LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Pollard's Vision was one of the best-looking yearlings at Wintergreen Farm in the spring of 2002. He was "absolutely stunning," said farm manager John Greely IV, who expected the colt to fetch as much as $400,000 at the Keeneland July yearling sale.
Two months before the premier auction, however, the yearling's right eye began clouding over. Despite extensive efforts to save it, the colt lost all sight in the eye. His value plummeted. His future as a racehorse was uncertain.
But in April last year, a fledgling horse owner with a special empathy for the horse's handicap stepped forward. David Moore, a 47-year-old retired investment banker, paid $70,000 for the one-eyed horse. Moore, who lives in New Jersey, is nearly blind in his left eye.
"We knew his vision concerned people," Moore said, "but we were real comfortable with it. We saw a Carson City [son] who otherwise might have sold for $400,000, and we decided to take a chance."
Moore's daughter, Charlotte, named the horse after Red Pollard, the one-eyed jockey of Seabiscuit. Despite a debut race last July that his trainer, Todd Pletcher, calls a nightmare, Pollard's Vision has developed into a top 3-year-old this year.
He will race Saturday in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs as reward for one man's gamble on a one-eyed horse.
"When David Moore spent $70,000 on this horse," Pletcher said, "he probably took a greater risk than somebody else spending $500,000 on a two-eyed horse."
Pollard's Vision won't be the first one-eyed horse to contest the country's most-watched race. Cassaleria, who was also blind in his right eye, finished 13th in the 1982 Derby. Other one-eyed horses have competed in the sport, but few at its highest levels.
Pollard's Vision has earned $445,811 after a front-running triumph April 3 in the Illinois Derby, the same race that War Emblem won in 2002 before cruising to victory in the Kentucky Derby.
In his previous race, March 7, Pollard's Vision finished third in the Louisiana Derby. Coincidentally, Funny Cide finished third in last year's Louisiana Derby before scoring his captivating win in the Kentucky Derby.
Already Pollard's Vision has achieved more than anyone could have expected when disease struck. Greely said the culprit was MRLS (mare reproductive loss syndrome), which affected thousands of horses in Kentucky in various ways, including blindness.
In early May 2002, the unnamed yearling began losing sight in his right eye while romping at Wintergreen Farm in Kentucky. Greely said the farm owners called in the best equine eye doctors.
They locked the colt in his stall for 1 1/2 months and administered antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids. They realized after a couple of weeks they weren't going to save the vision, but they continued the medication to save the eye for aesthetic reasons.
"He was a great patient," Greely said. "It only took him five or six days to get used to not being able to see out of that eye."
Workers made sure that when they approached from his blind side they spoke to him so he'd know they were coming. He would turn his head and cock his ears, if not to see them with his good eye, at least to hear them.
They walked him around the barn a couple of weeks before turning him loose in a paddock with other yearlings. Greely was afraid the colt might run into a fence on his right, but he quickly figured out where everything was and thrived - but not for long.
That fall, veterinarians discovered bone chips in both his hind ankles. He underwent surgery for their removal.
"He's a very, very smart horse," Greely said. "He was one of the most forward, most aggressive horses on the farm. I think that served him well. He's a fighter. I've never seen anything that could make this horse give up."
By the time Moore spotted him one year ago in an auction at Keeneland, the brown colt, then 2, had grown into a medium-sized, robust horse. Carson City, his sire, was a sprinter, but his dam side features stamina.
Moore, who declined to say how he lost sight in his left eye, had recently retired and gotten into the horse business. He owned one horse before that April sale. He bought two more, one being Pollard's Vision. Now he owns seven. They're trained by Pletcher, whom he calls "the best trainer on the planet."
Pletcher says he's trained Pollard's Vision the same as other horses. His exercise riders, including retired jockey Angel Cordero Jr. and his regular jockey, John Velazquez, say they do the same. He compensates, they say, by turning his head slightly to the right to broaden his field of vision.
In a race, he prefers being outside horses but will charge through on the inside or even between horses, they say. That's usually not necessary, though, because Pollard's Vision is nearly always on or near the lead. They're hoping for an outside post position in the Derby but, no matter what, believe his speed will put him among the leaders avoiding the crowded field.
In his first race last summer on a dry track at Belmont Park, he broke awkwardly and dropped far behind after dirt from the hooves of horses ahead of him slammed into his face and his one good eye. After he crossed the finish line - 22 1/2 lengths back - he swerved abruptly and dumped Velazquez.
A month later in slop at Saratoga, Pollard's Vision shot out of the starting gate and led every step for a 12 1/2 -length victory. That was his only win in six starts as a 2-year-old, but this year he has won two of four races, seemingly getting better as the distances grow longer.
His best race was his last, the Illinois Derby at 1 1/8 miles, a demanding distance for a sprinter's son and a stern audition for the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby. Pollard's Vision led from the start, but around the final turn a horse charged up on the outside, his blind side. Greely, who raised him, was watching.
"I thought right then he was in trouble," Greely said. "But then I saw him turn his head and cock his ears - he heard that other horse coming -- and he took off. That sent chills up my spine. I knew then that was my boy."
At a glance
What: 130th Kentucky Derby, first leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
When: Saturday, post time 6:04 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4. Coverage begins at 5 p.m.