Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Paddy's people know how to party

Paddy O'Prado first earned my respect by gutting out a third-place finish over a sloppy main track at Churchill Downs in America's biggest race. He made me a true believer when he surged to victory in the Colonial Turf Cup.

His connections have made me a fan.

The horse's talent aside, there's nothing quite like meeting his people; the principals of Donegal Racing, their families, and particularly managing partner Jerry Crawford.

Crawford has made a few headlines on his own lately, apart from frequently being asked to comment on what is now a Grade 2-winning horse and arguably the best turf 3-year-old in the country. Just last week, he was elected to the Breeders' Cup Board of Directors, after already earning a place with the organization as one of its larger cadre of trustees. He's a good alumnus and bit of a philanthropist, as well, donating his share of Paddy's $200,000 Derby earnings to his alma mater, Minnesota's Macalester College.

Apart from the racetrack, Crawford is the managing owner of the Iowa Energy, an NBA Development League team in Des Moines, and practices law with the firm of Crawford & Quilty. But in 2008, he founded Donegal Racing -- named for the county in Ireland from whence his ancestors stem -- and the group reportedly set out to spend some $500,000 in search of a Derby horse.

Unlike some Derby dreams that are never realized, Donegal quickly found its first classic contender in the form of a gray or roan colt by one of my favorite (late) sires, El Prado. Dale Romans, the colt's trainer to this day, signed the ticket for the $105,000, Gainesway-consigned yearling at Keeneland September 2008. That price is fairly attractive in a world where some buyers spend millions for unbroken yearlings that never pan out. It's looking a little bit like theft now that Paddy's credible effort in the mud, grinding home third in America's Race, has been backed up with outstanding efforts in graded turf company.

A couple of weeks ago, Crawford e-mailed me with a favorable response to a blog post about Bobby Flay's inclusion among the new Breeders' Cup trustees. As Paddy prepped to defend his Turf Cup territory, Crawford mentioned Donegal's return trip to Virginia and suggested he and I might be able to meet at Colonial Downs.

I didn't really know for sure whether that would happen until technology -- and the right connections -- intervened on my behalf. Just as I mentioned via Twitter that I was handicapping the Virginia Derby card over a large lemonade at Colonial Downs, Sid Fernando was tweeting about Paddy and Jerry Crawford, the latter of whom is a client of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants Inc., of which Sid is now president.

I privately tweeted Sid to ask what he thought my odds were of meeting up with Jerry Crawford on this day.

"Pretty good," he replied. And, moments later: "In 4th floor club house ... go now ... just got off phone w Jerry."

Yessir, I'll go now.

My initial obstacle was getting past the first-floor elevator attendant. Thankfully, he made it easy.

I asked, "How do I get to the fourth-floor clubhouse without credentials?"

The young man grinned and replied, "It's OK, some people are getting their armbands upstairs."

"Ummm, yeah, that's the ticket. I'll be getting my armband upstairs."

And into the elevator I stepped, along with a grinning female law enforcement officer who got out on Floor 2.

As the doors closed, she offered a piece of advice: "Just act like you belong there."

When I hit the carpet upstairs, a handsome young woman, speaking to an older man in quite the checkered suit, looked at me quizzically.

I asked, "Where would I meet Jerry Crawford?"

"Oh, you're with Paddy O'Prado," the woman said.

Momentary silence.

"I am today."

"It's a big group," she said, nodding and fastening a pink armband around my right wrist. Cheerfully, she urged, "Follow me!"

And I did, though not until I had to pitch my giant souvenir drink container, still three-fourths full of lemonade, into the garbage, because, "We don't allow outside beverages on the Fourth Floor."

(Which says a little something about the social strata at a racetrack. In the Sky Suites, even the lemonade from general admission is an outsider.)

Now, clearly Jerry Crawford knew I was coming. He'd just hung up the phone from Sid and said it was OK. But all that's necessary to fulfill the meeting is a handshake and a "Thanks for droppin' by; see ya again sometime."

That's the furthest thing from what I got.

Crawford greeted me enthusiastically and the Donegal "family" was gracious toward the interloper. Jerry even wanted to make certain I didn't miss out on the Virginia Derby swag.

"Be sure to get a (souvenir) clock," he told me.

I was included in the pre-first-post handicapping "round-table," where all the parties who fancied themselves horseplayers shared who they liked in each race. And I was at the Donegal Racing tables for the buffet, where I met, among other entertaining folks, Cody and Rebekah Durr from South Carolina. Cody, a former race-rider whose growth spurt took him out of competition, broke Paddy O'Prado on a training farm in the Palmetto State. In a sense, though the colt surely would've been prepped somewhere, Paddy wouldn't be where he is today without Cody, and the Durrs have been welcomed into the Donegal fold accordingly. (Cody, just 27, is also a recent winning owner at Charles Town.)

The afternoon was, in short, a blast. Even before the big race. And despite a tragic accident that decapitated one of the suite's occupants, a foot-tall fellow named Ken, who lost his head when his young female companion's even younger brother sort of yanked it off.

A goodly number of suite-dwellers took a shot at repairing Ken, but it's far more easily conceived than consummated. I eventually concluded that the hard-plastic torso is pieced together, front and back, at the last stage of assembly. So the rubbery noggin can be extracted by force, but putting it back is a different story. ... And I tried my hand at it, for as long as anybody. (Who can resist wanting to be a little girl's hero?)

But even with the help of Sarah -- the funniest, friendliest, bestest bartender at Colonial Downs -- it was not to be. And believe me, we tried everything.

"I wonder if we greased the head, if it'd go in easier," Sarah said. "Maybe with butter or oil."

I let those words linger in the air a moment before responding.

"I don't think it'll help, Sarah. But I'll absolutely butter a Ken doll with you."

Sarah reached for the walkie-talkie she uses to call for restocks of ice, liquor and mixers: "Can we get some olive oil in Suite 10?"

It was on the bar within minutes, in a small ceramic bowl. I dipped Ken's head.

"Wait," Sarah said, "I don't think we should risk messing up his outfit. Give him here; I'll undress him."

Sid Fernando had already informed our mutual "tweeps" that I'd reported I was taking part in the "Paddy Party." Now I whipped out the phone and tweeted: "And it ain't a party until the pretty brunette bartender has gotten a guy naked and dipped in olive oil."

Our Twitter circle was, well, atwitter.

Now, this sort of activity tends to draw a curious crowd. Even if it's just a doll. And not merely within the suite, but passersby from the hallway. An ever-changing, but chuckling, spectator section formed.

Nodding toward Sarah behind the bar, I quipped: "Imagine what I'm gonna have to tip this young lady now that I've got her gettin' guys all naked and oiled up."

Lubrication was no help. Getting the head over the plastic neck stub wasn't the problem. Getting that assembly back inside the torso without the head popping back off was the rub. I finally gave up, much to the shame of my family name. (I think "Craven," among a few unflattering things, must mean, "Nothing's ever broken that we don't think we can fix, although we might wait until it's completely nonfunctional to try.")

About that time, I briefly met Dale Romans, as well, fresh off a victory with Z Appeal in the Chenery Stakes for owner Frank L. Jones Jr. And a fine fellow Romans seems to be. I tweeted about that, too, albeit noting that Dale Romans wasn't the naked, oily guy.

At this point, you might be wondering whether I even remembered I was at the racetrack. On a big day of racing. Absolutely. I took time out to lose money on almost every contest. I lost when I picked horses without consulting anyone else. I lost when I asked other handicappers who they liked. I lost even when Sarah did her best to give me a $41.60 winner, Winslet in the Tippett Stakes, from behind the bar. ("I just pick by the names," Sarah said. That didn't instill confidence. She refused afterward to pick me another.)

OK, I won a few. I recouped some bucks here and there on my notorious short-price favorites. And a couple of longer-shots who managed to show, though I'd have scored much better had they placed.

And, yeah, I had a small wager on the 7-horse in the 12th. More about that in a minute.

As the Virginia Derby approached, the Donegal suite cleared out. I mean, like the day was over. They were all headed to the paddock for the saddling. And why not? It's a big part of the pomp and circumstance. I'd considered not going to the paddock, thinking perhaps I shouldn't risk wearing out my welcome. But when there was nobody left behind, except me, I hustled off to catch up.

It's an interesting walk, following the conga line to the paddock as spectators whisper, "That's Paddy O'Prado's people!" Especially knowing you so don't belong. And the paddock area itself was surprisingly big enough for everyone -- not just us, but, of course, the connections and entourages of each entry in the seven-horse field. (Formulaforsuccess was a scratch.)

The day's gray skies began to sprinkle, but nobody's enthusiasm was doused. Horses were saddled. Jockeys were legged-up, including Kent Desormeaux aboard the eventual 3/5 favorite, Paddy O'Prado. Digital cameras and camera phones were pointed every which way, snapping shots of the horses, trainers and riders, and of course capturing the faces of the connections, family and friends, with the saddling and the grandstand as backdrops. Even cell-phone video of Miss Virginia Caitlin Uze answering that her choice for the race was Two Notch Road, "because he's the only Virginia horse."

Soon, the post parade headed toward the main track, which is virtually unused these days at Colonial except for training, as all races are carded on the spectacular Secretariat Turf Course. Then the conga lines returned to the grandstand, where we clambered up one flight of stairs to a second-floor mezzanine to stand and watch the race.

But first, time to stop at an automated teller and place my bets.

Apart from Paddy, who I thought was by far the class of the race, I liked the 2, Krypton, second-best. I bet him to place and show, decided to safeguard my unemployed-guy dollars a bit rather than keying Paddy over Krypton and Interactif for a 7-2/3, 7-3/2 trifecta ticket (that eventually would've made me almost $2,000 had I let everything in my pocket ride), and turned to leave the teller.

Honestly, I wouldn't normally bet any horse at 3/5; not willfully. (As it happens, plenty of my 3/1 horses end up 3/5 after the late money comes in.) Since I wasn't on the hottest of streaks, I actually considered the possibility that even $2 on Paddy's nose might be enough to jinx the colt. And with me standing behind almost every person who owns, knows and loves him.

Then I reconsidered and returned to the auto-teller. What kind of ingrate would I be if I didn't have money on the horse whose connections had treated me so graciously? To win, of course.

Now I could return to the group without guilt.

The field broke and passed the grandstand for the first time. And, at this point semi-addicted, I tweeted that I liked where Paddy and Krypton had settled in the pack. Two Notch Road held the lead for much of the race, as he did in the Turf Cup, but would surrender it and fade to fourth as I projected. Still, a win was no sure thing for Paddy. As the field turned for home, I wasn't certain he'd have room to get through.

Desormeaux made sure that he did.

The hall-of-famer and his horse had saved ground all the way around, and moved up some along the rail before the door seemed to go shut. But Desormeaux angled Paddy out just enough to split horses at about the three-eighths pole, then took him right back to the rail, where Paddy really hit high gear. The galloping gray powered home in front of Interactif by a length and a half, to a rising din of celebratory shouts and shrieks from the Donegal delegation.

The Paddy Pack quickly moved down the stairs and toward the winner's circle. Crawford dashed ahead, prompting me to tell someone who'd joined us in the paddock that not only would I rather not have to race his horse right now if I were an owner, I'm pretty sure I'd rather not have to race Jerry.

"He has a ton of early speed," I cracked.

At the winner's circle, the gate kept closing, then opening to let more people inside. A voice in the crowd observed, "There sure are a lot of 'em." And there were. Not just the usual Donegal partners and pals, but me (hey, if you're gonna be a hanger-on, then cling for dear life) and a growing cadre of friends and supporters.

It was one crowded win-photo in the making.

I looked to my right, where Miss Virginia stood at my side, pinned against the brick wall and invisible to the photographer. Smiling, Miss Uze said, "I was asked to be here, they probably want to see me," and politely squeezed her way past me to get out and around to the front. Later, she would be goaded into kissing Desormeaux over the Virginia Derby's silver trophy, and Crawford was heard asking, "Can you say 'Breeders' Cup?'"

Back to the suite we went, but the Paddy Party wasn't long for Colonial Downs. Reservations had been made at a Richmond restaurant within the hour, and it's a 40-minute drive back to the city. So, after granting an interview by cell phone, Crawford gave his crew the directions to dinner and bade me farewell.

My day didn't exactly end there, but this novella of a blog post probably should. I will say that on my way out, I struck up a conversation with one of the people from that Paddy win-photo; a gentleman who was waiting outside for his friend to call a cab that, they learned, would take some 35 minutes to reach the track from Richmond.

And soon, I was clearing out the front seat of the old Dodge Ram to give Jack Stewart of Louisville's Lichtefeld & Stewart Racing, and his buddy, a ride back to their Richmond International Airport hotel.

Every day should be like this.

And apart from the loudmouthed, naked-doll-oiling party-crasher, I'm pretty sure Paddy and Donegal Racing would agree.

Good luck, Glory

From my perspective, there was only one negative to come out of Saturday at Colonial Downs, but it's indeed a sad note. Prepare The Way, a 3-year-old filly owned by Gordon and Lisa Calhoun and trained by Sarah Warmack, whose Hilltop Farm boards my mares and foals, cracked a sesamoid in Race 1. The latest word is that she's doing as well as can be hoped, but would be retired from racing. Good luck to "Glory" and her connections, who love her almost like their own daughters.

Correction: Macalester College is located in St. Paul, Minn. I apologize for the error.


  1. Yes.... I read the whole thing. I thought the scrolling would never end. Just kidding... I couldn't stop reading. Great story and a great adventure... now that's a Day at the Races!

  2. Is this over yet??

  3. Not unless you feel sufficiently tortured. Should I hold you down and keep dripping the water?

  4. Boy, it sounded like you had a great time. Great read on a great time.


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