During the days before and the moments after the race, George Steinbrenner was surprisingly quiet about this very good race horse he owns named Bellamy Road. He shied away from most interviews and didn't even attend the Wood Memorial, where Bellamy Road turned in a freakishly brilliant performance. What would be better, winning another World Series or his first Kentucky Derby? Every media member who asked that question received the same limp answer from publicist Howard Rubenstein:
"They'd be equal," Rubenstein said after getting the word right from George's mouth.
Equal? Come on.
The Yankees have won the World Series six times since Steinbrenner purchased the team. While winning a world championship could never get old, he has been there and done that so many times that the thrill can't quite possibly be what it was back in 1977 when the pinstripers gave George his first world championship.
Besides, one of only 30 major league teams can win a World Series , something that is a lot easier for the Yankees to accomplish than some team with a $40 million payroll. In 2002, when Bellamy Road was born, there were 32,827 registered foals. Only one, of course, can win the Kentucky Derby.
Nearly six months before Steinbrenner won his first World Series, The Boss ran his first horse in the Kentucky Derby. His name was Steve's Friend and he was no match for Seattle Slew. He ran fifth. Yet, that was the closest Steinbrenner ever got. From there, it was one dud after another. His 1985 Wood Memorial winner Eternal Prince was his only serious threat in the race, but he lost all chance when breaking well behind the field. He finished 12th. Since, Steinbrenner has finished ninth with Diligence in 1996; ninth with Concerto in 1997 and 11th with Blue Burner in 2002.
He has not come close to emulating the feat of the late John W. Galbreath. He owned two Kentucky Derby winners (Chateugay in 1963 and Proud Clarion in 1967) and his Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1960, 71 and 79. Galbreath also won the English Derby with Roberto, a horse he named after Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente.
It's understood that George cares more about baseball than horse racing. That's evident every time he shells out another seven-figure contract for a ballplayer. By contrast, he's a miser when it comes to the horses. He breeds much of his own racing stock and has never been a big spender at the sales. Bellamy Road was bought for $87,000. That's roughly what A Rod gets for every two at-bats.
Still, he loves to win, whether it's baseball, horses or horse shoes.
"He's a great guy and one of the toughest competitors I have ever met," trainer Nick Zito said.
Red Sox fans may dispute the former, but everyone will agree on the latter. With his intense hatred of losing, it can't be fun for a guy like Steinbrenner to watch one Derby starter after another fail. And with him nearing his 75th birthday, who knows how many more Derby opportunities Steinbrenner will get. This may be his last chance. It's certainly his best chance.
Bellamy Road's 17 1/2-length victory in the Wood Memorial was that rare performance so special and astonishing that it all but took your breathe away. Perhaps the competition wasn't the very best, but these were legitimate stakes horses he was running against. The field bore no resemblance to the weak allowance group at Gulfstream he destroyed in his first start of the year.
"He might be a special horse," Zito said afterward.
From his home in Tampa, Steinbrenner watched the Wood Memorial on television with his son Hank, who runs the family's racing operation.
"He's ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic," Steinbrenner's daughter Jessica said from the Aqueduct winner's circle after fielding a phone call from her father. "You could compare it to winning the World Series, being right up there with it."
For whatever reason, the family Steinbrenner doesn't want anyone to think that the Derby is bigger or better than the World Series. Maybe they even believe it themselves. But just wait. Watch George get caught up in the moment when they play "My Old Kentucky Home" and Bellamy Road trots on to the track. Good luck holding back the tears. Watch George cheer madly when Bellamy Road turns into the stretch and launches into a stretch battle with the other serious contenders. Good luck trying to act composed.
If Bellamy Road runs as well in the Kentucky Derby as he did in the Wood Memorial it's hard to imagine him losing. Steinbrenner is that close to an accomplishment that is as special, if not more special, than anything in sports. If he doesn't get that now, he will.