by Linda Dougherty
Page McKenney, winner of back-to-back stakes at Laurel Park this year, is the kind of horse that every small breeder dreams of producing.
For Dr. James E. Bryant and his wife, Linda P. Davis, that dream has come true. The 5-year-old gelding has won $507,078 in 33 career starts, with the bulk of that amount earned in 2014, when he won or placed in six stakes.
Bryant, who practices internal medicine, and Davis live on a 110-acre farm outside of Richmond, Va., near the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. There, they have three broodmares, a mule named Millie, and assorted other animals.
“We bred some sport horses, and then started breeding thoroughbreds with very modest stock,” said Bryant. “I’ve since become a pedigree aficionado, and Linda’s been a horse person all her life. I come up with matings that are interesting, but ultimately it’s Linda’s eyeball test that decides what stallions we breed to.”
Such was the case when Eavesdropper was chosen to breed to their mare Winning Grace, a daughter of Yarrow Brae. At the time, the half-brother to champion racehorse and sire A. P. Indy was standing at Regal Heir Farm near Harrisburg, PA.
“We had actually gone to Regal Heir to look at another stallion, which Linda was lukewarm about,” said Bryant. “Then the handler said, ‘Do you want to see Eavesdropper?’ When he was brought out, Linda just melted … she loved his presence, and his eye … she was really taken by him.”
Bryant described the resulting chestnut colt, who was foaled at Northview-Pa in Peach Bottom because Winning Grace was to be bred back to Love of Money, as “awesome.”
“We knew he was special right from the start,” said Bryant. “He was always self-confident, brave, and very smart.”
The couple decided to name the gelding after Linda’s Aunt Page, who had recently passed away at age 83, while combining it with a surname from her family tree, McKenney.
Page McKenney began training with Jazz Napravnik in Camden, S. C. He made his first start at Colonial Downs in July 2012, and then his next two starts at Saratoga, all of which resulted in off-the-board finishes. Bryant admits it was a mistake to send him to the Spa, and he came back to Laurel Park. It wasn’t until his 13th start, on June, 2013 at Colonial, that the gelding finally broke his maiden.
But in his very next start, at Penn National on July 20, 2013, the Bryants were in for a shock. Page McKenney was claimed and was taken to the Maryland barn of Mary Eppler, with his new owner, Adam Staple of Las Vegas.
“It was just terrible when he was claimed; Linda took it very, very hard,” said Bryant. “We were fortunate, however, that Adam (Staple) let us back in with a small percentage of ownership. It has made things more exciting for us.”
Eppler made minor changes in Page McKenney’s training — she calls him a “cool, cool horse” — and the gelding responded in his first start for her, finishing second at 16-1 odds in an allowance at Laurel Park about seven weeks later. He then clicked off two consecutive wins at Laurel; last year, he was only off the board once in 12 starts.
His 2014 season included victories in the Robellino Stakes at Penn National as well as the First Responder Stakes at Parx Racing. He placed in four other added-money events, including a second-place finish in the Claiming Crown Jewel Stakes at Gulfstream Park. And, for good measure, he set a Parx Racing track record at 1 mile 70 yards on the grass.
Page McKenney kicked off 2015 with a big win in the John B. Campbell Handicap in February at Laurel Park, and then added another in the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Stakes at Laurel.
As his breeders, Bryant and Davis collected more than $61,000 in awards from the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association in 2014.
His next start, Eppler said following his Harrison Johnson victory, could come back on the lawn, in the Henry S. Clark at Pimlico. His mid-term goal, she said, would likely be the Grade 3 Pimlico Special over Preakness weekend, although, notably, he is nominated to the $1.5 million, Grade 2 Charles Town Classic.
Unfortunately for Bryant and Davis, Page McKenney’s dam, Winning Grace, died six weeks after foaling a colt by Love of Money, who was christened Axel Woes.
“We named him Axel Woes because of all that he’d been through as a young horse,” said Bryant. “He had broken a rib, his dam died, he got cut on a leg. We figured there was no way he was going to make it. He made it to Mary’s (Eppler) barn but then he bowed a tendon. He’s out of commission right now, but we’re hoping he comes back.”
Although Winning Grace is deceased, Bryant and Davis have three other mares: Pensy, (by Johar), who has a yearling by Corinthian, is in foal to El Padrino, and will be bred back to Super Ninety Nine; Snunner (by Yarrow Brae), the dam of stakes winner Spring Dance, who has a yearling by Friesan Fire and will be bred to Jump Start; and Whisperjet (by Unbridled Jet), who has a yearling by Cal Nation and is in foal to Freedom Child.
Eavesdropper, a stakes-winning son of Kingmambo out of Weekend Surprise, stood one season in Pennsylvania before being sold. He now stands at Emirates Park in Australia, where his oldest Australia-bred progeny are 4-year-olds.