Edited from the June edition of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred.
Susan Cooney looked at the three weanling fillies - essentially giveaways - out in a field and chose one. Then her husband, Pat, stepped in with a warning.
"If you don't give them at least a dollar for her, she won't amount to anything," he said, and handed his wife a $1 bill. Susan paid the money to complete the "sale" and the rest is a story worth telling - over and over again.
The weanling, purchased in 1999, turned out to be In Too Deep. The Virginia-bred daughter of The Deep (Ire) won six races, placed in a stakes and made $122,000 for Cooney. Not bad for a dollar, and she's not finished. In Too Deep's first foal, Embarr, was on her way to doubling her dam's earnings with seven wins and a $225,000 in the bank. Owned, trained and bred in Virginia by Cooney, the 5-year-old mare opened 2013 with a win in the $100,000 Dahlia Stakes at Pimlico April 6 and is 6-1 in a field of seven drawn for the $100,000 Edward P. Evans All Along Stakes at Colonial Downs Saturday night.
Cooney laughs at the improbability of it all. She looked at three horses, all in the same place (figuratively and literally). The horses were by an obscure Irish stallion and caught up in a divorce. They needed homes. Cooney chose on feel, went with her gut and made some call.
"Why her and not the other two? She had the best conformation," Cooney said of In Too Deep. "All three were by the stallion, who was by Shernazar. That side of them was all Irish. I thought 'this one looks good, I'll take her.' "
In Too Deep placed in the Somethingroyal Stakes at Colonial Downs in 2008, won in allowance company three times while starting at numerous tracks in the region plus Churchill Downs and Belmont Park. When In Too Deep's racing career ended, Cooney made her a broodmare - choosing stallion Royal Academy in hopes of adding a little stamina to the pedigree. Embarr wound up with the best traits of her parents. She's fast enough to win going short, she's got enough depth to tackle distances beyond a mile, she loves the turf and she's only getting better.
She's also a little bit spoiled.
"In temperament she's a lot like her momma," said Cooney while headed to Penn National to saddle a runner in mid-April. They have the same disposition. Momma was a bit . . . impatient I guess is the best word. Embarr is the same. She gets whatever she wants when she wants it."
Embarr started once as a juvenile in 2010, won twice (including a stakes) in 2011 and post for four win pictures last year. She even placed in a graded stakes, finishing second to La Cloche in the Athenia-G3 at Belmont Park in October.
For the 2013 debut, Cooney went to Pimlico and Embarr obliged in the Dahlia - improving to 3-for-3 at the Baltimore track. The April stakes win, like the others before it, spurred instant action on Cooney's phone. Bloodstock agents see the on-track performance, the single name under all categories of connection and call with offers.
"Every time she wins another race I get the phone calls," Cooney said. "They tell me to just put a price on her, that they want to buy her. She's not for sale. Really. I've been doing this long enough to know that money is relative. I'm convinced I'm never going to be rich, so the thrill of winning races with her is worth more than money."
Never say never - this is the horse business - but Cooney says she means it. Embarr is too important.
"There aren't a lot of opportunities for older fillies and mares going long on the grass," she said. "She likes Pimlico and it's close to home, there's the All Along at Colonial. It's pretty exciting to think about. I honestly thought I had best horse in the race, (for the Dahlia) - of course she fell on her head coming out of gate, but all the sudden she was second and I felt OK again."
Embarr battled Ask Me Anything into submission up front, kicked clear late and won by three-quarters of a length in the 1-mile stakes. Ask Me Anything stayed for second, a neck in front of Charged Cotton. Embarr came back to reality a bit at Pimlico May 18, when she finished a middling sixth in the Gallorette. Pianist got loose on the lead and never looked back that day and Embarr could not make up any ground late. Saturday at Colonial, Todd Pletcher invader Channel Lady is a 7-5 favorite thanks to a Grade 3 win in Florida this winter and back-to-back fourths in Grade 2 company. Third in the Gallorette, Appealing Cat is the 3-1 second choice, followed by 5-1 Adjacent for Stuart Janney III and Shug McGaughey. Michael Matz picked the All Along for Welcome Dance's 2013 debut. The two-time stakes winner breaks from the rail at 8-1. Clare Skies Ahead missed upsetting the 2012 All Along by a neck, when second to Snow Top Mountain, and returns off a fifth behind Ruthenia at Monmouth Park May 26. Idle Talk, a 12-time winner with $289,000 in the bank, completes the field, part of a stakes-heavy program at the New Kent, Va. track..
With her husband, a former steeplechase jockey, Cooney trains 30 horses at Walnut Hall Farm in Berryville, Va. She ships to Colonial Downs, Penn National, Laurel and Pimlico, Mountaineer Park, New York, wherever she needs to run.
Once owned by the du Pont family, and also by Hazel Marsh, Walnut Hall includes a 5-furlong training track, turf gallops, plenty of space. Cooney rents from current owner Don Shockey and has been in place for nine years after relocating from Llangollen Farm in Upperville.
"We get stalls at Colonial, but we just run off the farm because we're running so many places," she said. "That's the advantage of a small training center. You can run wherever you need to. It's hard to find a place with a track and turnout like this. There aren't many of them anymore."
Cooney won a career-high 21 races last year, 15 the year before, after weathering a four-win 2010. From fewer than 200 starters, she's reached at least 15 wins in four of the last five years. Armed with a master's degree in equine reproductive physiology from Texas A&M and a bachelor's in Animal Science from the University of Illinois, Cooney got into training somewhat by accident.
The Aurora, Ill. native grew up riding show horses and went to the local Standardbred track (a little). The college work was meant to prepare her for a career managing a breeding farm. After college, she interned at Pillar Stud in Kentucky and found a reason to like racing. Next came a winter in Camden, S.C. riding yearlings and early 2-year-olds, a job with Kip Elser and Charlie Cushman in Camden and then seven years with Cushman's operation (working with young horses and South American imports).
Set up on a blind date by fellow horseman Mickey Preger Jr., she met her future husband in Camden and they ran a steeplechase stable for several years - she trained and he rode races. When Pat stopped riding races, they turned their attention to flat racing. Husband and wife work together. She's the trainer and breeder, he's the exercise rider. The mares foal at Lee Ann Smith's Paradigm Farm in Warrenton, Va.
"Embarr wouldn't be what she is without Pat's riding in the mornings, he gallops her every day, breezes her once a week," said Susan, who also passed credit to jockey Forest Boyce, aboard for Embarr's last five wins. "And Lee Ann does a great job. She raised two Virginia-bred champions from last year - Embarr and (Grade 1 winner) Camp Victory."
Like many, the Cooneys used American steeplechasing as a leg up to the rest of the Thoroughbred industry.
"When I was training jumpers it was because Pat was riding," Susan said. "He started getting closer to retirement and we started to get more into the flat racing. It's hard to compete with the top three or four in jump world, but there's more of a chance on the flat."
Especially with horses like In Too Deep and Embarr.