A chemist and a dentist bred a Derby horse

Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

Cheryl Prudhomme and Michael Gallivan, breeders of Kentucky Derby contender Brooklyn Strong, at Saratoga Race Course. Photo provided.

By Paul Halloran

Cheryl Prudhomme and Michael Gallivan had lengthy professional careers that had nothing to do with horse racing – Prudhomme as a chemist and Gallivan a dentist. Yet, horses were part of their lives since their youth and they couldn’t ignore what Gallivan calls a “passion” for equines, nor would they ever try.

Their paths first crossed at a New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc.’s Awards Dinner in 2005. They have been working together for 15 years and were married in 2015. They are the quintessential small breeders, keeping about 10 broodmares on their Shamrock Hill Farm in Fort Edward, about 15 miles northeast of Saratoga.

They do almost all of the work themselves – from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year – tending to the horses and everything else that comes with running a farm, from replacing fencing to repairing sheds. At least one of them is there virtually at all times.

“We haven’t left the farm together in five years,” Prudhomme said.

That will change this weekend.

Prudhomme and Gallivan will make the 800-mile trip from Fort Edward to Louisville, dropping off and picking up a few mares and foals, with a very important stop Saturday to watch their wildest dream come true.

Brooklyn Strong carries hopes and dreams of small breeders and their community in Saturday’s 147th Kentucky Derby. Photo provided.

When Brooklyn Strong breaks from the starting gate in the 147th Kentucky Derby, he will be carrying more than the 126 pounds assigned to the horses in the Run for the Roses. The gelding that Prudhomme and Gallivan bred and foaled will be bearing the hopes and dreams of his small-town connections who, for one day at least, will be playing in the biggest of leagues.

“We were a nervous wreck before the Wood Memorial,” said Prudhomme. “I’m still trying to figure out what the Kentucky Derby will be like. It’s going to be so exciting. It’s almost surreal.”

“It’s a dream but that’s all it is – a remote dream,” said Gallivan, who was a practicing dentist for 47 years and retired from his “real” job only a few months ago. “People spend millions trying to get a Derby horse.”

It cost Mark Schwartz only $5,000 to buy Brooklyn Strong at the 2020 OBS Spring sale of 2-year-olds in training; he spent 10 times that to enter the Derby. Prudhomme and Gallivan shelled out $10,000 to breed their mare Riviera Chic to Wicked Strong, resulting in the birth of a bay foal on Jan. 20, 2018 at Shamrock Hill. Three years later, he will be one of 20 horses from the 2018 crop of 19,664 North American foals to run in the biggest race in the world; that’s .1 percent.

“We don’t have expensive mares and we can’t afford expensive stallions. But we do a good job and our horses always run,” said Prudhomme, who grew up in the Greater Boston area, went to a small Catholic high school (Saint Clement, now closed) and earned a full scholarship to Regis College, where she majored in chemistry.

They have bred stakes horses, including Meriwether Jessica, who won the 2010 Yaddo Stakes at Saratoga Race Course and ran second in the Grade 3 Tempted Stakes in 2007 at Aqueduct; and Bellacourt, who ran third to My Miss Aurelia in the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes at Saratoga in 2011. They chose to breed to Wicked Strong with the idea of producing a horse that could run long. A Kentucky Derby starter? That’s another story altogether.

Cheryl Prudhomme and Michael Gallivan hosted a group of nuns from the Daughters of Mary order at Shamrock Hill Farm in Fort Edward. Photo provided.

“A million things can go wrong,” said Gallivan, who grew up in Guilderland and graduated from Christian Brothers Academy, Providence College and Temple University’s Kornberg School of Dentistry. “This horse happens to have a good owner and an up-and-coming trainer (Danny Velazquez).”

For the breeders, the road to the Derby has been one marked with elbow grease and endurance. Prudhomme cashed in her 401K to buy the farm, but still commuted back and forth to Massachusetts to work for a few years in order to make ends meet. Gallivan, who got his equine education from champion show horse trainers Joe Stewart and John Bell, recalls struggling through dental school with the support of his first wife, Margaret.

“That’s when I learned about poverty,” he said. “If you don’t experience the valleys, you never appreciate the peaks.”

A friend convinced Gallivan, who has five children and seven grandchildren, to attend that New York Breeders event, hoping to cheer him up after Margaret’s death in 2003. He saw Prudhomme again at a horse auction a month later, took her to dinner at the Anvil Inn in Fort Edward for their first date, and they went to the Travers together (surviving a pungent ride caused by Gallivan stepping in dog excrement at the farm). They were together 10 years before formalizing the arrangement in a ceremony on the farm.

On Saturday, they will pull into Churchill Downs in their Dodge pick-up truck and take their place among blue-blood breeders including Juddmonte, Stonestreet, Phipps, Godolphin and Calumet. Prudhomme said she typically cries at “My Old Kentucky Home” when she is watching on TV. She has no idea what state she will be in when she hears it live, but she knows she will never forget it.

“For a horse from Fort Edward to make it to the Kentucky Derby is unbelievable,” she said.

But not impossible.

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