LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Don Little Jr. was standing outside Barn 31 at Churchill Downs as the sun was coming up Thursday morning. The iconic twin spires loomed beyond. His horse was being saddled for the morning workout, the other contenders were clip-clopping nearby, and Little was helping interviewers locate his hometown of Ipswich, Mass. “Famous for clams,” he told them.
Little has been here before as a spectator but that didn’t prepare him for returning as an owner of a contender in the most renowned of all American races. “This is otherworldly,” he observed as Wicked Strong was preparing for Saturday’s 140th Kentucky Derby as the second favorite (8-1) to California Chrome (5-2) after Hoppertunity (6-1) was scratched. “This is the Super Bowl. These horses are never going to see this again. The electricity here is unbelievable.”
Centennial Farms, the equine entity based in Beverly, Mass., that his father and a few Wall Street pals founded in 1982, has been sending entries to the post for more than three decades but never for the “Run for the Roses” and the $2 million purse that comes with it. Nor has Wicked Strong’s trainer, Jimmy Jerkens, son of legendary trainer Allen Jerkens. “Both of us are breaking our maidens in the same race,” cracked Little.
Not that he’s a Triple Crown rookie — Centennial’s Colonial Affair won the Belmont in 1993. But the Derby is the Derby and it’s not just because of the juleps. “This is the jewel of the Triple Crown,” said Little. “Even when you have a Triple Crown contender going into the Belmont you’re not going to have 160,000 people there. This is more the social event, the ultimate party, the place to be. It brings out the celebrities, it brings out the professional sports athletes, but the neatest thing about it is they’re not the focus of attention. It’s these guys [the thoroughbreds]. It’s a special day and it’ll be remembered.”
Little was an onlooker when he was here a decade ago, sitting in a corporate box at the first turn. “Seeing that group of 20 horses coming straight at you before they hit that turn and the thunder of the hooves, it was awe-inspiring,” he recalled. “It gave you chills. There’s nothing like it.”
Little has been around and atop quadrupeds ever since he was old enough to walk. His grandmother rode steeplechase. His father, who was a polo player, owned his first horse when he was 16, and Little himself played professionally in South America and Europe.
So going to yearling sales, conferring with veterinarians and trainers and jockeys, and hanging around barns and paddocks is much more about DNA than duty for him. “To be involved in something you love, it’s really not work,” Little observed. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Thoroughbred racing’s beauty is enthralling but expensive. The sport of kings can require a king’s ransom, which is why Centennial creates syndicates to share the investment. Little’s father, who died at 77 in a Florida equestrian accident two years ago, was a longtime investment manager who made clear to prospective partners that they were not buying a blue-chip stock. His son does the same.
“Be up front, tell it like it is, don’t sugarcoat anything,” said Little. “Do the right thing. Be honest with the expectations. This is a risk investment. When you write that first check, the likelihood of seeing anything is minimal.”
The great adventure begins in the breeding shed and takes the road that it will. “What we tell people is, we’re buying the type of horse that can give you a chance to get there, and we’ve been there,” said Little. “We haven’t been here but we’ve been to big races.”
The odds of a colt even getting to the gate for a Triple Crown event are daunting and once the bell rings it’s a lottery. In the same race that Colonial Affair won, favored Prairie Bayou shattered a front leg and had to be put down. In 2005, when Centennial returned to Belmont with another contender in Reverberate, the horse broke horribly and came 10th.
Past performance, as brokers warn investors, is no guarantee of future results. So it has been with Wicked Strong, who followed an encouraging outing at the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct with a ninth-place groaner at the Holy Bull at Gulfstream and then a fourth in an allowance race there, then returned to Aqueduct last month and ran down the field in the Wood Memorial and earned a Derby ticket. “Since he crossed the line it’s been nonstop,” said Little. “The eight hours of sleep a night are long gone.”
Wednesday’s draw, with the Secretariat Lounge wall-to-wall with owners and trainers and guests and media, was Little’s first inside glimpse of the week’s high-octane hubbub. When Wicked Strong drew the 20th post position, which is closer to Rowley than it is the rail, Little was sanguine. “We were hoping for No. 9,” he said, “but what are you going to do?”
There was a time when an unfavorable pull would have made him a wreck, Little acknowledged. But the loss of his father and the recent death of his sister to breast cancer and his own rehab experience have changed how he views this most unpredictable of pursuits.
“I had some personal tragedies with my family,” he said. “I’ve now been sober for three years. Part of the rehab process is not worrying about things you can’t control. That’s been very helpful in this business.”
The advice he takes is the same advice he gives Centennial investors: “You’re going to have a good time. Have fun with it.” The 28 investors in the three-horse Wicked Strong partnership, 20 of whom are racing newbies, began settling in at Lexington on Thursday. There will be a farm tour and a group dinner on Friday and a Saturday morning bus trip to the track, where Little will view the Derby from a vantage point that his father never got to enjoy. “I know it’s going to be emotional,” he said. “Everybody has said that. So I think there’s going to be a couple of tears in the eye.”
Donald Little the elder liked to say that horse racing is a “game of hopes and dreams.” After three decades and more at Centennial Farms, they finally came together in a horse with a Boston accent. “We are providing the ultimate hopes and dreams right here,” Don Little Jr. said.