Ridge­field’s Derby-bound Spear­man rel­ish­ing life

The News-Times - - SPORTS - JEFF JA­COBS

Brian Spear­man pulled away from his Ridge­field home Thurs­day and headed for Louisville with Ken­tucky Derby hopes and not with­out a horse­man’s sense of hu­mor.

Gray Ma­gi­cian, the 3year-old gray colt Spear­man partly owns, has been made one of two 50-1 long­shots in the 145th run­ning of the sport’s greatest race.

“The good news,” Spear­man said, “is the horse doesn’t know he’s 50-1.

“He’s a big strong horse that can come off the pace and this mile and a quar­ter is not going to scare him. He’s a good closer. The real question will be how will he han­dle all this travel?”

Gray Ma­gi­cian fin­ished sec­ond in the UAE Derby in Dubai last month and picked up 40 points to push him to 18th in qual­i­fy­ing points and se­cure a po­si­tion among the 20 Derby entrants. The colt returned to Cal­i­for­nia and trained well for Peter Miller, and over the past week the green light was given to send him Louisville.

“Cal­i­for­nia to Dubai to Cal­i­for­nia to Ken­tucky, tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences, hu­mid­ity dif­fer­ences, dif­fer­ing train­ing sur­faces,” Spear­man said. “We think he’s a beast and ready to go. Time will tell. There’s a school of peo­ple who al­ways say it’s dif­fi­cult to come back from Dubai and do well in the Derby.”

This is the fourth Derby horse Spear­man has been in­volved with as part of

Eclipse Thor­ough­bred Part­ners. There was Danza, who ac­tor Tony Danza went to watch run, in 2014. Danza didn’t show “Who’s the Boss,” but he did show, fin­ish­ing third be­hind Cal­i­for­nia Chrome and Com­mand­ing Curve. There was Destin, sixth in 2016. And there was Tap­writ, sixth in 2017. Both would be part of in­cred­i­ble Belmont Stakes fin­ishes five weeks later.

“For me the Derby is like the Olympics,” Spear­man said. “If you get your horse to the starting gate, he’s an Olympian and you’re proud of him. You just don’t know if he’s a gold, sil­ver or bronze medal­ist un­til they all cross the wire.”

Spear­man, who re­tired as a long-time Pep­siCo ex­ec­u­tive in 2016, grew up in Saratoga Springs. He worked at the track as a kid. His dad worked as a Pinker­ton se­cu­rity guard dur­ing the Saratoga meet. He has been around the sport his entire life. Yet it wasn’t un­til a dozen years ago that he said he could find him­self in a po­si­tion in life to dab­ble in horse own­er­ship. That’s when he met Dog­wood Sta­ble’s Cot Camp­bell.

“He’s a leg­end in the in­dus­try,” Spear­man said of a man who passed away last Novem­ber at age 91. “He needed me at that stage of the game like a hole in the head. We just hit it off. He was syn­di­cat­ing less horses, but he let me par­tic­i­pate and gave me an un­be­liev­able ed­u­ca­tion in the sport. My love for the game grew.

“If the bug bites you in this sport, it’s very hard not to want to con­tinue to par­tic­i­pate. That’s what hap­pened with me. I’ll reach back to my Frito-Lay days and (the Lay’s Potato Chips ad), ‘Bet you can’t eat just one.’ Who gets to take their pas­sion as a sec­ond ca­reer and turn it into a busi­ness? No one, right? I’m ridicu­lously blessed.”

Gray Ma­gi­cian is coowned by Eclipse, Gary Barber and Wach­tel Sta­ble. Aron Well­man is the pres­i­dent and founder of Eclipse.

“Aron’s the ex­pert on our team and he’s out­stand­ing,” Spear­man said. “His orig­i­nal part­ners got out and a hand­ful of years ago, I joined him just as Eclipse was hit­ting its stride. We’ve just had a blast.”

The biggest blast came at the 2017 Belmont Stakes when Tap­writ ran down Ir­ish War Cry in the fi­nal stretch to win by two lengths.

The Belmont had brought Eclipse and Spear­man a heart-break­ing loss one year ear­lier. Cre­ator closed fu­ri­ously on the out­side to beat Destin by a nose in only the fourth photo fin­ish in Belmont his­tory.

“I get goose­bumps now think­ing about Tap­writ,” Spear­man said. “It was un­be­liev­able. I am a New

Yorker/Con­necti­cut guy. So to win the Triple Crown leg where you call home — Belmont and Saratoga are my home turf — in such an ex­cit­ing fash­ion and to have my wife and chil­dren there, it was crazy, a dream come true. There are peo­ple in this game 40 years and don’t get to win one of the clas­sics.

“And how spe­cial was it af­ter what hap­pened at Belmont a year ear­lier?”

Still, no horse can mean more to the Spear­man family than an 8-year-old bay cur­rently kept in a Ge­or­gia sta­ble. The son of Mal­ibu Moon was picked from a few horses Cot Cam­pell had showed Spear­man in Aiken, S.C. in 2012.

“My first son was born in

1991 and he passed away in

1993 on Christ­mas morn­ing,” Spear­man said. “He was 2 1/2. To this day, we are not 100 per­cent sure what caused Nolan’s death. He was quite healthy.

“As you can imag­ine, it was ab­so­lutely dev­ast­ing.”

Spear­man and his wife would have two more chil­dren. Laura Noel is 22 now. Ai­dan Nolan is 20.

“They never knew their brother, but we al­ways tried to keep him in their minds,” Spear­man said. “When the kids came of age, mid­dle school, early high school, well, I al­ways wanted to do something to re­mem­ber Nolan in a sig­nif­i­cant way.”

Spear­man talked to Cot about a horse.

“I told him he didn’t want any part­ners on this one,” Spear­man said. “I told him I want to buy this horse. I want to raise it at Dog­wood (in Aiken). You can man­age it. But this is going to be the family horse.”

A Post-it was stuck on the kitchen re­frig­er­a­tor, so ev­ery­body could write their sug­ges­tions for a name. Laura put an end to the family con­test.

“She said, ‘Well, dad, there’s none like Nolan.’ ”

No fur­ther discussion needed.

“Talk about a fa­ther get­ting emo­tional,” Spear­man said. “None Like Nolan raced 10 times. Seven times in the money. A good horse, but not stakes cal­iber. We would never sell him. We re­tired him. He has been re­trained, it took nearly two years, but over the last 12 months we now ride him. It’s a won­der­ful thing for the family to go and see him and help to keep the memory of Nolan alive.”

With that Brian Spear­man was off to Louisville. Eclipse also has a filly named Point of Honor. She is a sec­ond ex­tra, and if a cou­ple of horses scratch by Fri­day morn­ing she’ll run in the Ken­tucky Oaks. An Oaks and Derby horse on the same Churchill Downs week­end? That is any horse­man’s dream.

You just never know when the mint juleps start to fly. On Satur­day, Dray­den Van Dyke will climb aboard a 50-1 long­shot, whose sire is Gray­dar, whose dam is Burg Berg and full brother is Lombo, and he will push into post po­si­tion 4. What hap­pens next? As Danza, Destin, Tap­writ and None Like Nolan rush through his mem­o­ries, Brian Spear­man knows only one thing.

“This game,” he said, “is amaz­ing.”

Char­lie Riedel / Associated Press

Ken­tucky Derby hope­ful Gray Ma­gi­cian is led onto the track for a work­out at Churchill Downs on Tues­day in Louisville, Ky. The 145th run­ning of the Ken­tucky Derby is sched­uled for Satur­day.

Eclipse Thor­ough­bred Part­ners

Brian Spear­man of Ridge­field.

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