Holiday celebration at Fair Grounds?

As a youngster, Jack Wolf frequently accompanied his mother to Miles Park, a small-time racetrack that long ago disappeared but where in the best of years the showcase event was the Junior Derby. It was obviously intended to echo, however faintly, a much more significant race at nearby Churchill Downs.

For Wolf, as for any kid growing up in Derby Town, the most popular sports stars of the time included Northern Dancer, Carry Back and Bill Hartack and the most admired coaches Henry Forrest, "Boo" Gentry and Horatio Luro. Wolf graduated from St. Xavier High School in Louisville and then played football at Murray State in southwestern Kentucky, where he also earned a master's degree in economics.

We know you have to have everything go your way to win this thing [the Derby]. From that standpoint, you have to have a horse who's extremely talented and you have to have luck.

-- Jack Wolf, Intense Holiday owner

It seemed only right and natural, then, that years later, after a stint on Wall St., when he retired from the world of high finance and hedge funds and decided to return to his roots, this Kentuckian would buy some racehorses. And it was equally natural, even predictable, that he would fixate on the Kentucky Derby.

Ironically, though, now that he's no longer fixated on the Derby, he might have his best chance to win it, or certainly his best chance since he and his wife, Laurie, began it all with Harlan's Holiday. And appropriately enough, it's with a son of Harlan's Holiday, Intense Holiday, who's the 2-1 favorite in Saturday's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.

"I guess when I got started that was all I cared about," Wolf said, referring to the Kentucky Derby and looking back to 2000, when he and Laurie jumped into the middle of things. Their splash was prodigious. Among their first purchases was Harlan's Holiday.

He won the Florida Derby and Blue Grass on his way to Kentucky, where he finished seventh as the 6-1 favorite in a wide-open Derby. When he was retired the following the year, he had won eight stakes and amassed $3,632,664 in earnings.

Immediate success can be a blessing, but can become a curse. A person who hits a home run in his first at-bat can become an easy strikeout forever after if he regards himself as a slugger who must always swing for the fences. Wolf took a different approach, although still with an eye on the fences. Cautious and conservative by nature, he quickly realized that the only way to sustain the initial success he and his wife enjoyed would be to spread the risk, swing for success and hope for the fences. And so their Starlight Racing evolved into a partnership.

In the financial world, managing risk is essential to success. And that's where Wolf excelled. Risk is also inherent in horse racing, of course, and there are many similarities, he said, between the stock market and the racetrack. But ultimately, Wolf said, "it's easier to control the variables and manage the risk in the equities market." In horse racing, there are more pitfalls, more vagaries; there's simply more risk. And so unless your resources are virtually limitless, you need to spread that risk if you're going to endure.

"We've been in it now for a considerable time, and we've been educated," said Wolf, who was instrumental in the creation of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. "We know you have to have everything go your way to win this thing [the Derby]. From that standpoint, you have to have a horse who's extremely talented and you have to have luck."

And so rather than focusing on the Derby, as he once did, Wolf and his partners have focused on acquiring horses that possess the potential and promise of succeeding at a high level. In the case of Intense Holiday, that success just might come in Saturday's Louisiana Derby and perhaps even in the spring classics.

Barbara and Donald Lucarelli of New York were among the early Starlight partners. And they have become principals, along with the Wolfs. Frank Brothers, who trained such standouts as Pulpit, Arch, First Samurai and Hansel, selects the yearlings for purchase. And Todd Pletcher is Starlight's principal trainer.

The team has changed slightly over the years, with the Wolfs and phenomenal success being constants. Starlight, which includes 10 partners, generally purchases about 10 prospects a year, eight being the fewest and 12 the most. The Wolfs and Lucarellis put up their money just like everybody else in the deal, and all the partners share in all the horses purchased.

For the most part, Starlight buys yearlings in the $150,000 to $250,000 range, the average price over the years being less than $200,000. And from these purchases, they've had two champions, Shanghai Bobby and Ashado, as well as such standouts as Algorithms, Octave, Purge, Monba, Keyed Entry, Take The Points and Hilda's Passion. Starlight horses have won at least two stakes each year since 2001, 58 in all, and have earned nearly $20 million in purses.

"When you ring the bell," Wolf said, alluding to the New York Stock Exchange, "is when you have a stallion prospect or a broodmare prospect." Starlight purchased Ashado for $170,000, she earned $3,931,440 and then sold for $9 million. That's a bell-ringer.

"The partners we have understand the ups and downs of the sport," Wolf said, "and they're fun to be with. We've been lucky. You can have the best laid plans, but if you don't have the luck factor with you, you're not going to get it done."

But the continuity of success and the progression of stakes winners argue that much more than luck is involved. Business acumen and horsemanship and perhaps even intuitive expertise are important to the success, too. Brothers, Wolf said, has an "amazing hit ratio and a wonderful eye." He has, in other words, the sort of prescience that comes only to a few and to them only after a lifetime of working with horses.

"I thought our boat was full," Brothers said, recalling the purchase of Intense Holiday at the Keeneland September Sale two years ago. Starlight on the previous day had purchased its final yearling, filling the allotment. Still at the sale, Brothers and Wolf weren't looking for another prospect; they were just looking. And then hip no. 856 stepped into the ring.

"He was exceptional looking," Brothers said. "He had the pedigree, and he looked like he would go on. He just checked all the boxes … But we kind of had to fight for him. I don't think we would have gone to 400 thousand."

They bought the handsome son of Harlan's Holiday for $380,000. Intense Holiday was the most expensive purchase and the last.

A relatively late foal, actually born on April 20, Intense Holiday began his career modestly enough, with a fifth at Monmouth Park followed by a victory when he stretched out to a mile. He then strung together some solid, if unspectacular efforts in stakes races. But for the most part, he gave performances that, Pletcher said, were actually better than they might have seemed. In the Remsen, for example, Intense Holiday finished fourth, less than three lengths behind the winner, Honor Code. But Intense Holiday actually finished strongest of all, running the final three-eighths of a mile in about 35 seconds. But because of the soporific pace (52.74 for the opening half-mile), his rally didn't enable him to threaten. And in the Holy Bull, where he finished third, Intense Holiday began from post position no. 11 and raced wide throughout on a speed-favoring track.

He's worked well and galloped strongly, indicating to us that he's actually improved since the Risen Star.

-- Jack Wolf, Intense Holiday owner

But in the Risen Star Stakes, where he could take advantage of the Fair Grounds' long stretch, it was as if he matured and figured the game out, as if he found his best stride and his purpose concurrently, in the same moment, ultimately getting up in the final jump to win by a nose and then galloping out strongly as if overflowing with energy or, for a more fanciful read, relishing the feel of victory. Since then, Pletcher said, Intense Holiday has trained sharply, even tossing in a bullet (48 seconds at Palm Meadows in Florida on March 15), or the fastest workout of the morning, for the first time in his career.

"The works not only look good on paper," Pletcher said, "but they've looked good on the track. He's worked well and galloped strongly, indicating to us that he's actually improved since the Risen Star."

A late foal who's improving, who has talent and stamina and who's reaching his peak at the right moment, Intense Holiday could roll into these most important of races, these upcoming classics, as an extremely dangerous horse. As Wolf said, he has more going for him at this point, in terms of Derby possibilities, than any horse the Starlight partners have ever had. He also has all that business acumen and horsemanship and intuitive expertise going for him, as well as the momentum of many years of success. But he'll still need to enlist that luck factor on his team, as they always do, on the first Saturday in May. Then again, if, as some say, luck is the result of hard work and intelligent planning, then luck's already a Starlight partner, the silent partner who's waiting perhaps for May 3 to speak up.