It’s the most celebrated day in horse racing — the first Saturday in May, Kentucky Derby Day, when 160,000 or so people, implacable as a river, will flow into Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. And, of course, many there will be Texans, some of them from Fort Worth, and of those, a few, such as Ramona Bass and Kirk Godby, will have considerably more than a rooting or betting interest in the Derby itself.
Bass is the breeder of Magnum Moon, an undefeated colt who’s one of this year’s favorites for the most famous of races, and Godby the managing partner for the ownership group with My Boy Jack, a rags-to-riches sort of colt who already has won two major stakes races this year. So when the University of Louisville Marching Band strikes up My Old Kentucky Home and the crowd erupts in full-throated song, with hundreds of thousands of eyes becoming moist simultaneously at “Weep no more, my lady,” Magnum Moon and My Boy Jack will be among the 20 3-year-olds prancing and strutting onto the racetrack and into the shade of Churchill Downs’ iconic Twin Spires.
“I know I’ll be there thinking of my dad,” Bass said, referring to Arthur Seeligson Jr., a San Antonio oilman who was closely and actively involved in horse racing for more than 40 years. He bred and owned two Kentucky Derby horses – Unconscious, who finished fifth in 1971, and Avatar, who ran second at Churchill Downs in 1975 but later won the Belmont Stakes, the final event in the famed Triple Crown series.
Whenever there’s a major horse race in this country – in many others as well – you’re going to find Texans. They might convene under the elm trees at Saratoga, on the beach at Del Mar, in the Queen Anne Enclosure at Royal Ascot or at a table on Millionaires’ Row at Churchill; wherever it might be, they’ll be there as long as a major stakes race is nearby. Texans have an enduring passion for the sport, and with the Derby they also have a long and storied history that contains colorful winners and champions and legends.
Robert Kleberg’s legendary King Ranch bred and owned the 1946 Derby champion, Assault, who also swept the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to become the sport’s seventh Triple Crown winner. Four years later, Kleberg won the Derby again, with Middleground. In 1959, Juliette and Fred Turner of Midland won the Derby with Tomy Lee; and their daughter, Dorothy Scharbauer, won the first of racing’s jewels in 1987, with the great Alysheba. Texans occupied the winner’s circle again in 2010, when Super Saver, owned by Kenny Troutt of Dallas and Bill Casner of Flower Mound, advanced through an opening along the inside and won by 2 1/2 lengths. Bill Shoemaker, Jerry Bailey, Bill Boland, Warren Mehrtens — all of them Texans — won the Derby, too, as jockeys. Texans Max Hirsch and William Molter trained Derby winners. And trainer Todd Pletcher, a Dallas native, will be going for his third Derby victory when he saddles four horses, including Magnum Moon, in the upcoming 144th renewal.
Her father, Bass said, “would be thrilled” with the prospect of her returning to the Derby, especially with a horse such as Magnum Moon, a long-striding colt who has won his four races by a total of 14 lengths. He most recently took the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, powerfully pulling away in the stretch to be clear by four lengths at the wire. And so he travels to Kentucky looking as if he could be just the sort of horse to finish what Avatar couldn’t back in 1975, when Texans nearly claimed another Derby for themselves.
Bass said she can clearly remember Avatar’s Derby, which she attended with her father, and vividly recalls the excitement of it all and an exhilarating instant of anticipated victory. That possibility only flickered, though, before fortuity extinguished it. Shoemaker, who rode Avatar, thought “the Derby was ours,” Bass recalled. And indeed the San Antonio oilman and the race-riding legend from Fabens momentarily seemed poised to enfold themselves in the famous blanket of roses, not to mention the glory, that accompanies a Derby victory.
Avatar, who had won the Santa Anita Derby, and Diabolo, who had finished third there, entered the long Churchill stretch running side by side, with the favorite, Foolish Pleasure, a couple lengths behind them. Timing and patience were always important with Avatar, a horse who tended to relax once he reached the front; because of that, Shoemaker didn’t want to go to the lead too early with him. He waited, and in mid-stretch, with his whip, Shoemaker let the horse know that the time had come to tap into any reserves. But just as Avatar began to ease by his rival, Diabolo ducked in sharply, causing a collision. Bumped off stride, Avatar had no chance to withstand the rush from Foolish Pleasure.
“There was an inquiry (by the stewards), but the horse that caused the trouble was Diabolo, who finished third,” Bass said. “That’s why winning the Belmont was so gratifying; it seemed like justice.”
Bass would go on to partner with her father in the business; together, they bred and owned and raced horses. When Seeligson died in 2001, she retained a few of the mares, boarding them at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, one of the most famous and successful breeding farms in the history of racing. And when her son, Perry Bass II, developed a passion for the sport himself, she expanded her breeding and racing interests.
The days and early mornings he spent with his grandfather at Del Mar in the late 1990s nurtured that passion, Perry recalled. Most kids went to the beach; he went to the racetrack. And, later, while attending Vanderbilt, he went to the Keeneland racetrack in Lexington, working the sales there and the racing season, as an intern. The passion had become a consuming interest.
“It’s so exciting now that my son loves racing as much I do,” Ramona said, explaining that, for her, racing is something to be shared and passed along, one generation to the next. And so just as she once partnered with her father, Perry has partnered with her in the operation of their racing and breeding business.
Generally, Perry explained, they’ll sell the colts they breed, but keep the fillies since they have residual value as broodmares. The Basses bred and campaigned, for example, Avenge, who won three major stakes in her career and earned $868,341. Retired after competing in last year’s Breeders’ Cup championships, Avenge has been bred to the great European champion Frankel. In 2013, they sold a son of More Than Ready who was later named Roy H. Last year, Roy H won three major stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and was named America’s Champion Sprinter. He most recently finished third in the Golden Shaheen Stakes in Dubai.
In 2016, at the Keeneland September auction of yearlings, they sold a son of Malibu Moon out of their mare Dazzling Song for $380,000. Lawana and Robert Low of Missouri bought the colt and named him Magnum Moon.
“I still call him ‘My Boy,’” Ramona said about Magnum Moon. “Perry has to remind me, ‘Mother, we don’t own him anymore,’ but I like to have that emotional attachment. It feels great just to be associated with a horse like this.”
The Kentucky Derby purse, or prize money ($2 million guaranteed), will total about $2.3 million, and most of that, or about $1.6 million, will go to the winner. But the Basses could stand to gain much more should Magnum Moon win next Saturday, and with little or none of the risk, because his accomplishments enhance the value of horses they own. With every stakes race he wins, his dam, or mother, and siblings become more valuable as breeding and racing prospects.
The Basses still own his dam, Dazzling Song, who has been bred back this year to Malibu Moon. The foal to arrive in 2019, in other words, will be a full sibling to Magnum Moon. The Basses also own two half-sisters to the Derby starter – Wake Island, a 4-year-old by the top stallion War Front, who has earned $106,410; and an unnamed yearling by the champion Uncle Mo. They’re all very valuable already, in part because of their connection with Magnum Moon, and it gets only better from here.
“It’s quite a thrill,” Perry said, without having to say that it’s also much more.
A SPORT FOR EVERYONE
The story of My Boy Jack’s Fort Worth connections has a similar provenance in that it begins with a father’s introducing a child to racing. From there, though, it veers in an entirely different direction to suggest, if not insist, that horse racing remains the most democratic of sports.
Dub E. Godby, a automotive parts dealer, had a small stable of horses, some in partnerships, that raced at Louisiana Downs, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park and, later, Lone Star Park. He introduced his son, Kirk, to the sport. The Godby racing stable produced more fun than profit; its “big” horse, Calculator, won the Spur Handicap at Louisiana Downs and earned $105,168 in his four years at the track. But that was the start, the planting of seeds.
Initially Kirk Godby had another sport that occupied his time. He played second base for TCU’s Horned Frogs in the mid-1980s. After TCU, equipped for business, he traveled to California, taking a job with a real estate firm.
“But I pretty quickly figured out that I wasn’t meant for the commercial real estate business,” Godby said, pointing out that there was, however, a consolation. While in California, he had an apartment outside of Los Angeles, in Inglewood, just blocks from the Hollywood Park racetrack.
By the time, he returned to Texas, he was ready to move in a different direction. His interest in horse racing now approaching full bloom, he thought of ways to introduce more people to the sport and “get people involved” who might not otherwise have the opportunity – involved, though, in an experiential way.
Few people can ever own a professional baseball or football or basketball team. Market values for professional sports franchises can soar into the billions of dollars. And so the most popular professional sports simply aren’t accessible to most people except as fantasies or entertainment. But horse racing is. Many people can afford to own a racehorse, and even more people can afford to own a part of a racehorse in partnership. That’s what Godby planned.
The first step in realizing that goal was to learn more about the sport, and so he took a job at Louisiana Downs with Bill Stice, who trained horses for Godby’s father. Godby started at the bottom of the racetrack’s employment ladder, walking “hots,” or horses returning to the barn after training. Then he got a promotion to groom, taking on the daily responsibility of a horse’s care. He worked for Stice for six months.
When he returned to Fort Worth, he began a logistics company that proved successful. But he never let go of that goal to introduce more people to horse racing. And so in 2010, he got together some friends – they each put up about $800 initially – to purchase a racehorse. During the group’s conference calls, one of the partners importuned Godby with a request: “Don’t tell my wife.” And so the partners adopted that as their name.
Trainer Keith Desormeaux, a longtime friend who has proven to have an uncanny talent for selecting prospects, picked out a horse named Alcazar for the partners. They bought him for $5,000, he earned $36,000 and the Don’t Tell My Wife Stable sprang from the starting gate with a winner.
Every year since then, Godby has put together a partnership for the purpose of buying and racing horses. The members might vary, but so far the success has been consistent. In 2013, Desormeaux picked out a filly by Curlin and bought her for $45,000. Named Danette, she earned $251,096, and Don’t Tell My Wife then sold her for $260,000.
“She pumped a lot of energy into our deal,” Godby said. “And after that we were able to step it up.”
The 2016 partnership teamed up with Sol Kumin, the CEO of Folger Hill Asset Management and a prominent horse owner (Monomoy Stables). They purchased four horses at the Keeneland auction, the last and cheapest being a colt by Creative Cause for $20,000. Kumin had the privilege of naming him. And having already named a horse after his wife (the champion Lady Eli) and his older son (My Man Sam), Kumin named the colt My Boy Jack, after his younger son.
With his recent victory in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, My Boy Jack guaranteed himself a place among the 20 horses in the starting gate for the Derby and pushed his earnings to $645,145. Since the Lexington, West Point Thoroughbreds, another partnership group, has purchased part of the colt.
But he’s not only popular, he’s admirably consistent and versatile, having run well on the grass and on both sloppy and fast racetracks, to compile a record of three wins, three seconds and two thirds in 10 races. And he possesses a potent late punch, a style that often finds success at the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles.
Among the 14 Don’t Tell My Wife partners are many Texans, including Matt Bryan for Flower Mound and Ronny Ortowski of Fort Worth. They were also prominent among the Big Chief Partners that campaigned Exaggerator, who finished second in the 2016 Derby on his way to winning the Preakness and the Haskell Invitational.
With its maelstrom of activity, its frenetic run to the first turn, its overflowing field of young horses and the throng’s accompanying thunderclap of cheers, the Kentucky Derby could very well be the most turbulent moment in sports. It’s a confluence of unique circumstances, an outcropping of dreams and ambitions and plans. Nothing’s like it. No other race can adequately prepare anybody for it. But it has this in common with horse racing’s other major events: The Texans will be there.