Carter Stewart never dreamt of winning the Travers. Then again, it's a little hard to dream about winning a race you've never heard of.
Yes, Carter Stewart and his partner Ken Schlenker were such racing neophytes that only a week or so before their Golden Ticket finished in a dead-heat win with Alpha in the Travers they didn't even know there was such a thing as the Travers. On Saturday, they'll tackle Alpha again in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing.
This is one of those things that can only happen in horse racing. Two friends get together, pool a relatively modest amount of money, hire the right trainer and advisor in Kenny McPeek and, well, get lucky. That's how they won the Travers, winning right alongside Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin stable, the most powerful racing outfit in the world.
"Nobody told me how difficult this sport was supposed to be," Stewart said. "We always kept a positive attitude and figured if someone else could do it we could do it. We saw the guy from New Mexico take his horse [Mine That Bird] to the Kentucky Derby and win. We've seen that happen a lot, especially in the Derby. It's not always the big boys that win it. There was that syndicate from New York [with Funny Cide], with the bunch of buddies from a little town. It seems like luck shines on small people and the more obscure. That's what we are."
Stewart and Schenkler are in the oil business and come from Billings, Montana. Their stable is called Magic City Thoroughbred Partners. Magic City is Billings' nickname. They had owned a few cheap horses together that raced at a now defunct track in Montana, but never paid much attention to top-level racing.
They began to think bigger after attending the Derby as fans, wondering if it were possible for them to play at that level. They got together with a bloodstock agent named Dan Fuchs and he introduced them to McPeek. At the 2011 Keeneland 2-year-old sale, they bought Golden Ticket for $100,000 and a horse named Unbridled Minister for $150,000. With just two horses, the odds of winning anything were long. The odds of winning the Travers were astronomical.
Of the two, Stewart was the most optimistic. Schenkler warned him that this could become a costly hobby.
"I told Carter, 'Don't get sucked up into this horse racing business,'" he said. "He said, 'Don't worry about me, I'm smarter than that.'"
But get sucked up is exactly what they did.
Of the two horses, Unbridled Minister appeared to be the better prospect and when he won a maiden race in January at Gulfstream as a first time starter the partners were beyond hooked.
"We went to Gulfstream and saw that these horses are gladiators," Schenkler said. "We were ecstatic."
Unbridled Minister would go to the sidelines with an injury, but Golden Ticket began to prosper. He finished second in the Tampa Bay Derby, but a fifth place finish in the Lexington knocked him off the Kentucky Derby trail. On Derby Day, he finished second in an allowance race at Churchill.
After that, McPeek gave the colt some time off and then began to hunt for a comeback race. He wanted an allowance race, but none would fill. Sensing that the horse needed a race and that the Travers was coming up weak, he thought, "why not?" But first he had to ask the owners' permission to run. They were fine with the idea, but Stewart had at least one question: "What's the Travers?"
"No, I didn't know what that race was," he said "But I was excited to come and find out what it was all about."
Everything went Golden Ticket's way that day. The 3-year-old group had been decimated by injuries and Alpha was the only thing close to a marquee horse in the field. With David Cohen aboard, Golden Ticket had a perfect rail-hugging trip and was game enough in the stretch to get to the wire at the exact same moment Alpha did.
In the rematch, Alpha figures to be heavily favored over his rival. That's fine with his owners.
"Alpha's a great horse and I think we have a great horse, too," Stewart said. "I hope we can beat him this time, and I think we can. Horses don't know who the favorite is when they put them in the starting gate."
Stewart and Schenkler have been told by many that the game isn't supposed to be this easy, but nothing is going to sap their optimism. They have been adding to their stable, which now numbers 15, and just bought a $190,000 yearling filly at Keeneland. They hope to breed her to Golden Ticket someday.
But first there's the Pennsylvania Derby. After that, maybe they'll be in the Breeders' Cup Classic. By the way, in case they are wondering, that's a pretty big race run at a place called Santa Anita, which is in California.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.