By Chris McGrath
The whole place was overgrown, and there was just so much work to be done. But among the weeds and dilapidation were rampant wild roses, and hedge apples; and they had each other, and they had a dream. For all the toil ahead, Rosilyn Polan and her husband Kenneth felt such a sense of homecoming that she had to scroll all the way back to girlhood for an answering chord of memory.
“When I was little, waking up on a Sunday morning, you'd smell coffee brewing in the kitchen, and pancakes cooking,” she explains, some 30 years later. “And so I always thought Sunday morning was just the best feeling. But when we bought the farm I thought, no, this here is 'Sunday morning'; this is the best feeling.”
And so they called it Sunday Morning Farm, this a 100-acre parcel between a loop of the Kentucky River and the Woodford Reserve Distillery. Even so, they knew that all the repose seeping from the name would have to be deferred for much honest labor.
Learning that the fencing was coming down at the old Warnerton Farm, they offered the crew a deal. If they did the work, could they keep the timber? Well, sure.
“We had a long pole, and a chain, and a wheel,” Polan remembers. “And we'd hook the chain over one end of the pole, and the other end would go over the tire, and we'd get on the end of it and just push, push, push, until it would pull that chain end up, and pull the fence post out of the ground.”
They loaded the salvage onto the truck and took it home, where they pried out all the nails and sawed off the jagged ends. They'd bought a post driver, among a lot of other old equipment bought at auctions to repair, and Kenneth mounted each board onto its post with a hammer.
“If you had seen the place then, it almost makes me weep to think back to how hard we worked,” Polan says. “I can't believe what we did that. But we just worked and cleared. We were young-well, Kenneth wasn't that young! But he was tough. And we were just 'living off love'.”
Polan speaks those last words with a charming, singsong lilt of self-deprecation, without remotely diminishing the joys that redeemed the perspiration of those days. Because somehow they made it work: they cleaned offices at night, they cut hay for other people, and of course there was still the catering business. Because the whole adventure had been underpinned by an inspiration that had seized Polan, pondering a history of her own with horses, when her delicatessen in downtown Lexington stood idle during sale weeks.
“I thought, 'Gosh, everybody's at the horse sale but me,'” she remembers. “So I thought I'd go out and see if anybody wants me to deliver lunch. Because prior to that, you'd just send out one of your show crew to McDonalds, and nobody liked their lunch.”
She started with a single client, but was soon known all round the barns as “The Bag Lady,” her sandwiches keeping consignors and their help going through long days of showing in the extremes of the Kentucky climate. It went so well that Polan was ultimately able to join the competition. But for all the romance of the idea, and the name, there was never anything merely fanciful about Sunday Morning.
“Kenneth was not a horse person, but he had grown up farming,” Polan says. “His family raised hay and tobacco, with a horse-drawn plough, and a horse-drawn hay cutter, so he had a knack-plus he was a really hard worker, and knew how to do anything. So we were a good complement, building this farm.
“My dad and his brothers had a hill farm in the mountains of West Virginia. All the aunts and uncles and cousins would go up there for the summer, and the menfolk would leave the womenfolk and go back to Huntington to work all week, and then come back at the weekend. We had a couple horses up there, that lived in the forest in the winter and then in the summer we had them brought over, and that was how I learned to ride: my mother standing at one point, my brother at another, and me going from one to the other. And then I'd spend the entire rest of my day in the shed where those horses liked to loaf in the cool, standing around among the tractors and machinery, and I'd read to them and write stories about them and I was just one of those horse crazy girls.”
So after college Polan decided she'd learn the horse business properly, and wrote to farm after farm in Kentucky. But every owner, every manager, told her the same. We don't hire women. Eventually she got a foot in the door, when Harold Snowden at the Stallion Station sent her to Keeneland, where his son was training, with instructions to give her a job walking hots; until, at last, Jonabell Farm gave her the farm work she craved. No doubt it was a wider education, too, with the grooms teaching her to shoot craps in the tack room during their lunch break. But the whole environment was so immersive that she would now feel ever restless, unless and until able to tend horses for herself someday.
In the early Sunday Morning years, admittedly, it proved just as well that they were still harvesting plenty of tobacco. Though they had scraped together enough for a first mare, her yearlings tended to sell for only $3,000 or so. But then, in 2005, everything changed.
Polan had bought a Meadowlake mare for $51,000 at the 2003 November Sale, in foal to El Corredor. She now sold the resulting colt at the Fasig-Tipton July Sale to B. Wayne Hughes, the new owner of Spendthrift Farm, for $385,000. Almost as suddenly as the sun had come out over the farm, however, it was hidden behind the blackest cloud imaginable. For it was that same year that Kenneth was claimed by cancer.
“At least he knew he was now leaving me financially secure,” reflects Polan. “He was there at the sale that day, and he was so proud. Because of that colt, I had a little money in my pocket. We paid off all our debts, and Kenneth made sure I had new equipment. And, in the years since, I've somehow had more home-run, lucky years than unlucky ones.”
So while quantity remains modest–with nine mares of her own, and five boarders–Polan has achieved repeated and skillful increments in quality, each success containing the seedcorn of the next. The one time she made a perilous stretch was in borrowing $160,000 for a Tapit mare named Anchorage, in foal to Will Take Charge, at the 2015 November Sale. Each of her foals sold since, however, has raised more than she cost–notably a $370,000 Runhappy filly at the 2019 September Sale.
In further vindication of her strategy, essentially to seek fine mares with glamorous rookie covers, at the same auction she realized $250,000 for a Frosted colt acquired in utero with an unraced Medaglia d'Oro mare, Numero d'Oro, for $175,000 at the 2017 November Sale. The following year, however, the same mare's colt by Practical Joke would do better yet.
“I was one horse in the middle of three huge consignments, and I would have to push my way into the middle to make room for him to be shown,” Polan remembers. “But he never turned a hair. He just got bigger and better every day. He just puffed up and his stride got longer. He was so professional–and he was shown a lot. He was scoped, oh, 27 times I think. People came back and back, and several who I know told me: 'Rosilyn, this is one of the nicest horses in the whole sale.' There we were, day one of Book 2, surrounded by Tapits and Curlins and Medaglia d'Oros. And he was head and shoulders above anything in there. Every time I watched him go out, he made my knees go weak. He knew he was special.”
And so, it appeared, did everyone else. There was a single caveat: slightly puffy tendons. In a normal year, Polan might have done some therapy to tighten them up a little, maybe some ultrasound or PST. But this was not a normal year. Who on earth, she asked herself, would be buying racehorses in the time of coronavirus? But the ultrasounds evidently showed only an immature, growthy colt, just maybe not the type for a 2-year-old sale.
As it was, he made $575,000. His new owners, regular partners Vinnie Viola and Mike Repole along with Antony Beck of Gainesway, gave him the time he needed; and when he surfaced from the Pletcher barn on Belmont S. day, under the name of Wit, he won by six lengths. The dazzling impression he made then has, of course, since been reinforced by a still more emphatic success in the GIII Sanford S. at Saratoga, qualifying him as the trailblazer of the juvenile crop.
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me before,” Polan says. “I've sold well, more than once. And I've always thought that was the ultimate. But now, oh my gosh! In both races he was away a little slow but he didn't have to do anything, just lengthened and lengthened as he went through the race. It was like a dream, watching, and it still is. I'm just so proud of that boy.
“To me, the best part was after his first race, when he loped back to the winner's circle on a loose rein. He turned to the crowd, took in his surroundings, and just put his nose on the rail, took a deep breath and seemed to say: 'Now what do you want me to do?' He's always been a 'What-can-I-do-for-you-today?' type.”
And this, of course, is a win-win situation. Polan is not just delighted for the buyers who gave the farm such a good payday, but also in a position to reap further rewards through Wit's dam. Numero d'Oro was wisely given a fallow year, having delivered Wit as late as May 5, but now has a City Of Light weanling colt who Polan describes as a “duplicate” of his sibling; and she is in foal to Authentic.
“She just has aura about her, a beautiful walk and beautiful manner,” says Polan. “It makes your eyes happy to watch her walking, and her baby the same. He has just the same big rear end, the same bullet appearance as Wit, that same swinging stride. They're just so confident and unruffled.”
Whatever each may have been inherited from their dam, the intimate Sunday Morning regime has doubtless contributed significantly as well.
“Well, I do handle my foals a lot,” Polan says. “But nothing really special. I have two young men who work for me, and they too have really easy-going temperaments. We hand walk, for sales prep. We've dogs running around. In the evening I'll go through the fields, give them a scratch, take their fly masks off. They pretty much do what you ask, and we don't fight. For years I did this by myself, so they had to be good. But really I don't know that much. I just give them time.”
Many a bigger farm could do with that kind of “ignorance”. And the smaller ones, for their part, can take heart from her example.
“It just shows, anybody can do it,” Polan says. “I started out peddling sandwiches. I've just been super lucky. People always say, 'Well, you work so hard.' But we all work so hard, don't you agree? And some of us are lucky, some of us are not. But I'm not only a very lucky person. I'm a positive person, too. I expect good things to happen. And when bad things do happen, I just keep looking forward.
“Even at age 68, I'm still like a little kid. These horses give me way more than I do them. My farm's so pretty, so secluded. Lot of birds. And then to have these beautiful horses, that give me so much joy… So you meet your challenges, and you carry on. And then when you hit a home run like Wit, really there are no words. It just fills me up so much, looking at his baby pictures: that cute little bugger, with a zigzag stripe on his face.”
So really the GI Hopeful S., scheduled as the next step of the colt's journey at the end of the Saratoga meet, has seldom been so well named. Wit will not just represent Sunday Morning Farm, but every program that has realized what could have been an idle dream, not so much by dollars and cents as by passion and endeavor.
“I'll never go anyplace or do anything,” says Polan. “My life is very small. You think, how nice it would be to go trekking through the Alps, go see Machu Picchu. But I'll never do that. This is who I am. And I'm just really happy doing what I do.”