Written by Steve Haskin
It used to be that Derby dreams were pretty much confined to the moguls who dominated Thoroughbred racing through their powerful breeding operations and racing stables. These were the true sportsmen, willing to invest fortunes in establishing their massive breeding establishments, mainly throughout the bluegrass of Kentucky. The empires they built sprawled over thousands of acres of rolling hills, making the city of Lexington the “Horse Capital of the World.”
But despite dominating the sport for so many decades, sending out their legions of blue-blooded homebreds every year, many of these titans of the Turf never experienced the thrill of winning the Kentucky Derby. Powerful names like C.V. Whitney, Alfred Vanderbilt, Ogden Phipps, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, William DuPont Jr., Warner L. Jones Jr., John A. Morris, Max Gluck, William S. Farish Jr., Hal Price Headley, and William McKnight never won the Derby, despite their many decades in the sport and the money invested over that time. As an example, Alfred Vanderbilt, an iconic figure in racing for most of his life, only made it to the Derby three times, while another iconic figure, C.V Whitney, failed in 15 attempts, finishing out of the money in 13 of them.
But these sportsmen persevered, and despite their failure on the first Saturday in May, they continued to dream and help enhance Thoroughbred racing’s reputation as the Sport of Kings.
But that was an era long gone, and most of those powerful private stables have disappeared and their farms sold off.
Although Thoroughbred racing has gone through many changes over the years and a new type of owner has replaced the sportsmen, the one constant remains the dream of winning the Kentucky Derby.
But with the decrease in homebreds and the expansion of the yearling and especially the 2-year-olds in training sales, winning the Derby has become more of a roll of the dice, with Derby winners coming from everywhere and anywhere, whether it be a horse toiling over the winter at Sunland Park in New Mexico or a California-bred by a $2,500 stallion, out of an $8,000 claiming mare. Despite their humble beginnings, one’s story spawned a full-length motion picture, while the other inspired a massive fan following known as “Chromies.”
It is much more difficult now to win the Derby, with horses having to qualify by earning enough points in graded stakes to make it into the starting gate on Derby Day. So, instead of having claimers and allowance horses infiltrating the Derby field and occasionally small fields of less than 10 starters, as we used to see, a horse now has to defeat 19 opponents, all of whom had won or placed in grade 1 and grade 2 stakes, making it a much more formidable task.
As a result, the concept of owning horses has changed, as has the scope of Derby dreams. Now we are seeing more and more partnerships of all sizes being formed. Last year we saw a retired racecaller, the great Tom Durkin, who called a decade of Kentucky Derbys for NBC, actually owning a small piece of a Derby winner through the West Point Thoroughbreds syndicate. Small or not, Durkin was able to do something many of the titans of the Turf, who devoted their lives to the sport and the breed, failed to do.
Durkin, like many of the members of racing’s partnerships, invest small amounts of money and own small amounts of a horse, but their dreams and the thrills are as vivid and exciting as those by owners who invest millions and own the horses outright.
Some partnerships have a handful of partners spending larger sums of money, while some are more widespread, made up of many partners. But the vision of those who form these partnerships continues to evolve, making it easier for racing fans to partake in, at the same time providing a bond, not only as racing partners, but members of a community revolving around a website on which they can participate in any manner they wish, basically for the fun of it.
And that brings us to Derby Day Racing (Derbydayracing.com), founded by Brian Zipse, whose passion and knowledge of the sport has become well-known through his blog and then as editor of Horse Racing Nation. It is a passion and knowledge he now wishes to share firsthand with racing fans who wish to dream and join together as a family.
As it says on the website, this is the “culmination of a lifelong dream. A dream to celebrate the horse and the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing.”
Described as a “clearinghouse for the industry,” Derby Day Racing is “a vision to create a truly comprehensive community that has never before been seen in horse racing. But when the passion is there, anything can be accomplished. Derby Day Racing is all about passion. Friends for life.”
Zipse has put together a talented staff and has secured the services of top-class trainer Buff Bradley.
As one whose Derby dreams have been confined to writing about the dreams of others and telling their story with all the passion that is in me, I, as a journalist and storyteller, have been content to live vicariously through those bold enough and with the financial means to try to make their dreams come true. All I can contribute to their dreams after they have come true are my words and telling their story to others.
But Brian Zipse has taken that to a new plateau – the journalist who becomes the story, while attempting to make others part of the story as well.
Visions such as Brian’s have passed me by, as I continue to write of dreams past and present, and now with Derby Day Racing, future. It is my privilege to help kick off this new concept of community and horse ownership. Perhaps one day it will all come together in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. That’s why we all dream.
Always Dreaming photo courtesy of Coady Photography