FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. -- When the horses line up Saturday, May 2, for the Kentucky Derby, racing fans in the Nutmeg State can root for one of their own: Upstart, bred in Bedford, N.Y. at Sunnyfield Farm , is owned by Greenwich's Ralph Evans.
Jerry Nielsen of Darien, son of Sunnyfield Farm owner Joanne Nielsen, said the entire family will travel to Churchill Downs to root for Upstart in person.
“I gotta tell you, every time I hear that we have a horse in the Kentucky Derby I get goose bumps,’’ Jerry Nielsen said. “My dad always said he wasn’t going to the Derby until he had a horse racing in it. Now we do.”
Funny Cide won the Derby in 2003, the only New York-bred to do so. Upstart, who was bred at Sunnyfield, was sold to Evans at Saratoga for $130,000. Upstart is by the well-bred Flatter, and out of Party Silks.
The Nielsens purchased Sunnyfield Farm in the 1970s, with three other families from Darien.
According to a story on BedfordRidingLanes.com, Sunnyfield nearly became a residential development before the Nielsens and their partners purchased it. A developer who purchased the property went bankrupt before a shovel hit the ground.
When the property went to auction, another developer forgot a cashier’s check for the down payment. The property went to the next bidder -- the Nielsen group -- and remained a horse farm. The other families who originally joined the Nielsens have since sold their interest.
“My dad went to Kentucky and came back with a mare,’’ Nielsen said. “It was like a pet. The horse won its first race, and he got hooked from there. There’s a lot of downside in horse racing.There are extreme highs and some very tough lows.”
Gerald Nielsen Sr. died in 2004 at the age of 69. Joanne Nielsen has been involved in the breeding since the farm’s inception. It has had some highly regarded race horses, but none of the caliber of Upstart.
“We never had one that ran in the Derby or even came close,’’ Nielsen said. “There are roughly 30,000 thoroughbreds born every year, and only 20 get to the Kentucky Derby. You have to be very good at what you do. But you also have to be extremely lucky.”
Upstart, trained by Rick Violette Jr., spent the winter in Florida. Under jockey Jose Ortiz, Upstart won the Holy Bull in January. In a major Derby prep race a few weeks later, the Fountain of Youth, Upstart finished first but was disqualified for a bump down the stretch and placed second. In his next race, Upstart finished second in the Florida Derby and appeared to be bumped in the stretch. The race did not go to appeal.
Nielsen likes Upstart’s chances in the Derby. Anything can happen in the 20-horse field, but Upstart prefers to break out quickly. That should help in the Derby if he can get a favorable post draw and a clean trip.
“He comes out in front of the pack and hangs off the lead,’’ Nielsen said. “If you have a horse that doesn’t break well it can be a problem, but that’s not the case with him. He hasn’t had a bad race.”
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