BY LARRY HAMEL
For the Sun-Times
Ken Ramsey wasn’t shy about letting the kitten out of the bag. The 79-year-old mega-owner and breeder from Kentucky all but guaranteed that, “I’ll be in the winner’s circle at least one time,” in the four lucrative turf stakes on Million Day.
Ramsey went further: “I really wouldn’t be surprised if I won them all.”
Saturday could indeed reap a bonanza for Ramsey, a maverick who has shaken the staid Sport of Kings by its lapels since entering the business a scant 21 years ago.
Ramsey’s dynamic cavalry charge at Arlington Park boasts the morning-line favorite in the Grade I Arlington Million (Big Blue Kitten), the second choice in the Grade I Beverly D. (Stephanie’s Kitten), the likely post-time favorite in the Grade III American St. Leger marathon (Hyper) and a live long shot in a short field of seven in the Grade I Secretariat (Granny’s Kitten).
What Ramsey and his wife, Sarah, 76, more commonly called “Kitten,” have accomplished with their ever-expanding breeding and racing enterprise based in Nicholasville, Kentucky, is a Cinderella story worthy of Seabiscuit. Success in thoroughbred breeding traditionally comes after generation after generation of effort. Starting from scratch in 1994 after making his fortune in real estate and cellphone towers, Ramsey has hit the jackpot with Kitten’s Joy. The Secretariat winner in 2004 and Million runner-up in ’05, Kitten’s Joy has developed into a hugely productive sire of stakes-winning turf horses. The Ramseys won Eclipse Awards as the sport’s Outstanding Owners in 2004, ’11, ’13 and ’14 and as its Outstanding Breeders in ’13 and ’14.
A conversation with Ramsey, a mile-a-minute talker with a distinct Southern drawl, is apt to take tantalizing twists and turns, such as when he noted that, “Nobody in my pedigree on my dam or sire side in America ever owned a thoroughbred racehorse, although I have found out that I am directly descended from King Edward III of England, and he must have had some.”
Until he started dabbling as a thoroughbred owner in the late 1960s, Ramsey recollected that his only equine exposure came “from two mules that my uncle owned on his farm that he used to plow his garden.”
Ramsey’s operation frequently goes against the grain. He believes his “racehorses should race,” and thus does not send them into early retirement for stud duty. His horses on the farm “keep their shaggy winter coats,” and they won’t be herded into the barn “until you can see icicles on their whiskers.”
Odds are his powerhouse stable will not be left out in the cold on Million Day. Speaking on Thursday from his residence at the Saratoga spa — “I can talk to nine trainers just by leaning over the fence” — Ramsey offered a candid assessment of his stakes runners.
“My best shot is Big Blue Kitten. He is a better horse than Slumber. When my horse has been beaten, it’s because there has been no pace in the race. I’m solving that problem by sending a rabbit [in Shining Copper] along. By the way, The Pizza Man is making a huge mistake starting in the Million. He should have stayed in the St. Leger.”
He called Granny’s Kitten (at 10-1 in the morning line) “my second-best shot. You can throw out his last race because the day after, he came down with the same virus that hit 26 horses in the barn. There’s no way my horse will be 10-1. If he is, I’ll lower those odds myself by putting $10,000 to win on him. This is a good bet. Play Granny’s Kitten.”
Ramsey is confident that $2.7 million earner Stephanie’s Kitten can purr in the Beverly D.
“Euro Charline is tough, so my mare will need to bring her ‘A’ race,” he said. “But if she does, don’t be surprised to see me in the winner’s circle with my granddaughter Stephanie on my arm.”
Ramsey conceded that Hyper, an 8-year-old, “is eligible for Social Security and maybe has lost a step.” But in a field minus The Pizza Man, “the distance should be no problem for the old boy.”
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