The Breeders' Cup, through its first 29 runnings, has always been a dazzling showcase for some of the most famous and royally bred horses the sport has ever produced. Every now and then, though, a dose of everyday life spills into that magical kingdom when a horse like Tightend Touchdown comes around.
As recently as January, any licensed owner could have claimed Tightend Touchdown for $35,000. Owner Ron Lombardi and trainer Jason Servis did it -- twice. They first claimed him in August 2012 for $35,000 from owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Then, after losing him for $30,000 to trainer Linda Rice in December, they paid $35,000 on Jan. 27 at Aqueduct to get him back.
"Once we lost him, I started thinking about how good a horse he was and told Jason to get him back," Lombardi says.
Some nine months later, Lombardi's hunch about Tightend Touchdown has been rewarded with three wins and four seconds in seven starts for them -- none of them in a claimer -- and on Saturday they hope to script a heartwarming rags-to-riches tale when their ex-claimer races in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint on Santa Anita's downhill course.
"I'm in this game for the excitement," Lombardi says, "It's a chance of a lifetime for me to be in the Breeders' Cup with this horse."
Simply racing in the BC Turf Sprint comes at a steep price for Lombardi as he paid a $100,000 supplemental nomination fee just to enter Tightend Touchdown in the race. Yet even as Lombardi does the math, he likes how it's all adding up for him, Servis and his horse.
"I claimed Tightend Touchdown for $35,000, and now I'm paying $100,000. That's $135,000, and some people pay a lot more than $135,000 for a horse and never get to run him in the Breeders' Cup, so I have no qualms about spending the money and running him. "
Given that Tightend Touchdown is listed at 12-1 in the morning line, it would seem Lombardi and Servis are chasing a pie-in-sky dream in tackling a field that includes 2012 BC Turf Sprint winner Mizdirection. Yet they have been beating the odds on a regular basis, using an effective blend of the skills of a trainer with an excellent track for improving a horse and the daring of an owner willing to take a chance few might. Servis' skill with horses should not come as much of a surprise. He's the older brother of John Servis, who trained 2004 Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner Smarty Jones, and -- and learned a great deal about what makes a horse tick while working as a jockey and exercise rider for roughly a decade.
"What you find sometimes is that there's not that big of a difference between a stakes horse and a top-end claimer," Servis says. "With some horses if you give them time, work with them, give them time to cool down their legs and deal with inflammation, they'll improve for you.
""We always liked Tightend Touchdown. When we lost him, Ron said to get him if they ran him in a claimer and thankfully they did. I always thought he was best on turf so we protected him in the winter by keeping him out of claimers and once we got him on turf things snowballed to the point where we're in the Breeders' Cup -- and I have Ron to thank for that. I would have been happy running him [in a] starter allowance and winning those races. But he's more aggressive. He convinced me to run him in stakes and now here we are."
I claimed Tightend Touchdown for $35,000, and now I'm paying $100,000. That's $135,000, and some people pay a lot more than $135,000 for a horse and never get to run him in the Breeders' Cup." -- Ron Lombardi, owner Tightend Touchdown
Reaching the Breeders' Cup seems an appropriate reward for the perseverance of Lombardi, who just as easily could have bid farewell to racing after the tragedy that befell his first horse. That runner, who was named Mr. Amore, had spent several months in 2006 training for his first start. Everything was going along well. Then one morning, during a workout, Mr. Amore tried to mount another horse, fell off and suffered a fatal injury.
Lombardi's next horse suffered a string of injuries that delayed her first start and before that happened his third horse broke down and was humanely destroyed.
Instead of giving up, the irrepressible owner kept moving forward and even re-named his stable in honor of Mr. Amore. To this day, Tightend Touchdown and Lombardi's other 40 horses in training carry the banner of Mr. Amore Stable.
"I liked the sound of name. It was catchy and I thought it would be a great way to honor Mr. Amore," Lombardi says.
The development of American Border into a graded stakes winner in 2008 was the payback for Lombardi's patience and encouraged him to become more involved in the sport.
The owner of the SportsCare medical centers, Lombardi and Servis now have four stakes in their barn, all of whom were acquired via claim.
Ribo Bobo also reflects the touch Servis and Lombardi have with claimers. He was claimed by Mr. Amore Stable on Jan. 9 for $8,000 at Gulfstream Park, then was lost for $6,250 after a winning effort on Feb. 21. On March 8, when Ribo Bobo raced again, they re-claimed him for $6,250 and have won six straight races with him, capped by a win in the $100,000 Maryland Million Spring Handicap on Oct. 19.
But for now, the stable's attention is focused on Tightend Touchdown, who comes into the Sprint off a solid second in the Grade 3 Turf Monster at Parx and figures to be involved in the fierce battle for the early lead. If he can hang on through the 6 1/2 furlongs is the key question.
"Tightend Touchdown is a very versatile horse," Servis says. "He ran the fastest opening half-mile on the dirt inner track at Aqueduct this winter. So I think the downhill part of the course and the crossover to the dirt track for a bit won't bother him. If he can bring his 'A' race, we'll be fine."
Fine, for sure. Whether or not Tightend Touchdown proves to be a claim for fame at Santa Anita, Lombardi and Servis will be reveling in their first experience as an owner and trainer at the Breeders' Cup.
And if things don't work out as planned on Saturday, well, there's always another claiming race around the corner.