‘I Think of Him Every Race:’ Daughter Deborah Says of Fred Greene Jr.
BALTIMORE – Of all the pictures on Deborah Greene’s phone, there’s one that holds the most special of meanings. Taken in the spring of 2019 it shows her father, then 92, gently holding the lead while standing over one of his newest foals, a three-week-old bay filly. The foal’s mare stands protectively behind them.
The photo represents both the past and the present. Her father, Fred A. Greene Jr., a retired home builder and land developer who successfully bred and owned horses for decades, passed away 14 months later at the age of 94. The filly, named Luna Belle, would grow up to become the best of her generation in the Mid-Atlantic.
“She was the last foal that my dad got to see while he was alive,” said Deborah Greene, who co-bred Luna Belle with her father and his long-time trainer, Laurel Park-based Hamilton Smith; Greene and Smith race her as co-owners. “I think of him every race, and he’s with me. He’s with me, and I know how happy he would be and I know how happy he is for me and Ham.”
On the heels of five consecutive wins, all in stakes, Luna Belle will face her biggest challenge yet when she steps up to graded company for the first time in the $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan (G2) May 20 at historic Pimlico Race Course. To be run for the 98th time, the 1 1/8-mile test is the biggest race for 3-year-old fillies in Maryland, and one of the most prestigious in the country.
“I’m a nervous wreck,” Greene said. “It’s not that I’m not a big dreamer, but I never dreamed of having a racehorse to run in a graded stake. I never thought about it. I was always happy having a decent horse that could break even. I heard my dad say once, many years ago, it’s exciting when your horse crosses the finish line first whether it’s a claiming race, an allowance race or a stake race. It’s the same feeling.”
This one, naturally, would feel a bit more special. Aside from the Black-Eyed Susan’s prestige, a win would be another testament to her father’s legacy as a horseman.
“It makes it a whole lot more special, especially for Deborah,” Smith said. “She gets emotional every time the horse runs, and rightfully so. She and her dad were a good pair. They loved and cared for each other, and she’s as happy as she can be to have this filly.
“She’s truly her father’s daughter. She acts just like him,” he added. “When it comes to making decisions, both of them left it up to me. I never ran a horse or did anything of that nature without going through them first. I always asked for their opinions, and they would tell me ‘You do what’s best.’ She’s so much like her dad, it’s unbelievable.”
Right down to the shouting.
“Dad was very vocal, and so am I. Somebody once said they didn’t think anybody could yell louder than my dad did when his horse was coming down the stretch, but you can,” Greene said. “When she won the [2021 Maryland] Juvenile [Fillies], I had a Christmas party to be at and I was watching it on TV. I was screaming so loud, everybody in that room thought somebody died. I do get excited.”
Luna Belle has given Greene and Smith plenty to get excited about. She won once in her first five starts, finishing fourth by a length in the Maryland Million Lassie and second in the Smart Halo before her victory in the Juvenile Fillies, all of which led her to being named Maryland’s champion 2-year-old filly.
The Great Notion filly is undefeated in four starts as a 3-year-old, winning the Jan. 29 Xtra Heat, Feb. 19 Wide Country, March 19 Beyond the Wire and April 16 Weber City Miss, all at Laurel, the latter earning her an automatic berth in the Black-Eyed Susan.
“I think when Luna Belle won the Xtra Heat was the first race that we won where I didn’t just break down crying missing him, but I know he was happy. Just an emotional cry,” Greene said. “Sometimes, I still do, [but] my memories of my dad are so happy that most of the time, I smile. It’s just so great to have so many pleasant memories, and a lot of them are tied up in the horses.”
Fred Greene’s best horse was the mare Debbie Sue, named for and owned in conjunction with his daughter and trained by Smith. She won the Maryland Million Ladies in 2006, the 2008 and 2006 Brookmeade, and was second in the 2008 Ladies. She was retired with more than $400,000 in purse earnings.
Greene also owned a horse named Iron Streak, who won his first two career starts including the 1977 Primer at old Bowie Race Track and was being pointed to the mid-June Youthful at Belmont Park before an injury ended his career. Affirmed would go on to win the Youthful, with Alydar fifth.
“There was a headline in the Daily Racing Form [that read], ‘Iron Streak Favored Over Affirmed and Alydar,’ Deborah Greene said, “so you never know what that could have been.”
Greene also owned six-figure earners Heavenly Moon and The Poser, as well as 2011 Maryland Million Nursery runner-up Coach Fridge and I’m in Heaven, who went undefeated as a 2-year-old in 1997 including Laurel’s Toddler Stakes. I’m in Heaven is the mare of Heavenly Moon, who went on to foal Luna Belle March 30, 2019.
“[Luna Belle] is his legacy,” Deborah Greene said. “It goes back to the grand dam that he had with [late trainer] Steward Mitchell. Steward Mitchell bought her at the sale and they were partners, owned and raced I’m in Heaven, and she was wonderful. When her racing career was over, dad didn’t want to breed her. Ham was working on him to breed her and I was working on him to breed her, and I guess between the two of us [he was convinced].”
Smith first met Fred Greene in the early 1980s through Mitchell, when they shared a barn at Bowie. Smith’s business relationship grew with Greene once the trainers moved to Laurel.
“Mitch had a horse that he had a little problem with and he told Fred Greene that he wanted to send him over to me. That’s how I got to know Mr. Greene and train horses for him,” Smith said. “When Steward Mitchell died [Greene] had someone else training his horses for a while and then he asked me if I’d take them. He had a few horses here so I did, and we’d been together ever since. He bred most of his own stuff back then and we did well with them.
As for Luna Belle, Smith said: “We raised her and all, and she was the last foal Mr. Greene saw before he died. Luna Belle was the last one he saw. We kept her and we were having fun with her. She could run and she was doing well and we had some pretty good offers for her, but we didn’t see any reason to sell her. We were having fun and we kept her right here with us, and you can see what she’s done so far. I don’t think I could have sold her and went out and bought another one that could match what she’s done for us.”
Luna Belle’s come-from-behind style and success have made her a fan favorite, so much so that it has surprised the connections.
“Everybody is so excited. She’s just developed like a fan club almost,” Greene said. “Ham said he got out of his truck on Main Street in Laurel one day and he heard this horn honk. Scared him to death. He kept looking around and it was somebody driving a semi down Main Street. [They] put down the window and started hollering, ‘Luna Belle!’
“His other owners they go out and look at their horses and then they want to go see Luna Belle. [Injured champion jockey] Sheldon Russell brought his daughter over to meet Luna Belle. Stuff like that,” she added. “My friends and acquaintances all ask about her and read about her. It’s surreal to me. Sometimes I don’t think it sinks in.”
For all the success and recognition, Greene is most satisfied knowing that her father had – and maybe still has – a hand in it all.
“It was such a great bond I had with my dad in his later years that I am forever grateful for. He had [some] good final years,” she said. “Every foal he had, even when he decided to breed Heavenly Moon, he always said he wasn’t going to live long enough to see any of them run. But he saw quite a few of them.”
By Phil Janack
Photos: Maryland Jockey Club/courtesy of Deborah Greene