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Kentucky Derbys horse tie to French Camp
Applebite Farms owner Joan Rogers who passed away earlier this year bred a grey colt known as Lusty Latin that would go on to run in the Kentucky Derby. The French Camp Farm operation folded in 2010. - photo by Photo Contributed

FRENCH CAMP – It’s a funny thing, this horse racing business.

Every once in a while you’ll read about somebody shelling out millions of dollars for a one-year-old – a yearling – only for it to absolutely flop when it gets out onto the track.

Maybe it doesn’t like the starting gate. Maybe it doesn’t run well in a pack. Whatever the reason, the initial investment made by somebody with the vision of that Kentucky Derby winner’s circle swirls down the drain faster than, well, a thoroughbred.

Then there are the stories of those horses that end up being champions and consistent finishers that come from out of nowhere.

Lusty Latin was one of those horses.

When Santa Clara attorney Joan Rogers bred the gray colt at her Applebite Farms stables in French Camp in 1999, there was no way of knowing what kind of a race horse he was going to be.

Sure, there were winners in the bloodline – his great-grandsire was the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes-winning Northern Dancer. But that’s thrice removed. And the $29,000 price tag that came with him when he finally grew up enough to enter the world of racing seemed like a fair enough price.

But something happened when Lusty Latin started to come into his own. He started winning.

By 2001 he was claimed for $62,500 by a Wyoming couple that had turned to a then relatively unknown horse trainer named Jeff Mullins to find them a horse that had potential. And once Mullins got him out onto the track with a regular jockey, Lusty Latin – the promising colt from a small breeding farm in French Camp – had begun to show flashes of brilliance.

The decision to run him in the Santa Anita Derby, the biggest horse race west of Churchill Downs, would prove more than fruitful after his third-place finish, and it earned him a spot in one of the most prestigious events in all of sports.

Lusty Latin – who wasn’t even worth $30,000 when he came up for auction as a yearling – was going to run for the roses.

So on May 4, 2002, Lusty Latin loaded up into the 10th stall at Churchill Downs for the 128th running of what has long been described as “the most exciting two-minutes in sports.”

And he finished 15th.

Undoubtedly it wasn’t what the owners wanted to see, and it wasn’t want Mullins wanted to see. He was shuffled around over the course of the next several years – getting claimed for $80,000 at one point and picking up some stakes race wins during the process.

Now is a 15th-place finish worth making a fuss over? Some might say no. It’s the back of the pack – third from last.

But just being a part of that pack – being one of those 18 horses that qualified to run in the Kentucky Derby – is considered a feat unto itself.

Joan Rogers passed away earlier this year so I never got the chance to ask her what it was like to watch a horse that she bred run on her sport’s biggest stage.

Applebite Farms, at the corner of French Camp Road and Airport Way, closed up shop in 2010 and sold off the majority of the 30 horses that Rogers owned at an auction in Southern California. I couldn’t find out what happened to the stallions that she kept.

The sign on the side of the cupola-adorned barn is still there. As is the memory of Lusty Latin – now a 14-year-old gelding running in a pasture on some farm out there in America.

And just like when a local product breaks through into the big leagues or into Hollywood, knowing that a local horse galloped freely on that track only adds to the mystique – a layer that will make watching all of the jostling and shuffling and jockeying more satisfying when they leave the gate on today.