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Kiwi plays role with leading Kentucky Derby contender

Steven and Brandi Nicholson - Pic ex Anne M. Eberhardt Keogh

Steven and Brandi Nicholson - Pic ex Anne M. Eberhardt Keogh
New Zealander Steven Nicholson is about to live the dream of many a horseman - to watch a three-year-old he bred step out in this weekend's Gr.1 Kentucky Derby.

Nicholson and his wife Brandi, who hails from the neighbouring state of Indiana, are the breeders of Classic Empire, last season's North American champion two-year-old male and who is likely to contest favoritism in the Derby.

The Nicholsons operate Silver Fern Farm, near Versailles, in the heartland of the Kentucky breeding region.

They have bred a number of good horses, either by themselves or in partnership, including Gr.1 King's Bishop Stakes winner Capo Bastone.

But none have had quite the profile of Classic Empire. By American Pharoah's sire Pioneerof The Nile, he is out of one of Silver Fern Farm's foundation mares, Sambuca Classica, and sold for $475,000 at the Keeneland Yearling sale to John Oxley.

"He was an easy young horse to deal with," Nicholson said.

"We didn't really have any issues with him until about two days before we were going to ship him to the sale, when he had swelling in his hock. We were almost going to pull him out of the sale.

"We weren't expecting the price we got even before the hock issue. We were delighted."

Classic Empire won four of his five starts for leading trainer Mark Casse, including two Grade Ones – the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

However, it's been a tortuous road to Churchill Downs this year. Classic Empire was favoured to win his three-year-old debut, the Holy Bull Stakes in Florida, but finished a well-beaten third to Irish War Cry and Gunnevera.

It was subsequently discovered that he had an abscess in his right front hoof. After that healed, he had back problems, and to top it all off, Classic Empire refused to put in a solid workout when asked at Palm Meadows, Florida, in mid-March.

Casse then took him to Winding Oaks Farm, near Ocala, Florida, and from there he picked up. He started in the Arkansas Derby on April 15, which he bravely won in the manner of a horse likely to improve.

He's likely to be one of the favourites for the Derby, along with Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming and his Holy Bull Stakes conqueror Irish War Cry.

It's the second consecutive year that a horse the Nicholsons bred has run in the Derby, following Mo Tom last year. Mo Tom finished midfield, but subsequently won the Gr.3 $US500,000 Ohio Derby.

Nicholson, whose father is former iron horse Sir Slick's trainer Graeme Nicholson, went to the United States for the first time in 1992 after his brother Kelvin replied to an advertisement for grooms. He flew back to New Zealand a few years later, but came back to Kentucky permanently in 1998.

Once in Kentucky, he worked for Idle Hour Farms and Adena Springs before he and Brandi went out on their own. Eventually they would team up with veteran breeders Hargus and Sandra Sexton and they now farm 60 acres on a property owned by the Sextons.

"There's a lot of opportunities here, and we've been very fortunate," Nicholson said.

"However, I always class myself a Kiwi. That's home, really to me, even though I've probably been here just as long as I've been in New Zealand.