Commentary

Texans owner eyes Travers win

Updated: August 22, 2012, 4:11 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Bob McNair understands all about big games. As the owner of the vastly improved Houston Texans, he knows there will be two or three such events that will make or break his team's season, that will decide whether the Texans are great or just pretty good.

His race horse, Street Life, will face that same sort of defining test on Saturday. For a horse that has shown talent and promise but has yet to win a graded stakes race, the Travers might just be his Super Bowl. It's time for him to step up.

"His race style has been come from behind and early on he lets himself get too far behind," McNair said. "There was just too much ground to make up. Now he's learning to stay a little bit closer. [Trainer] Chad Brown has been working on that and that's [the] reason why there has been some improvement. That's what he needs to do in the Travers. Apparently, he likes that track and he is a strong closer, so I think he'll make it a very exciting race."

McNair can still get pretty excited about a horse race, which says something about his passion for this sport. From 1994 through 2008, McNair and his wife, Janice, operated Stonerside Stable, one of the top breeding and racing operations in the sport. But McNair found that the demands of running both an NFL team and a huge racing operation were just too much and, in 2008, he sold the majority of the Stonerside assets to Sheik Mohammed's Darley operation.

"It was a very demanding operation," he said. "We had a lot of employees, we had 275 head of horses, a breeding farm, a training facility, a place in Saratoga Springs. It was a sizable operation and it took a lot of time and football takes a lot of time. I also have my investment business. It's hard to wear three hats and I had to cut one of them back and decided to cut back on horse racing. But I always enjoyed it; it's a great sport."

Since pulling the plug on Stonerside, McNair has maintained a small racing operation that races under the name of Magnolia Racing Stable and consists of seven horses. He owns Street Life in partnership with Hidden Brook Farm.

McNair will not be at the Travers. He will instead be in New Orleans watching the Texans play the Saints in a preseason game. That's a clear sign that football comes before racing, but one can hardly blame him. With the Texans, he is part of a wildly popular and successful sport. With Street Life, he has a hand in a sport that is on the decline and struggles to remain relevant. He believes part of the problem is that horse racing can never seem to produce stars, which has to be done to increase the fan base.

"If you don't have stars it reduces the level of interest," he said. "I'll give you an example. Right now in New York with [the] Jets they are talking about the controversy between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow all the time. It creates all kinds of conversation. The Jets are not going to be the best team in the league and those two players are not going to be the two best players. But they are viewed as stars and are recognizable, and that creates a lot of fan interest."

In the NFL we try to create stars, we don't handicap our stars.

-- Owner Bob McNair
He can't understand why racing penalizes its best horses by putting extra weight on them in handicap races.

"In the NFL we try to create stars," he said. "We don't handicap our stars. In horse racing we handicap our stars. We put more weight on our best horses to slow them down and as a result of that they don't win as many races and as a result of that they're not as big a star. As a result of that there's not as much fan interest. But it's being done to satisfy the gaming interests. The emphasis is on the wrong place. Do away with handicap races, especially if it's a graded stakes race."

Street Life probably doesn't have what it takes to be a major star. But he appears to be a horse whose best days are ahead of him. After finishing fourth in the Belmont Stakes, he came back to win the Curlin Stakes and won't need to improve much to win the Travers.

For an owner with just seven horses, and only four racing in the U.S., that would be quite an accomplishment. But McNair says he's not interested in getting back into racing on a large scale. He's happy having an NFL team and a handful of horses. Both provide him with plenty of excitement, particularly in these big games.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com