The majority of the stories leading up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) and the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1) puts the focus on the trainers and jockeys at Churchill Downs. While the trainers and jockeys are the face of the industry—along with the horses—and are caring for the Thoroughbreds every day on the backstretch, the owner is a vital cog in the wheel and often gets short shrift.
While the owners might not be toiling in the trenches, they are the financial backers of the sport and keep it humming. Outside our insular world of horses, people can’t begin to fathom how expensive the sport is to operate and how fortunate one has to be to have even a starter in the Derby or Oaks.
Derby/Oaks week isn’t often kind to owners. Besides their being preoccupied by their business concerns, the days leading up to the first weekend in May can be a gut-wrenching stretch of anxiety, anticipation, joy, and even heartbreak.
For some it’s a sprint; for others, a marathon.
“I used to be able to corner the market on Pepto-Bismol,” said Ron Rashinski, co-owner of Oaks contender Sailor’s Valentine. He and his wife, Ricki, ran Bushfire in the 2006 Oaks, who finished sixth. “The anticipation? It’s like a stock. You hope every day that the price is going to be right and you get to the race and starting gate and let her get out and do her thing.
“It’s surrealistic,” he said of the filly’s ascent since winning the April 8 Central Bank Ashland Stakes (G1). “Maybe in another two or three days when we get to Louisville, we’ll get more ramped up and a little more nervous. We haven’t had a chance to get over the top…yet.”
Dr. Harvey Diamond and Jim Shircliff, principals of SkyChai Racing, are locals and have had the good fortune of running multiple horses in the Derby. This year they aligned themselves with Dr. Kendall Hansen and Bode Miller in the ownership of Fast and Accurate.
“It’s exhausting,” said Diamond. “This is our fifth Derby horse; I always start out the week very excited and pumped up, and by the time the Derby rolls around, I just wish it was over.
“The anticipation is usually better than the participation,” he said, laughing. “Anywhere we run…we’re happy to be here and happy for the opportunity.”
Shircliff, on the other hand, “enjoys it all week. I’ve always wanted to be in the Derby, and I’m finally connected with a trainer (Mike Maker) that can get me there. I poso-lutely, abso-tively love every minute of it.”
“We’ve been lucky,” Diamond countered. “That’s what it really takes. There are a lot of good horsemen out here and a lot of people with a lot of money. If all it took was money, then Sheikh Mohammed would have won it 10 times by now.”
Bob Cummings, who along with wife, Annette Bacola, has bred a Derby starter in Carpe Diem, figures to be in the Oaks as breeders/owners with Carpe Diem’s half sister, Farrell.
“Owners have little or nothing to do with this…it’s the trainer, the jock, and the horse,” downplaying his role. “The only thing an owner can do right now is hold his breath and hope the horse stays healthy.”
Al London, who along with his wife, Arlene, bred and owns Oaks player Miss Sky Warrior, said: “We think about it a lot. We know we have a good horse and a good chance. Do we have the ability to beat 13 horses? I hope so. Is there one horse who can beat her? Probably.”
Retired from a career on Wall Street, London puts ownership in the proper perspective.
“Hey, being a Thoroughbred owner…you can get a better return on your investment in the stock market, but you won’t have as much fun and you won’t get this kind of excitement. I’ve never seen anyone jump up and down after cashing in a coupon on a bond.”