677 and became Hibiscus’ first broodmare.
Eventually, Hibiscus would add claimers to their operations. “We claim a lot of horses with Steve Klesaris and Jeremiah Englehart, and we purchase a lot of yearlings,” Taisey said. “I would say we’ve brought in somewhere around 1,000 partners.”
Hibiscus currently has nine partnerships, with each partnership broken into eight parts, a 12.5 percent share. Prices for new horses are targeted at intervals of $25,000, up to $100,000.
They were fortunate to buy Funny Guy’s dam. “We were at a mixed sale at Saratoga in 2015 looking for a broodmare prospect – myself, Sean Feld and Mike Olivetto,” Taisey said. “We picked out Heavenly Humor. We had budgeted $25,000. Fortunately, Big Brown was not doing that well and we bought her with Funny Guy in utero for $25,000.”
Funny Guy sold for $10,000 at Timonium as a yearling, then for $45,000 in the April 2018 Ocala Breeders Two-Year-Olds-in-Training Sale.
Hibiscus bred Heavenly Humor back to Twirling Candy, and she produced Three Jokers, a three-year-old colt also owned by Gatsas Stable, R.A. Hill and Swick Stable. On August 23, 2019, Three Jokers won his career debut at Saratoga by 2 ¾ lengths on the same afternoon Funny Guy won the $256,000 Albany Stakes by a head.
Hibiscus has a daughter by Overanalyze out of Heavenly Humor entered in the Timonium October Sale. “She really looks the part,” Taisey said.
Of course, Hibiscus and Hibiscus’ clients have been fans of the New York Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund and its substantial bonuses for breeders. “That’s the great part of breeding partnerships,” Taisey said. “The breeding bonuses are pretty enormous. I think we’re right around $100,000 on Funny Guy alone.”
Even having Funny Guy in his first Grade 1 stakes was a thrill for Taisey. “Definitely, it’s something you dream about,” he said.
Cross Border has been a dream come true for Three Diamonds Farm and his breeders, Doug Koch of Berkshire Stud in Pine Plains, New York and Bruce D. Gibbs of Greenfield Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Cross Border, a son of English Channel out of Empress Josephine by Empire Maker, has developed into one of the nation’s top turf horses under trainer Mike Maker.
In 29 starts, Cross Border has nine victories, six seconds and one third, for earnings of more than $634,471.
“Cross Border, this is what we live for,” Koch said. “We bought his fourth dam as a two-year-old.” They bought Empire Josephine for just $5,000.
Koch and Gibbs have been partners for a long time. “I keep my mares with Bruce in the winter,” Koch said. “I’ve known him for years.”
Gibbs said, “I met Doug when he was still practicing as a vet 30 years ago at Saratoga. Doug started sending horses to me. We partnered on a few things. Doug is wonderful, very knowledgeable and a little opinionated, which I respect. We make good partners. We’ve never had a problem. As a partner, you couldn’t ask for a better guy.”
They wanted to race Empress Josephine, who flipped before a sale and was nearly blind in one eye. “We tried two years to race her,” Gibbs said. “She was tough around the barn. She balked on the track. One time, she threw herself on the ground and wouldn’t get up. We said, `Okay, we’re done with racing her.’”
She was off to a great start as a broodmare, going three-for-three with winners. But after foaling her third baby, she ruptured her uterine artery and died. “That was a sad day,” Koch said. She was very young, just seven.” Gibbs said, “It was a shame to lose her.”
Cross Border carries on her legacy. After winning three consecutive races in 2019, Cross Border stepped up into the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park and finished fifth by 2 ½ lengths at 31-1 odds. In his first start as a six-year-old on January 19th, Cross Border finished second by a neck in the Grade 3 W. L. McKnight Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Maker freshened Cross Border and he returned to finish second in an open allowance race on June 3rd, followed by a brave, front-running fifth-place finish by one length in the Grade 1 Manhattan on July 4th.
Dropped back into New York-bred company, Cross Border captured the Lubash Stakes on July 22nd by 6 ¼ lengths at 1-5 odds at Saratoga. That made him four-for-four on the Saratoga turf.
Stepping up to the Grade 2 Bowling Green at Saratoga on August 1st, Cross Border was impeded late by Sadler’s Joy, finishing second by a neck. The stewards took down Sadler’s Joy for interference, giving Cross Border his first Grade 2 victory and improving his record at Saratoga to five-for-five.
His solid second-place finish in the Sword Dancer ended his perfect mark at Saratoga, but was just anther indication that this New York-bred can hold his own in Grade 1 stakes.
Cross Border will try Grade 1 company again in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park on October 3rd.
He has certainly earned another shot at a Grade 1.