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Robert LaPenta Bio

Talkin' Horses with Robert LaPenta transcript:

Ron:  Welcome to's Talkin' Horses podcast.  Today we're pleased to have as our guest, Robert LaPenta, a major horse owner who just first started his stable in the early 2000s and with Nick Zito as his trainer's come a long way in a short period of time.  This year, he has two top prospects for the Kentucky Derby, obviously the Florida Derby winner Ice Box and another horse who hasn't achieved as much yet but certainly, for which he has high expectations, Jackson Bend. 

Welcome to the podcast, Mr. LaPenta.

Robert:  Well, thanks for having me.


Ron:  Some of our readers may not know that you first got started in the horse business in the early 2000s and one of your first partners was University of Louisville basketball coach, Rick Pitino.  We've gotten quite a few questions.  A lot of them are long, similar lines so we'll just go ahead and start off with those. 

The first one is from Bob Smollen - Congratulations on your win with Ice Box in the Florida Derby.  Are you comfortable with the six-week gap leading up to the Kentucky Derby for your horse or would you have preferred something else?

Robert:  Well, to answer the question directly, yes, I am comfortable with the six-week break.  You know Nick Zito's a pro at getting horses ready for these big races, I think the horse is in top shape, he's training well, and as you know, with Birdstone, he proved that it could be done I think when he won the Belmont off of a long layoff.  So the answer is I am comfortable and I think the horse is going to be in great shape on the first Saturday in May.


Ron:  Next question from Kelly Inman - Do you think Ice Box's running style as a closer will need to be altered at all to have a shot late in the race with this large of  a field?

Robert:  No, actually, I think the way this race is setting up, I think it's setting up perfectly for a closer like Ice Box and maybe even Pleasant Prince.  They've had a pretty good duel already in two or three prior races and I think this one sets up for a closer.  I think everybody knows that there are a lot of front runners in any race and you know this is a long race and I think this one's going to set up well for Ice Box.


Ron:  Let's just say you probably would not want to be as far back as Mine That Bird was last year.

Robert:  {laughs} No.  Actually, you know I was surprised that Ice Box was as far back as he was in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby.  So maybe he'll be a little bit closer but again, it's a long race and I think there are going to be a lot of tired horses when they hit the top of the stretch.


Ron:  And again, and Mine That Bird showed that it can be done.

Robert:  Well, I think his performance there was really one for the ages.  I mean that performance, if you looked at it from the aerial view, it looked like something you'd see on a videogame.  {laughs}


Ron:  Yeah.  In fact, you probably can't expect that type of thing to set up every year in the Kentucky Derby.

Robert:  No.  And I think the one X factor in this race, you know there's going to be Eskendereya and this is a horse that has a very, very versatile running style.  If he can get in the clear in a stalking position, he's certainly going to be the one to worry about as far as I'm concerned.


Ron:  Well, and that brings us to the next question which is from Joe in Niskayuna, New York.  He says Eskendereya beat Ice Box pretty handily in the Fountain of Youth and came back easily to win the Wood, what makes you believe Ice Box is close to gap on him and gives you a chance to beat him in the Derby?

Robert:  Well, you know if you looked at Eskendereya's performance in the Fountain of Youth and particularly in the Wood, I think anybody would have to say that there's no question he's the horse to beat.  As we know in the first Saturday in May with 20 horses in the field and everybody jockeying for position, a lot of strange things can happen.  I think he's an improving horse and he certainly proved a mile and a quarter is not going to be any problem for him.  I think Ice Box is also an improving horse.  I think he gets better and better.  He's done two turns now at a mile and eighth and I think his performance and his closing kick in the Florida Derby would have to give anybody in that race a concern.  So I think they're both getting better.  It's going to be a very difficult race.  I think Eskendereya is the horse to beat and we'll just have to see what happens.  One thing's for sure in this game, nothing is ever for sure.


Ron:  That is correct.  Who else do you see as the biggest challenges as far as the horses we're pretty sure are going to be in that Derby field? 

Robert:  Well, we've all watched all the Derby preparations.  There are a couple of big ones coming up this weekend in the Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass.  I think the Blue Grass has lost some of its luster because it's gone to Polytrack and the winners there, the good performances are question marks, as are a lot of the horses on the West Coast.  So I think a horse that is a closer is going to have a particular advantage in this race.  So although he's not in the Derby yet, I expect a horse like Pleasant Prince, maybe Awesome Act, some of these that come off the pace I think is going to be in a good position in the Derby.


Ron:  Next question comes from racefan47 - What are your thoughts on Jackson Bend's second place finish in the Wood and what's down the road for him?

Robert:  Well, you know, I think Jackson Bend is probably one of the best 3-year-olds in the country.  I think if you look at his record and what he's been able to accomplish and the tenacity that he shows whenever a horse comes up to him in the stretch, he just refuses to lose.  If Eskendereya weren't in both of those races, he'd certainly be one of the top horses, top picks in the country but you know visually, it was not impressive because of the way Eskendereya just ran away from the field.  I mean Eskendereya in the Wood looked like a horse that was on jet fuel.  It was just amazing.

Jackson Bend in nine races, you know he won the Florida Stallion Stakes, he had an amazing performance in his last race there where he stumbled coming out of the gate, he went five wide, he was challenged in the stretch, caught another gear and you saw a little bit of that in the Wood.  So he's an amazing horse and I think he's underrated.

As far as what we think of him for the Derby and can he do the distance, I think Jackson Bend never runs a bad race.  So we're going to see how he develops over the next couple of weeks, we're going to see, hopefully, he'll put on a little more weight.  But for me, it'd be nice to have a horse that could be in the stalking position, you know, four or five lengths off and then have Ice Box maybe a little further back.  So that, to me, would be an ideal position for us going into the Derby.


Ron:  And along the same lines with Jackson Bend, this question is from Dick Downey .  He wants to know how he's been doing since the Wood Memorial and when is he scheduled to arrive at Churchill Downs?

Robert:  Jackson Bend came out of the - he came out of the Wood in phenomenal shape.  I mean that night he ate everything, he was kicking the barn, he actually does not like to lose and he knows when he loses.  So he's in great shape, thank God, he's doing well and in fact, I think he'll be going to Churchill I think maybe even this week.


Ron:  Concerning another one of your 3-year-olds, a reader named Paul asks - I am the breeder of one of your promising young three 3-year-old colts named Miner's Reserve, I was hoping you might provide some information with regards to your future plans for him.

Robert:  Miner's Reserve is another great - you know we're just fortunate to have a number of nice horses in our barn.  Certainly, Miner's Reserve is one of them, Our Dark Knight is another and we have a couple of more that I think are going to be coming on a little later in the year.  Miner's Reserve, obviously, it was a risky decision off of just a couple of races to put him in.  It's such a tough position in the Florida Derby but a lot of people felt that he was really going to be the horse to beat aside from Eskendereya and a couple of the others.  Rule I think was the other colt favorite. 

So he came out of the race well and our fallback position there when we decided to run him in the Florida Derby was to run him in the Cliffs Edge Derby Trial on the opening day of Churchill Downs and right now that's what we're thinking about.


Ron:  Wow.  Wouldn't that be something to be winning the race that you're sponsoring?

Robert:  That would be awesome.


Ron:  I guess you present yourself with the trophy, correct? {laughing}

Robert:  That'd be a great day.


Ron:  And what about Our Dark Knight, is he going to be in one of the Triple Crown races?

Robert:  You know I don't know if he's - right now we're looking for another - he had a really nice race on the day of the Florida Derby, you know coming from behind, very strong kick in the stretch.  We're looking for maybe a little easier race for him now.  Depending on what happens there, we'll think about what we're going to do.  When things get to around the Belmont, a lot of strange things can happen so we're going to keep our options open but one thing's for sure the Belmont is a race that if you make a decision to run in it, you really have to think about the horse because a lot of horses come out of that race and they're just basically done for the rest of the year.  So we're going to think real hard about that.

As far as the Preakness, again, I think we'll have to see what happens in the Derby.


Ron:  Next question comes from Sheila - Do you think that having 20 horses entering the starting gate for the Derby cheapens the field by allowing horses that obviously do not belong in the same race with top flight runners just because the connections have a breathing 3-year-old and then an attack of Derby fever?

Robert:  You know the Derby is Thoroughbred's racing Super Bowl; everybody wants to go to the Super Bowl.  It's just an incredible day, the ambiance, the excitement, the crowd, the international coverage, so it's a day that everybody wants to participate in.  I think 20 horses is not too large.  I think if you limited the field you actually would probably keep out some pretty good horses like what happened last year; but you know, every horse in the Derby is a quality horse.  There's no question about it. 

This year, it's going to take somewhere between $225,000 to $250,000 of stakes earnings to get in so there's no question every horse is going to be a quality horse and the fact that you have 20 3-year-olds out of the 30,000 3-year-olds that are born says that there's no question you'd have the cream of the crop in the race.  The only question you might ask and I really don't know the answer to it or whether it's ever been considered is quite often, horses that win 2-year-old stakes races are different horses and really don't step up and mature when they make the conversion to pre.  So there maybe some consideration, maybe discounting 2-year-old earnings a little bit but  that's the only thing that I would consider.


Ron:  Next question Claude Ciancio - Besides his record of success on the track, what traits and attributes did you see in Nick Zito that has led you to use him as your trainer for so many years?

Robert:  Well, going back to when I began in my partnership and even before I got directly involved, I use to watch the classic races and one thing always stood out and that was that Nick had a tremendous eye for talent and a real ability that I think differentiates him from a lot of the other trainers in being very patient with young horses, not pushing them too hard and being able to develop them and hopefully keep them healthy to get to this level of racing.  So that was the one trait that I looked for, his ability to - you know he's got a great eye and I think patience, perseverance and a tremendous amount of experience and success.


Ron:  Also along the same lines of your trainer, Jim Labadini asks - I admire your dedication to the sport and also I greatly approve of Mr. Zito as your trainer, how do you select the horses that you purchase at sales and do you solely rely on your trainer?

Robert:  No, actually - well, I'm a firm believer of picking a good team, people that are experts that are really good at what they do and that to me is the key to success of every operation.  So I really don't try to get involved too directly in things that I should leave to the experts but we've had a great relationship and really what I do is I give Nick some guidance on horses or maybe sires that I like.  For instance, I said to Nick let's go find a good Fusaichi Pegasus, let's go find a good Mineshaft, let's go find a good Medaglia d'Oro, let's go find a good Bernardini.  So with loose guidelines and then saying let's buy some speed horses, let's buy some distance horses, we try to get a nice mix.  You know I have an annual budget and basically, beyond that though I allow Nick and the team to go and execute on that plan.


Ron:  Who else is on the team, can you say?

Robert:  Well, I have my racing manager, Ernie Richards who really knows everything about racing and breeding and he really tracks the horses and he's very important to me at the sale.  You know I have a breeding expert who's on the team, Dave Floyd, really very into the whole bloodline thing and he assists in the process.  My son is very involved.  We track all of the horses and the sires and so it's kind of a team effort and it's working out real well so far.


Ron:  Next question is from Eric Mitchell who asks - To what do you attribute your fortune, great people, racing luck, what has allowed you to remain successful?

Robert:  Well, I think like anything else, you've got to have good people which we just talked about.  I think you need a good plan.  I approached the racing game and when I entered it, a lot of people said why you're getting involved in a game when all you do is pour money down a hole and lose a lot of money.  And my answer to that question was I thought that if you could have a good business plan, if you had good people working with you to execute it, then you could put together a successful program.  There's no question in this game with the Thoroughbreds and oddly, the better they are, the more prone they are to getting injured.  So this is a very, very difficult sport to be successful in, there's a lot ego, there's a lot emotion, there's a lot of competition but I think if you have a good business plan and good people to execute it, you can be successful.  And so far, {{knocking on wood}, I'm knocking on wood as we speak, we've been able to do it.


Ron:  And I guess a certain element of luck.

Robert:  There's no question that luck plays a big part of success in this game.


Ron:  Next question is from David who asks - What advice do you have for an owner just getting into the business on the selection and purchase of young horses?

Robert:  My advice to a young owner getting into the game for the first time would be to join a partnership to really become familiar with a lot of the intricacies of the sport, the horse selection process, really get into the game.  I would suggest you get in very slowly and spend literally a number of years before you become heavily involved because there are so many different things that can happen along the way and so many obstacles that a novice getting into the sport and trying to do it on his own right off the bat I think would be a mistake.


Ron:  So pretty much I guess just kind of segue into it and I guess by spreading your risk among other people in a partnership, it's a good entree at a level of which you're not going lose too much money as you learn.

Robert:  Exactly right, yeah.  I think it'd be a paid internship for a new owner.


Ron:  Along similar lines, what do you think racing can do to attract new people to the game?

Robert:  Well, you know it's a frustrating part of it for me.  I mean it's really one of the greatest sports.  I mean it's been around for hundreds if not thousands of years and you know I think today that the sport is not anywhere near the level of popularity that it should be.  So I look at it almost like basketball maybe 15 to 20 years ago when the sport was waning, weren't a lot of people attending the games, I think you need to bring young people into the sport, you got to make it much more relevant.  I mean nobody wants to go to a racetrack and be there with 500 people.  I mean you want it to be vibrant, you want it to be alive, you want music, you want a lot of activity, you know you want to make it an event and I think racing is missing that and they've just got to bring it to the next level and bring a lot of young people into the sport.  I think there's no question that OTB has altered the sport because it's brought a lot of people away from the track and they can make a phone call or they can go to the various OTB parlors but you got to bring people in the door.  It's advertising, it's appealing to the young, maybe getting rock groups at a lot of these not only on a Saturday when a Wood Memorial or a Saturday when the Kentucky Derby or some of these big races.  You got to make people want to come, you have to have good food and I think the VLT thing is actually going to help the sport also because you'll pull them into the parking lot, like Gulfstream.  I mean you can go there during the week and there will be a thousand cars in the parking lot.  So you feel like it's relevant, you're participating in something that people want to participate in and that's what I think we need to do.


Ron:  In other words, make it a little bit more special?

Robert:  Make it more special, make it more lively, bring in events, you've got to bring young people into the sport.


Ron:  Do you think that year-round racing has kind of sapped the energy from those types of things you're talking about right there?

Robert:  No, I don't think so.  Racing is like a seasonal thing and there's a season for every part of the sport.  You know at the beginning of the year it's all about the Kentucky Derby and the young 3-year-olds and when you get past the Triple Crown races, you know Saratoga is a national venue that everybody's there.  It's a party atmosphere.  It's a great thing.  And then when you get into the fall, you know Belmont, Aqueduct and the other tracks that reopen, it's a great thing.  November/December, you're looking at the 2-year-olds who may be stars in the following year.  You have the Breeders' Cup.  So I don't think the year around racing is the issue because I think there's a season and the sport I think handles that pretty well.  I think you just got to make it more lively and whether it's limiting, you know maybe the weekday races and doing more from Friday to Sunday or Thursday to Sunday kind of thing, I'd consider doing that because you know during the week people are working, you're not going to get a lot of people out, and I think that does detract to a certain extent from the popularity of the sport.


Ron:  Have you and would you recommend to your friends and business associates that they become involved in horse racing either as fans or owners?

Robert:  Well, there's no question.  You know this is a great spectator sport and I don't think people realize it's a great family sport.  I mean you've seen me at a lot of races and they don't have to be Breeders' Cup races or Triple Crown races.  When we have a horse running on a weekend, I get my whole family out, I get friends out, anybody that has a connection to the sport wants to be involved.  They love going to the paddock, they love attending the race, a great day.  So family, you know a lot of times you'll invite them over for a Sunday dinner and nobody will come.  If you say we have a horse running on Sunday or Saturday at the track, you'll get the whole family and grandchildren and so everybody wants to be involved.  So there's no question it's a great sport if people feel a connection to it.

The first part of your question would I recommend that friends get involved in this sport?  I think it's a great sport.  A lot of people can't get directly involved in owning a football team or a basketball team or a baseball team.  Here, you can get involved and you can get involved to the extent of your financial and your time.  You can get involved as much or as little as you want to.  So yes, I would recommend people get involved in this sport and once they get involved it's infectious.  I mean people will tell you - I mean even George Steinbrenner, winning a horse race to him was in some sense a greater experience than winning the World Series.  So it's a very, very emotional sport.  It's a great sport, great hobby.  But again, I would recommend that if you're going to get involved, you start with a partnership, you learn the ropes, you learn what it's all about and then you could decide where you want to take it from there.


Ron:  Next question - Obviously, you've gained quite a bit of success quickly in the industry and have a lot of respect among your peers in the industry, do you have any interest in getting involved in the alphabet soup organizations that run racing or are you happy with your niche as an owner?

Robert:  Well, I think if I would ever get to the point where I'm not as active in my professional career, learning businesses and doing thing, I think I would like to get involved in the management area of sport because over the years, I've learned a lot.  There are a lot of things that I think I would like to contribute.  I think one thing that the sport lacks is a governing body that really regulates the whole sport.  I would really do a lot more in the areas of substance, drug testing, I would increase the penalties for anybody that's caught crossing the lines in that regard.  In life, I think we all know that if anybody steals something, a thousand dollars, they go to jail.  In this industry, if people are doing things that they shouldn't be doing, they get a 20-day suspension.  There's something wrong with that because it's stealing millions of dollars.  And then I'd like to get involved from the perspective of making this sport more popular.  I'm thinking about things of how we could do that, how we could bring more people into this sport.  So two things: regulation management and getting more people involved.


Ron:  I think there'd be a lot of organizations looking forward to you kind of segueing out of your primary business and moving more into the racing aspect of it that you just mentioned. 

Next one is from M R Bradley - What is your opinion of the idea of a permanent site for the Breeders' Cup?  Personally, I think it is a colossal mistake.

Robert:  I agree.  I think the Breeders' Cup in many respect is like another Super Bowl, it's an international event, great, great coverage around the world.  So I think it should be treated like that and cities should actually bid, different sites should bid to get the Breeders' Cup for different years.  It brings a lot of tourism and revenue into the hosting city.  So I think it's a great thing.  The thing that, to me, I would consider though is the different surfaces, the synthetic surfaces I think are greatly altered.  What happens in these races and unless it caters to the majority of Thoroughbred racing participant, I think it detracts a little bit from what it should be.  So for instance, Santa Anita and the Polytrack I think detracted somewhat from the broad appeal of the Breeders' Cup because it gave it much more of a European turf flavor.  So that's a consideration that I think the Thoroughbred, International Thoroughbred Association people and the Breeders' Cup association should consider when selecting a site.


Ron:  So in other words, have it on a surface that has far greater appeal on a more universal basis across all the lines of the industry.

Robert:  That's right.


Ron:  Next questions from Esther Marr - Looking back over all your successes, what has been your favorite moment or memory so far in the industry?

Robert:  Well, I've had a lot of great moments myself, my family, my friends and I think it would be hard to pick one because each one of them was a little unique but certainly, The Cliff's Edge, winning the Blue Grass and becoming a favorite for the Derby early on, that was my first real success.  So like anything else, it's right up there as far as just great, great memories and days but certainly, War Pass, winning the Breeders' Cup was just an incredible day and Da' Tara coming out of nowhere at 35 or 36-1, whatever and beating Big Brown who everybody considered to be the Triple Crown winner, that was an incredible day.  So there have been a number of - the Florida Derby certainly was right up there at the top and we just had a great day and I'm hoping that one day soon the Kentucky Derby will be on the list.


Ron:  And she has a follow up which is - Who has been your favorite horse of all the ones you've had, not necessarily the most successful but just your favorite even from a sentimental point of view?

Robert:  Well, I think the fact that I sponsored The Cliff's Edge in the Derby Trial I think is an indication of what the answer to that question is.  He not only was my first great one winner but for me, he really exemplified what the sport is all about and what horse racing is all about.  He was an underdog, he was a very unlucky horse but he just kept trying and trying and he was actually voted the most unlucky horse of the year but he has a horse with tremendous ability, tremendous heart, never gave up but to me he displayed a lot of the qualities that people should have in life. 

I had an executive meeting once and I actually sited The Cliff's Edge as really a horse that exemplified what it means and what it takes to be successful in life.  And despite hard luck and setback, he kept trying, you try to win and you become successful.


Ron:  Well, let me wrap up our podcast today with a question from Paul Sedgwick.  Your philanthropy is very commendable.  Do you also support Thoroughbred retirement programs and what became of Little Cliff?

Robert:  I'm a big supporter of Thoroughbred retirement programs.  Again, I'm glad to see that this thing is now garnering national attention, people are focusing on it, there is current legislation pending about penalties and criminal actions against people, transporting horses for other than racing and retirement.  So I'm a benefactor.  I support two or three of the foundations, the retirement foundations, and I think a lot of work has to be devoted in this area. 

I think mentioning Little Cliff as one in particular on everyone of our ownership certificates for horses, we have a sticker that says if I ever sell a horse or if the horse is ever in the ownership of anybody who's considering selling that horse for the purpose other than retirement or racing, then I would buy that horse back, and we were able to save Little Cliff who was  on his way to a very unhappy fate and we were able to rescue him at the border and bring him and put him in the retirement.


Ron:  Wow, that's great.  Congratulations.  Certainly, more owners should be doing those kinds of things most definitely.

Robert:  Absolutely, absolutely. 


Ron:  Well, that's all the questions I have.  I want to thank you for your time.  It's been very enjoyable and I think our readers really get a lot from your expertise.  There are a couple of things here that aren't on the subject that are more personal. 

Tony Repola has written in and said - Bob, a name from the past, Tony Repola of H&S White Plains Office just wishing you and Jackson Bends, Ice Box exacta box.{Robert laughs}

And then someone asked whether or not you are related to a Christopher LaPenta.  He was from Colts Neck, New Jersey.  Ring a bell?

Robert:  No.  At least I hope not, I'm embarrassed to say, because I don't know.

Okay.  Listen, it really has been an enjoyable.  I do want to thank you for your time.  It's been great.

Robert:  Well, I really appreciate it and it was good talking to you also, Ron.

Ron:  Okay and I'll see you at Louisville.

Robert:  Alright.

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