Derby contender connects small town, big corporation
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bill Simon has been to the Kentucky Derby before, and vowed not to return.
The former president and CEO of retail giant Walmart, Simon appreciated the pageantry and spectacle of his past Derby trip, but acknowledged it was a bucket list item he could check off and move on from.
“I’m not coming again unless I’m in the Derby,” Simon said.
Well, the giddiness in Simon’s voice during a video call with reporters last week hinted at his change of heart.
Simon will stride into Churchill Downs on Saturday as the owner of Barber Road, a long shot in post position No. 14 for the Kentucky Derby.
Barber Road hasn’t won since a starter allowance race last November — also at Churchill Downs — and ran third in the Rebel Stakes and second in the Arkansas Derby, both at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Simon, jockey Reylu Gutierrez and trainer John Ortiz will all be making their Derby debuts with the horse.
Simon thought about playing it cool as the owner of a Kentucky Derby horse, potentially not showing up to Churchill Downs until mid-afternoon on Saturday.
Then he thought again. “No, that’s not going to happen. I’m like a caged tiger right now,” Simon said. “By the time (9 a.m.) on Saturday rolls around, I’m sure we’ll be headed to the track.”
‘A very chill horse’
Ortiz thought the end was near.
He went out on his own as a trainer in November 2016, and can easily recall the early struggles.
Ortiz remembers being given 12 stalls to fill at Oaklawn Park, only to bring just seven horses to the track.
“I was looking around like, ‘Man, this isn’t going to work,’” Ortiz, 36, told reporters during a video call last week.
But as Ortiz began to ponder a return to being an assistant trainer, bloodstock agent Jared Hughes got him in touch with Simon, who was looking for a trainer.
Ortiz — born in Colombia to his father, Carlos, who was a jockey there before moving his family to the U.S. to race — has Derby Day experience at Churchill Downs as part of the undercard, but never in the main race.
“I’m just sitting there back at the barn looking at this horse and he has no clue what’s about to happen,” Ortiz said of Barber Road. “He’s happy. He is sound. He is animated. He is himself, and proud of himself.
. . . He’s a great horse, feeling great and feeling confident.”
Ortiz was 20 years old when he galloped for legendary trainer Bill Mott at the Breeders’ Cup, and Ortiz said he’s been told to stop, relax, look around and enjoy all the moments that come with having a horse in the Derby.
“I’ve got to do my job every morning, that hasn’t changed. The horse is training the same way, that hasn’t changed . . . . Everything’s the same. The only thing that’s different is it’s a name, a Kentucky Derby race,” Ortiz explained. “I’m confident in my horse. I’m confident in myself, more so now that I’ve had Barber Road take the edge off me. He’s my leader right now. He’s my emotional support horse.”
As for Barber Road himself, Ortiz draws parallels between Oaklawn Park — where Barber
Road has run half of his eight career races — and Churchill Downs.
Both venues feature a small paddock that sits below the crowd, with an echoey, loud noise that reverberates.
“Nothing bothers him, this is part of his character. He doesn’t get wound up,” Ortiz said. “I think the crowd for him is going to be a piece of cake. He’s a very chill horse.”
‘An active engagement for our family’
Let’s backtrack for a second, and explain why the former boss of Walmart owns Barber Road.
Simon served as president and CEO of Walmart U.S. from 2010 to 2014, and began his involvement in horse racing by buying into a horse with friends in 2017.
As his wife, Tammy, fell in love with horses, Simon fell in love with the math and numbers behind the sport.
Simon’s youngest son recently graduated from Baylor University — where Simon is a part-time lecturer and a member of the Baylor University Board of Regents — and works in the horse racing industry himself.
“We didn’t want to be investors in this. If you’re going to be an investor in horse racing, you probably ought to not because there’s better places to invest your money,” Simon said. “We wanted it to be an active business, an active engagement for our family.”
This hope for a familial atmosphere is also what convinced Simon to retain Ortiz as a trainer.
“He’s open and he’s willing to teach,” Simon said of Ortiz. “We didn’t know much, still don’t know much, about the game, and having somebody like Johnny sort of show us, welcome us and be our guide through the whole thing was really critical.”
The idea of family even extends to the naming, and now the celebration, of Barber Road.
The horse is named for a street in Lenoir County, North Carolina, a rural area in the eastern part of the state where Tammy grew up.
On Saturday for the Derby, the small farming community of Seven Springs will host a watch party at the farm Tammy grew up on.
Simon — who had never owned a horse that earned a Kentucky Derby qualifying point before Barber Road — anticipates up to 100 people will gather under a tent on the farm to watch Barber Road run, from Barber Road itself.
“His success has been something, but it’s really sort of created a rally in this community,” Simon said. “This small, little rural community is made up of a lot of her family and friends and people from their church. It’s been so cool to see everybody get excited about it.”
The other key member of the Barber Road team is Gutierrez, a 25-year-old jockey born in Rochester, New York, who graduated from SUNY Cortland with a degree in exercise science in 2017.
This is his first Kentucky Derby as well, and Gutierrez has ridden Barber Road in his last two races, both Kentucky Derby prep events at Oaklawn Park.
Why keep Gutierrez on the mount for Saturday?
“You dance with who you brought to the dance,”
Despite odds, will dreams come true?
Ortiz hopes this week’s opportunity can also be used as a showcase moment for a new, younger generation of trainers.
“Hopefully I’m inspiring or motivating other trainers to be thoughtful of their careers,” the 36-yearold Ortiz said. “I want them to succeed, because if I’m succeeding, then somebody’s going to call me (and ask), ‘Who’s the next young trainer?’”
“The industry is at a time, in my view, that it needs young people to be successful. It needs a new group of people to come and change,” Simon added. “There needs to be some hope and some future and some light and some excitement . . . . I think they’ve set the table for the next generation.”
So what chance does Barber Road have to make the wildest dreams of Gutierrez, Ortiz and Simon come true?
If you ask the oddsmakers, not a great one.
Following Monday afternoon’s post-position draw — Barber Road drew post position No. 14 — the morning-line odds installed Barber Road as a 30-1 shot, tied with several other horses at the longest odds to win the race.
But that doesn’t mean the emotion at 6:57 p.m. Saturday will be dampened for those in his camp.
“I’ve spoken in stadiums in front of 20,000 people and been to the White House and met presidents and tons of stuff like that, and I never got nervous, not once. They walk this horse out to the track and I start getting nervous,” Simon said.