By Chris McGrath
“The Homeboy, I call him: the Louisville Homeboy.” Bruce Lunsford gives a proud chuckle. “With Tommy, and Brian, we’ve made it an all-Louisville crowd. So that’s kind of fun. In fact, when we laid out a plan, one of the good things was that we could get all the way to the Breeders’ Cup without leaving Kentucky. I think that’s an advantage, but who knows?”
One thing he does know: he would prefer to cede the limelight to those unsung horsemen, Tom Drury, Jr. and Brian Hernandez, Jr. But if Art Collector (Bernardini) can keep their dream alive in the Runhappy Ellis Park Derby, Lunsford will have to accept his share of civic goodwill when his homebred colt ships back along the Ohio River for the GI Kentucky Derby itself.
Because it’s the silks, above all, that qualify Art Collector as the hometown hope: the silks of a Kenton County native whose entire life—whether in business, in public service or, as now, in pursuit of a sporting passion—has rooted him in the Bluegrass.
Here’s a guy who was not just raised on an 80-acre tobacco farm, but who was running the place, right down to hiring the help, when 13 years old. That way, his dad could go out and work. The lesson, he said later, was that “the meek will inherit the earth, but not any time soon.” Sure enough, he worked on a road crew to pay his way through college. After the University of Kentucky, it was night classes at law school, between Army Reserve stints at Ft. Thomas.
At 32, he was appointed the state’s first Secretary of Commerce by Governor John Y. Brown Jr. Then, still in his thirties, Lunsford co-founded Vencor, the nationwide healthcare group nowadays known as Kindred but still with its headquarters in Louisville. And he even ran Mitch McConnell close, unexpectedly so, in their Senate race in 2008.
Lunsford has always polled well in Henderson and, within the prevailing restrictions, can again bank on local support Sunday.
“I used to spend a lot of time at Ellis Park, in my early days of racing,” Lunsford says. “I’ve a lot of friends down there. I’ve known the racing secretary for years, and everybody sounds so thrilled about having this horse come down. Hopefully it could really make their day.”
It would be hard, however, to do more than maintain the emotional pitch of Art Collector’s success in the GII Toyota Blue Grass S. Not just because Lunsford views Keeneland as another highly evocative environment, but also because of the personal significance of that particular race.
“In my college days I knew a lot of the old guys at Keeneland, the trainers and agents, names people might not know anymore,” Lunsford says. “That was when Keeneland really led the show. And it was a Blue Grass day when I really decided that I wanted to own horses: when I saw Graustark get beat by Abe’s Hope in a huge upset [in 1966]. Graustark was ahead 12, 15 lengths in the backstretch only to take that bad step. But he had such guts that he only lost by a nose. I got a copy of the photo finish, and had a painting made of it, because it meant so much to me being in the business. So I always wanted to win the Blue Grass S.”
As such, it was a poignant day when First Samurai (Giant’s Causeway), a dual Grade I winner co-owned with Lansdon Robbins III, derailed in the 2006 running. One minute they were on their way to the Derby, the next their horse had fractured ribs and would be retired.
“I owned him with a close friend, and he’d run third in the Breeders’ Cup despite getting stuck in the gate, then he’d run big in Florida,” recalls Lunsford. “He’s turned out to be a very good sire, at his level. But yes, that was a real, punch-in-the-gut lesson.”
So there will be no complacency about Art Collector making the Derby line-up until the moment the gates open. Fortunately, a syndication deal for First Samurai had already been tied up. At 72, however, Lunsford will this time roll with any punches.
“There’ve been lots of offers to buy Art Collector,” he admits. “But I don’t need the money, at this stage of my life, so I’m hopeful that maybe I can get lucky and he could be something akin to a long-term sire for me. I learned a lot watching Bill Young handle Storm Cat, and it would be great to have a really superior stud that I can co-own with people, and do favors for friends, and watch him grow. I may or may not get that chance. But at my age, it’s nice for this to be my baby.”
That’s a prospect that brings things full circle for Lunsford, as Art Collector’s grand-dam Bunting (Private Account) was one of his first two purchases—counselled by Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm, where First Samurai found his home—after he decided to start his own program. Having been Grade I-placed, and offering a foothold into the Green Tree family of Buckaroo, Stop The Music and company, Bunting cost $500,000 as a 3-year-old in 1994.
“I can’t even remember the name of the other mare,” Lunsford says. “I sold her because she was one, out of not many that year, that did manage to get in foal to Lure. But yes, Bunting was bought to be a foundation mare. Up till then I’d just been fiddling around on a cheaper scale, claiming and stuff, kind of learning the business the way the old guys did it. At that time, $500,000 would put you in the top of the crop, to get a pretty nice mare. I raced Bunting for a year and then I bred her to Storm Cat.”
The result was Vision And Verse, who won the GII Illinois Derby and was beaten only by Lemon Drop Kid (Kingmambo) in both the GI Belmont S. and GI Travers S. The whole program, indeed, got off to a flying start. The first foal of another of his very first mares, again picked out by Hancock, turned out to be Golden Missile (A.P. Indy). Though sold as a weanling, Golden Missile’s third in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic enabled Lunsford to cash in the dam days later for $1.35 million.
Bunting couldn’t quite come up with another Vision And Verse, but in 2007 delivered a Distorted Humor filly who matured into a very smart grass runner: Distorted Legacy was second in the GI Flower Bowl Inv., and then just missed the podium in a bunch finish for the GI Filly and Mare Turf at the Breeders’ Cup. Art Collector is her second foal.
His story, to this point, is well chronicled: one of the few silver linings to the clouds of COVID-19.
Art Collector was first welcomed by Drury at the Skylight Training Center in Goshen, Ky., simply for a spell of freshening. The colt was following a well-worn path. For while Drury had never been formally credited with graded stakes success, he can claim a behind-the-scenes contribution to animals as accomplished as Tom’s D’Etat (Smart Strike) or Lunsford’s cherished, Classic-placed Grade I winner Madcap Escapade (Hennessy).
Art Collector was initially just taking some time out after an impressive allowance success for Joe Sharp at Churchill last fall. When stripped of that success, as one of three Sharp horses that tested positive to a deworming agent, Lunsford decided that Art Collector should not return to his previous trainer but join Rusty Arnold. Then came the pandemic. Race programs and horse traffic were suspended. Lunsford told Drury to train Art Collector up to a race, when Churchill reopened; and when the colt won so well, it was decided to let destiny take its course. Characteristically, Arnold was among the first to ring and congratulate Drury.
Lunsford is thrilled that a horseman educated by Frankie Brothers, the trainer of First Samurai and Madcap Escapade, should now be getting his day in the sun.
“I’ve known Tommy almost since he started,” he says. “He has always been the go-to guy, out at the farm there, to bring horses back. And I’m one of the few who would go ahead and let him race once or twice before I sent a horse back out of town.
“Now Joe Sharp did a good job getting this horse ready as a 2-year-old, and I give him credit for that. But when all that stuff happened, I was going to send the horse to Rusty because he’d be going to Saratoga. And then the COVID has come along and we sat down and I said, ‘You know what, Tommy? You race this horse first and we’ll see what we got, okay?’
“I had never wanted to press this horse. You rush a horse to the Derby and they either never race again, or not much. So I’d laid him off for three months: a little swimming, a little jogging, let him grow up a little. And I could go out there and watch him train. Unlike a lot of these horses, he wasn’t losing any training time. And he just got better and better.”
Lunsford remembers hauling Drury into the winner’s circle photo when Madcap Escapade won her first race at Gulfstream back in 2004.
“He was young then but he’s still incredibly humble,” Lunsford says. “He’s a really good horseman with a work ethic second to none. The last two and a half years, he’s had one day off. He’s got a good head on him, and has had good mentors over the years, Frankie being one of them. I feel almost like I’ve got a nephew training for me. And I think his time has come.”
Another important member of Lunsford’s team is Patti Miller, who helps him at the sales; while he is also grateful to the teams at Claiborne, where he boards his mares, and Hill ‘n’ Dale, where he partners with John Sikura in a few others. A big decision looms, if Art Collector happens to go well in the Derby, as his Into Mischief half-brother is in the September Sale. (Distorted Legacy also has a weanling by the same sire, and is now in foal to Justify.)
In principle, however, Lunsford remains pretty much a breed-to-race guy; quite a throwback, as such, and likewise in his disinclination for the kind of high-end partnerships that are nowadays so common. He likes a horse to have an identity; and wants to share the highs and lows with his real buddies.
“Back in the old days, you knew who owned a horse,” he says. “Whether it was Claiborne, or E.P. Taylor, everybody knew. Now you have 17 people in a partnership to get these very expensive horses.
“I’m a little bit of a jokester and kidder anyway. Most all of us who know each other, we all do that, right? So I think that’s part of the game. With my closest friends—Greg Hudson, his dad Hoolie, and Bill Latta—we’ve been going to the races for 52 years. I mean, that’s unbelievable. We’ve gone to Del Mar, we’ve gone to London, we’ve had a tremendous amount of fun. When Vision And Verse ran in the Belmont, we had 16 people in an Italian restaurant and it was just a hoot night. And then flew back about one in the morning. That’s the kind of stuff that makes your memories.”
Lunsford has taken a similar approach to his business career. He loves to be in the thick of the action.
“I either want to be involved or not be involved,” he says. “I’m a guy with lots of interests and have never rested long. I grew up on a really small farm. I took care of the farm so my dad could have a job 40 hours a week, so we could get by. I raised tobacco, I did all kinds of things, and as a result I learned a lot about how to run things, both small and big. I think that’s helped me in life. And even today, at the companies I’m invested in, I don’t want to be passive.”
Of course, the ultimate example of this engagement, this urge to get out there and make a difference, is a political career crowned by that stirring Senate race in 2008, when he slashed McConnell’s margin from 29.4% to 5.9%. (Compared, moreover, with a 16.2% buffer for presidential candidate John McCain at the top of the state ticket.) Today, standing back from the political fray, he views the present crisis as a cue for leadership that inspires unity, not division.
“I think it’s been driven by a lot of things,” he says of the virulence of political discourse. “For one thing, by too much money spent on campaigns. I guarantee they’ll spend $3 billion in this presidential race. Both sides, and it’s all negative. And the media has picked sides. With no real advertising done anymore, the only way they can make revenue is through subscribers. So what they tend to do, liberal or conservative, is pander to their audience. It’s become so negative.
“I think it was Winston Churchill said democracy is a poor form of government, but it’s better than all the rest. And eventually democracy will win out. At the moment, we lack strong leaders. If you go back, I’m a big fan of the guys that made tough decisions in tough times. Truman probably made the toughest decision of all time, when he allowed the atomic bomb. Churchill, completely over-matched in the battle, called on England to fight on anyway. And they won. The spirited leaders know how to get things done. But I think a lot of avenues in the country have been [taken] because money has bought direction, not policy or values.”
But Lunsford feels optimism, too. He predicts a bright future for our industry in Kentucky, that’s for sure, and hopes that Art Collector can assist morale in the meantime.
“Listen, this is a horse that could be fun if he stays sound,” he says. “We all know that’s day-to-day. But I’m really proud of Tommy. I tell him all the time: ‘Just enjoy the ride. Enjoy the interviews, enjoy the media, enjoy everything that happens. Because it could be over in one day and then you’d look back and ask why you didn’t.’ I’ve always tried to be like that that with my horses. Even when something happens like with First Samurai, I don’t wear it too hard. I feel you learn a lot just by being in the business for a long time. You learn a kind of a free-spirited attitude about it.
“And I think Tommy’s felt that. He’s doing a great job, really handled himself well. He has tremendous passion for these horses, so I would really like to see it for him. I think the only time I ever cried at a race was when Madcap Escapade won her second race and set a stakes record down at Gulfstream Park. Because I felt a horse like that was what I’d got in the business for. So if this horse were to win the Derby, I don’t know if I’d cry more for Tommy, or more for the horse. But that’s how I feel about it.”