Sua Sponte was running. He loved to run. He was a dark-bay colt, muscled up. He was galloping with purpose, summoning every bit of strength he had. Here was a horse. But not only that — here was a racehorse. A great-great-grandson of the champion Secretariat, and a winner in his own right; Sua Sponte had recently won his first race.
Here was a racehorse, thundering with all his might, running down the middle of the road at three o'clock in the morning, a two-by-four run straight through his rib cage and out the other side, his disemboweled guts spilling onto the pavement below as he ran.
Bob Jackson had likely never seen anything like it before. The operations manager of Ellis Park racetrack in Henderson, Kentucky, Jackson was the first person to come across Sua Sponte running down the road. He had just come from the track, where half of the grandstand and 11 of the barns had literally blown away only an hour before. It was absolute chaos. There was no power, there was water running everywhere, the wind was still blowing, and the debris was so scattered that it was almost impossible for rescue vehicles to get to the scene. Using the headlights of a truck and a flashlight, the track veterinarian stitched up injured horses on the ground. After he found Sua Sponte, Jackson picked up his phone and dialed the horse's owner and trainer, Burl McBride.
"I found Sua Sponte," Jackson said. "I hate to tell you, but he ain't gonna make it."
"I'm already on my way," McBride said curtly. He had heard the news and was en route to Ellis Park from Churchill Downs in Louisville, where he had raced another of his horses the previous day.
Sua Sponte was just a two-year-old, just a baby. It was his baby. Burl bought the horse as a yearling. He had such plans for Sua Sponte. How could this be happening? He put down the phone and cried. He kept driving toward Henderson with purpose, summoning every bit of strength he had. What awaited him there was far worse than he had imagined.
Dave Kenney is a superstitious man. The morning of the 139th Kentucky Derby he put on a pink shirt and a blue tie, the exact same clothes he was wearing when Goldencents, the horse he owns with a partnership, won the Santa Anita Derby. There had been a lot of buzz around Goldencents in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby. That's because there were a lot of good stories surrounding the horse.
For one, the horse was trained by Doug O'Neill, the same person who trained last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I'll Have Another. O'Neill had been accused of using controversial and illegal performance-enhancing measures in his horses leading up to last year's Belmont Stakes, and eventually scratched I'll Have Another the day before the race. Being back in the Derby this year with a real contender was vindicating for him.
Another story the press was excited about was that Goldencents's jockey, Kevin Krigger, was black. Once a staple in the sport, there hadn't been a black jockey aboard a Derby winner since 1902. There hadn't been a black jockey aboard any Derby entrant since 2000, and before that not since 1921.
The story that was getting Goldencents the most attention, however, was that one of the partners among his owners was Louisville Cardinals basketball coach Rick Pitino. Pitino's stake in the horse was only 5 percent. The amazing thing is that 5 percent of this particular Derby contender was only a few thousand bucks.
"We paid $62,000 for Goldencents," Kenney told me. "A lot of people wouldn't have paid that much for that horse."
That may sound like a lot of money, but at this level of racing it is most assuredly not. Almost all of Goldencents's competitors in the Derby cost more than six figures. Goldencents was a phenomenal bargain to his owners. But that's the way Kenney likes to play the game.
Kenney got started as an owner about 10 years ago when a friend of his suggested that a bunch of their friends go in on a $16,000 claimer at Del Mar for $3,500 each. "He told us if we were owners we'd be treated like kings. Owner's boxes, parking in the owner's lots, total VIPs." While they weren't really treated like kings, they did have a good time racing their claimer for a few years. The horse actually did well. But the bills kept coming, and after a while a few of the guys wanted out. "Eventually everybody got out, but I was hooked."
Kenney had befriended their trainer, Doug O'Neill, who in turn introduced Kenney to other partnerships looking for investors. Kenney entered as many of them as he could. I asked him how many he was in. "If you could get my wife to tell you how many shoes she has, I could tell you how many horses I have a piece of." So it's a lot? "It's just not an easy question to answer at a certain point."
This, to Kenney, is the way to play the game when you aren't phenomenally wealthy. Kenney owns his own trucking business, and he's successful, but horse racing is another kind of business altogether. "There's more luck involved. So many variables you can't control." That's why he spreads his money around, hedging his risk. "I'd rather have a $50,000 stake in 10 horses than own one horse for $500,000," Kenney said, adding, "as long as Dennis likes them."
Dennis O'Neill is Doug's brother, and to Dave Kenney there is no more important part of their team. He's the secret to their success. "Dennis O'Neill has the best eye for horses. Some people have that eye; they can see if the horse is going to be that special horse." Dennis O'Neill found I'll Have Another at an auction for $35,000 and won the Kentucky Derby. This year he was back with another bargain.
"I'll buy a horse a lot of other guys won't," Dennis told me the morning of the Kentucky Derby. "I'm not a big pedigree guy. If a horse looks good I'll buy it, even if the pedigree is weak. A lot of the blue-blood guys won't do that."
Dennis and Doug O'Neill are not blue bloods. Raised in Detroit by a mother on food stamps, they had a rough go in the early days. "We were hungry," Dennis said. "Very hungry." Their dad took them to the racetrack from a very young age. He was a gambler, and they each got the gambling bug. But by the time Dennis had graduated from high school he was an owner. He put $1,500 into a 5 percent share of a claimer horse when he was still a teenager. The horse never made any money, but Dennis fell in love with owning horses. He started attending auctions, paying attention to the things that made horses valuable.
Over the years Doug worked his way up from groom to hot walker to assistant trainer and eventually running his own barn. Dennis learned from Doug the kinds of defects in horses that he could put up with. Horses that toe in or out a little, horses a little less straight in the knee, weak behinds. Dennis would find these horses at cheap prices and buy them for his brother to train. Soon his talent for spotting value in horses was noticed and in demand. Other owners offered to pay Dennis to go shopping for them. "It wasn't my full-time job, but I had a little success here and there. When Dennis picked up Merv Griffin as a client I bought a couple of horses for him, like Stevie Wonderboy."
Now Dennis takes orders for horses from guys like J. Paul Reddam and Rick Pitino. Dennis goes to the auction and sees a horse he likes, he buys it. Then he calls through his list of clients to see who wants it. If nobody takes it, he's stuck with it. That rarely happens, though. Out of 14 horses he bought this year, he had to "take home" only two. It almost happened with Goldencents.
Goldencents doesn't have a strong pedigree, and, especially important here, is not bred for distance. The horse is short and small. He's not flashy. He didn't attract a lot of attention. There was just something about the way he breezed that caught Dennis's eye. The price was right, so Dennis pulled the trigger. Then he started making phone calls. He got a group of owners together to share the cost of the horse, and now here they are, back in Louisville for a second year with another blue light special.
"I'll admit it, I'm competitive," Dennis said. "Buying a horse for $35,000 and seeing him win graded stakes, you can puff your chest out and say, 'Look what I did.'" There may be some real genius to Dave and Dennis's approach. Bob Baffert, the top trainer on the West Coast, works for some of the wealthiest owners in the world. Last year, Baffert trained 90 of the top two-year-olds. Not one of them made it to this year's Kentucky Derby.
"Baffert has a monopoly on the sport on the West Coast. You can't compete with his resources," Dennis said. "When you do beat him, it's very fulfilling. It's David and Goliath."
I suggested that perhaps after two straight trips and potentially back-to-back Kentucky Derbies, the O'Neills are no longer Davids. "People tell me that, that we're not the small guys anymore. That we're the big guys now. In my mind we will always be the small guys. I know where we came from. We're always going to be David."
When I got there, dead horses, the grandstand is gone, the trailer park by the track is blowed down the road."
Burl McBride is a former jockey, and is built like one. He's short but he's strong and sturdy, especially for a man in his sixties. He told me the story of the 2005 tornado that originated outside Evansville, Indiana, the one that took out half of Ellis Park and the entirety of his racing stable, while we stood near the chute on the Churchill Downs backside on Oaks day.
"One lady was cryin' when I got there. She's screaming. Screaming! I asked her what's wrong and she says, 'They just found my kid in a pond.'" Twenty-five people were killed that night, and 20 of them lived in the trailer park near the racetrack.
Burl McBride was a horseman. He made his living buying and training racehorses. He wasn't a wealthy man, and for him the sport wasn't a hobby. He worked in the racing industry for his entire life. He raised a family on trainer fees and purse money. He had a modest stable of eight horses. Seven of them were stabled at Ellis Park. Three of them, including Sua Sponte, perished the night of the tornado. Four of them were crippled so badly they never raced again.
That left Burl McBride with one racehorse. Her name was Palace Rumor. She was the horse who had run that day at Churchill Downs and who, as fate would have it, Burl decided to let stay overnight in Louisville before vanning her back home to Ellis Park.
"She just had a hard race that day so I decided to keep her here overnight." Burl was small-time. He didn't have any stables at Churchill Downs. So he asked a friend, the trainer Hal Wiggins, to let Palace Rumor crash in one of his stalls just for the night.
"If I had hauled her home that night she was dead."
McBride called Wiggins on the phone that morning and told him about the devastation. He asked if Wiggins would keep Palace Rumor for a short time while he tried to save his surviving horses and sort everything out. "As long as you need me to," Wiggins replied.
After about three weeks of tending to his sick animals, McBride was ready to throw in the towel. "It was just a low time in my life," he said to me, his voice trailing off, his gaze drifting. "I get emotional about it still." He forced a laugh.
"I called up Hal and said, 'Hal, I want to quit. You keep that horse. I don't want her.' He said 'I don't have room for her.'" Burl smiled big. "Hell, he had stalls. He was lyin'. But he knew he had to do that to get me back with that filly. He knew he had to get me with that filly to save my life."
It poured rain on Derby Day for most of the day. Churchill Downs doesn't allow umbrellas, so 150,000 mostly well-dressed people huddled together under limited cover wrapped in cheap plastic ponchos; soaked seersucker as far as the eye could see.
In the box seats upstairs you'd have never known it was raining. The patrons on "Millionaires Row" were dry as bone. It was striking, climbing the stairs from the thick crowd of wet, muddy, and generally grouchy grandstanders up into the clubhouse section. It was like a scene from The Walking Dead, escaping the horde of zombies to the safety of a fortified shelter.
In the box seats the wealthy were having a grand old time, dry and happy and dressed to the nines. Fine linen jackets, sport coats with wide checks and silk pocket squares, polished white bucks, spaghetti-strap dresses that hung just right on the toned and unmistakably rich frames of women accustomed to wearing high heels. And the hats. Oh, the hats! Who needs umbrellas with crowns so wide and festooned? There is a lot of attention paid to the celebrities on "Millionaires Row," but many of them are just a novelty. The people in these owner's boxes weren't all rich, but most of them were. And a not insignificant number of them were obnoxiously, stunningly wealthy.
Michael Beychok sat in an owner's box in prime real estate near the finish line. He was an owner, sure, but not the kind of owner who gets a finish-line box on Derby Day. He was someone's guest today, and he was enjoying every minute of it. Decked out in a seersucker suit, his wife with a classy yellow Derby hat, they looked completely at ease despite being followed around by a camera crew from Esquire TV.
Michael Beychok is a millionaire, and for that perhaps he deserves his seat on "Millionaires Row." But he's also something very few people, if anyone, on "Millionaires Row" can say they are: a handicapper. Michael Beychok is one of the best horse-race gamblers in the country. Last year he won first prize in the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas. He won the tournament by exactly one dollar, maybe the closest margin of victory in the history of big-money handicapping tournaments. His prize was a million dollars.
Beychok lives and works in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a political consultant. A longtime friend of James Carville, Beychok has worked for countless candidates in Louisiana and beyond for the past 30 years. Now his life is taking a new direction. He is spending most of his time working on his handicapping, despite being champion. "Nothing has changed. I still have to prove myself every day. I still have to put my own money down every day." At 49 years old, Beychok has a boyish charm. His accent, his seersucker suit, his pale, reddish cheeks — he's instantly likable. "I know the guys behind me are saying, 'That guy just got lucky.' I want to be able to say 'Fuck you, I'm not just lucky, I'm good.'" It sounded angry, but it wasn't. Beychok is more passionate than angry, more matter-of-fact than earnest. He reconsidered. "I'm sure there are people walking around the face of the Earth that are lucky. I'm sure I'm one of those people." The camera crew moved in for a tight shot. "I think as soon as I learned to take the luck out of it, in the sense that you have to accept it, that every event is independent of the next one and the luck evens out, I became a better handicapper."
Beychok won the National Handicapping Championship when a maiden claimer named Glorious Dancer rallied from the back of the pack to win her race by a nose. "She changed my life," he said of the horse. "It got me thinking about how these horses, they do so much for us, they put everything on the line for us every time without asking for anything. They literally put their lives on the line."
Beychok followed Glorious Dancer's progress after she won her maiden race. She started dropping through the class ranks, running for $12,500, then for $6,250. "There's only one level below that, $4,000, and then you're off the track." For some horses, "off the track" means retirement to a job somewhere else on the racetrack, maybe as a lead pony or a pasture horse. For some of them it means the slaughterhouse. "That was not an option for me," Beychok said. His complexion changed. This time I could tell he was serious.
Beychok bought the horse for $6,250. "I thought I could change her life the way she changed mine." He raced her three more times, scoring a first, second, and third in three races. He then sent her to a farm in Louisiana for some rest. While she was there, he and his wife went to visit her and everything changed.
"Before that, these horses were just commodities to me. When we went to visit her at the farm " He stoped, choked up, his eyes grew puffy and red. Right there on Millionaires Row, surrounded by revelry, Michael Beychok began to cry.
"That was it. That was like, it was over." He wiped his eyes. "She was so sweet."
Beychok donated the horse to a Louisiana horse rescue that found her a home with a doctor in Folsom. Today Glorious Dancer is a polo pony. Last week she had her first polo match. "She's living the life of Riley. She's in a beautiful paddock, other horses, she gets attention every day. She has a good life."
Beychok visits Glorious Dancer regularly. "She knows who I am. She remembers me. I can tell. We have a connection."
Do they really do it for us, I wondered? Put it all on the line?
"I don't think they want to run for us," he explained. "But if you see one lose its jockey, it just keeps going. It tries to win the race. They just want to run. They want to run fast."
Reluctantly, McBride took back Palace Rumor and drove her down to Louisiana Downs to run in an allowance race. She lost by half a length. From there she won two more allowance races at Lone Star Park in Texas. It turned out that the little filly was a world-beater. He took her back to the rebuilt Ellis Park the next year for the Audubon Oaks, a stakes race for fillies and mares.
"I didn't think we'd ever see you here again," Bob Jackson said to McBride.
"I was a jockey for 15 years," McBride told me. "When you get bucked off a horse you get back on it."
It was a bit of a stretch for Palace Rumor, a $5,000 horse with only a couple of allowance wins under her belt. One of the horses in the Audubon Oaks had already earned over a million dollars. Still, Burl McBride was confident. Fate had brought him to this place. "This is where it started," he told Bob Jackson, "and this is where we're gonna finish it."
Palace Rumor went off as a 20-1 long shot. She trailed the pack the entire race. In the final stretch she split through the pack, swung out four wide, and drove hard to finish the race a head bob in front of 4-1 Beau Dare. She had won the 2006 Audubon Oaks. About a million people joined Burl McBride in the Winner's Circle for the photo, including Bob Jackson. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
By 2008 Palace Rumor had earned over $100,000 in purse money for McBride. Still, "it's hard to stay in business, shipping around the country with just one horse." As much as it pained him to do so, it just made financial sense for McBride to sell the horse that had kept him afloat, and likely alive, after the tornado that took Sua Sponte and the rest of his barn. He put her up for sale at the Keeneland Racecourse, a racing facility and sales complex, as a broodmare. The $5,000 filly sold for $140,000 to Will Farish, owner of the great champion Curlin. Farish bred the two and they had a baby named Palace Malice. When Farish put Palace Malice up for sale, Burl McBride bid on him.
"We was the underbidders," he laughed. Eventually Palace Malice would sell for $200,000 to Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stables, one of the most successful stables in American stakes racing. Palace Malice would run in the Kentucky Derby.
The races had wrapped up for the day at Churchill Downs as we stood out there in the barns talking. The lead ponies and their riders passed us on their way to clock out for the day. The various citizens of the backside were herding back to their respective barns, ready for a night of celebration before the big day.
"That's my weird way of thinking since all that happened. I always thought if something happens to one of my horses I can take that hit. But how do you handle when it happens to all of them at one time? That's not supposed to happen. But it did. And I hope that tomorrow we find out why."
There is no moment more pregnant with emotion, anxiety, wonder, and fantasy than those few seconds between the last horse being loaded into the Kentucky Derby starting gate and the ringing of the starter's bell. You hear the gate crew yelling back and forth to one another, the clang of one gate after another. In those moments, anything is still possible. In the next moment, there is only one possibility, the one unfolding on the track before you. It is agony. Incredible, fantastic agony.
I could practically hear the starting gate crew yelling from my spot in the owner's boxes near the finish line. Standing directly in front of me were some of Goldencents's entourage, Dave Kenney somewhere behind us. A few yards away sat Cot Campbell, the owner of Palace Malice. I had interrupted his dinner in the clubhouse earlier in the day to tell him the story of Burl McBride and to ask him if Burl could join him in the Winner's Circle should Palace Malice win. "Of course!" bellowed Cot. "Tell that man he's welcome!" That was the easy part. The hard part remained. Palace Malice had to win the race.
Vyjack and Garrett Gomez loaded into the last stall in the second gate, the bell rang, the gates slammed open with a thud, and 20 thoroughbred racehorses came rumbling by the grandstand, deep and heavy. The crowd let go a roar that met the horses' charge note for note. The planks of the grandstand vibrated beneath our feet.
Palace Malice went straight to the front and led the field around the first turn and through the entire backstretch. Completely uncontested, Palace Malice ran as hard and fast as he ever had before, setting fractions of :22.57, :45.33, and 1:09.80. It was an impressive feat, and one nobody expected. Everyone raised up on their tiptoes as the horses followed Palace Malice into the final turn.
Sua sponte is a Latin term. It means an act of authority taken without prompting. Like when a horse "bolts" and runs counter to what its jockey is telling it to do. Like how Palace Malice's trainer, Todd Pletcher, had told jockey Mike Smith to keep him off the pace and wait until the stretch to make his move — Palace Malice had other plans. For whatever reason, he galloped fast, with purpose, sua sponte, summoning every ounce of strength he had. By the time they hit that final turn, Palace Malice was out of gas. He never stopped running, but the other horses that had raced behind him ran faster. None faster than Orb, a bay colt that had won four straight races before today, and the odds-on favorite, who closed from well back and won the race convincingly.
Orb's owners had blood as blue as the Kentucky grass. Stuart Janney III and Dinny Phipps were cousins, and each was the son of a different horse racing royal family. Janney's parents raced the famed Ruffian and Phipps's father was the famous Ogden Phipps, loser of the coin flip for Secretariat. Dinny was wheeled to the dais at the post-race press conference in his wheelchair. He watched the replay of the race stoically. He answered questions gruffly. He said he had wanted to sell the horse's mare, that he was impatient with her production history, not having given birth to any "top horses." One reporter asked Phipps about Super Charger, another horse that Phipps grew impatient with and sold in 2007 for $160,000. She was in foal at the time he sold her, and she gave birth that year to Super Saver, who would go on to win the 2010 Kentucky Derby.
"You know, we all have to sell a lot of horses," Phipps said curtly. "People like to buy things that win."
"Was it hard to watch — " the reporter began.
Soon after selling Palace Rumor, McBride told his lawyer he was headed to the Keeneland sale to pick himself out another horse. "They always told me a man never committed suicide with a yearling. You gotta wait and see if it can run."
"How are you gonna pick it?" she asked him. McBride figured he saw something in Palace Rumor when nobody else would even bid on her; surely he could do it again. "That's the way the little person can still stay in this game and why we're still in it. If anyone could figure out which horse could run and which horse can't, the rich people would own them all."
If nothing else, he felt he now had fate on his side for once. "I said the first one I see with a halo on his head, I'm gonna buy it. The Lord is gonna send me one that can run."