Barely visible through the mist, on the other side of the training track, the 3-year-old filly jogs under a tight rein. It’s almost impossible to make out any details other than her slow, controlled trot.
From a wooden bench outside the viewing shed at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, in the rolling countryside not far from Baltimore and Philadelphia, George and Stephanie Autry watch the horse work out, at least what they can see in the rain on this gloomy, cold February morning.
From this vantage point, anything is possible.
The two Wake Forest lawyers own several racehorses, but Lady Banks is the star of their stable. They have flown north on this winter day to check up on her and monitor her progress. That afternoon, it will snow. In their minds, they are thinking only of spring.
They have visions of her running with the best 3-year-old fillies in the world at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Oaks, the female version of the Kentucky Derby, held a day before the big race in May. Among horse owners, it’s a prize only slightly less coveted than the Derby itself.
In Lady Banks, a muscular dark brown filly, they see stardom. Potential stardom, to be sure, but stardom nonetheless. For a horse like this, the Oaks is the pinnacle. Hundreds of owners and trainers all over the country have similar aspirations at this point. Only the fastest – and the hardiest – fillies will make it to Churchill Downs on the first Friday in May.
The Autrys haven’t been doing this long, but this isn’t the first time they have had a horse this promising. In 2011, they had a filly named Bellacourt, one of the first horses they bought. She won a stakes race as a 2-year-old and was nominated as one of the top 2-year-old fillies racing in New York. As high as their hopes are for Lady Banks, they were higher for Bellacourt.
That winter, before the Oaks was even an option for her, she suffered a potentially fatal injury in a training accident in November 2011. It was a similar injury to the one suffered by Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, and her prognosis was equally grim. She would never race again, but the Autrys turned to the same veterinarians who tried to save Barbaro to try and save Bellacourt’s life – at considerable expense for a horse who had earned $101,550 on the track.
After four surgeries, Bellacourt eventually succumbed, like Barbaro, to laminitis, a painful hoof infection that often afflicts injured horses.
“It was unbelievable, something like that taken away,” Stephanie Autry said. “It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t racing. It was only a horse that didn’t deserve that to happen. How do you justify that?”
The question is unavoidable. They got into horse racing because they loved the excitement, but also because they loved the animals. They bought their first horse because they were worried about where he would end up, and pledged to make sure all of their racers found homes when they were retired.
“We don’t have a beach house,” George Autry said. “We don’t have a mountain house. My car has 220,000 miles on it. This is what we do.”
In the seven years they have owned horses, they have enjoyed amazing triumphs and endured devastating losses. They buy more horses each year, investing in hope in perpetuity on four legs. Lady Banks may be their next great horse, but as the Autrys know too well, nothing in horse racing is guaranteed. Everyone is gambling, the owners most of all.
An exclusive game
In their carefully preserved turn-of-the-century mill owner’s house in Wake Forest, they have two dogs, two cats with a total of three eyes, two extremely polite sons, 15 and 12, and almost as many pictures of horses as their children, all collected from their racing adventures of the past seven years.
The Autrys were making small talk with a client in the summer of 2006, when Barbaro’s name was in the national news. That client owned a share of a partnership that raced horses in the Northeast. They bought in for $10,000. They won a few races. They were hooked.
The Autrys don’t do things halfway. For their legal clients, property owners in eminent domain cases, they have worked together to turn $400,000 offers from the state into multi-million dollar jury verdicts, including the largest ever awarded in Alamance County, $2.5 million. When they got into racing, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.
North Carolina has a small thoroughbred industry, with a handful of owners and even a few breeders, but no racing. It’s not much compared to Virginia, let alone Kentucky or New York. The Autrys are outsiders in a world of insiders. They have seven horses in training now, with Lady Banks leading the way. It’s a money-losing indulgence and a tax write-off, but neither is the point.
“I don’t really care all that much about racing,” Stephanie Autry said. “I just love the horses. … (George) analyzes everything to death without a purpose. If he worked as hard on his cases, we’d have more horses.”
It wasn’t long before they struck out on their own with a new trainer, a former steeplechase jockey named James “Chuck” Lawrence II. The son of a trainer himself, unusually tall for a jockey, Lawrence was known for his skills as a horseman. Unlike many of the nationally successful trainers, who are as much businessmen as horsemen, operating through an army of assistant trainers, Lawrence had a hands-on operation.
To buy more horses, they stuck with the partnership’s main advisors, a former trainer named Patti Miller and a financial executive turned horse analyst named Jeff Seder. At sales of yearlings or 2-year-olds, Miller and Seder do stride analysis using slow-motion video and heart scans using sophisticated ultrasound technology. It’s leading-edge technology, and they make an odd pair, Miller the forthright horsewoman, Seder the wonky mad scientist.
Their firm, EQB, has clients who spend millions a year on horses and get right of first refusal on the most promising. Occasionally, a few slip through to the Autrys. Bellacourt was one of those, back in August of 2010, a yearling Miller and Seder rated highly who didn’t meet her minimum price at auction. Miller went back to the owner and negotiated a deal. She cost only $25,000.
Emboldened by Bellacourt’s success, undeterred by her untimely end, the Autrys would soon spend more.
In the spring of 2012, only four months after Bellacourt died, George Autry was Miller and Seder’s only client to attend a sale of 2-year-olds in training in Ocala, Fla. The Autrys had their pick of horses and bought two, for a staggering total of $275,000 by their standards: a filly they named Lady Banks, after the variety of rose growing on an arbor in their yard; and a burly colt they named Mingo Creek.
Mingo Creek never made it. He died that spring in a gruesome training accident, throwing his rider and crashing through a metal gate at Fair Hill. But Lady Banks thrived. She nearly won her debut in November, getting stuck behind a wall of horses, and roared from behind to win her second start.
On the basis of those two impressive races, the Autrys entered her in the Ruthless Stakes in January at Aqueduct, and Lady Banks made another charge from behind, winning by two lengths. Substantial offers well into six figures were made to buy her, and declined. The owners of her sire, Successful Appeal, took out an ad in a trade publication touting her success. Lawrence told the Daily Racing Form she had Oaks potential. Now they had to figure out how to get her there.
Decisions and disappointment
Sometimes the horses that win big races aren’t just the fastest horses. They’re the most durable. The thoroughbred is precisely bred for speed, a finely tuned machine that puts enormous stress on any number of bones, tendons, hooves and other fragile body parts. A New York Times investigation last year found an average of 24 horses die a week on the track across the country. That doesn’t include deaths in training, where two of the Autrys’ horses have suffered fatal injuries.
The Autrys are blind neither to the risks nor the rewards, which only raises the stakes on Lady Banks.
Merely to get into the Oaks field, Lady Banks would need to accumulate qualifying points in specific races run all over the East Coast, all at a higher level of competition thanshes had yet faced. She would need to run at a much longer distance than she had in her career. And as well as she ran in the Ruthless, she would need to show considerable improvement – but Lawrence, based on his observations, and Miller, based on her data, were both confident Lady Banks had more to offer.
They sent her first to Florida for a big-money race on February 23 that would give Lady Banks a chance to run at a longer distance. It was a flop. Lady Banks hated the hard, fast track at Gulfstream Park and finished fourth out of five horses. It was disappointing, but there was still time to get into the Oaks. Undeterred, convinced she had more to offer, the Autrys decided to enter her in the Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland, in Lexington, Ky., the Augusta National of horse racing, on Sunday, April 14.
As owners of a horse in the feature race that Sunday, the Autrys received top treatment from Keeneland – a special parking spot for their rental Toyota, a reserved box in the grandstand and a table in a private dining room high above the track exclusively for owners with horses in the Beaumont.
For all the expense of owning horses, there’s no way to quantify a moment like this, when your horse is loaded in the gate for the big race of the day, the jockey wearing your own blue-and-yellow silks, and anything can happen.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a horse in the Oaks,” George Autry said, awaiting the start. “This is so cool.”
The Beaumont, at a distance of a little more than seven furlongs, or 7/8ths of a mile, started across the track, from a chute off the back of Keeneland’s oval track. Lady Banks broke well. She was in the middle of the pack down the backstretch, between horses in traffic
Just before the horses entered the turn, a horse named Ciao Bella Luna made a move past Lady Banks on the outside, going wide to challenge the leaders. Jockey Joe Rocco Jr., sensing opportunity, urged Lady Banks to go with her.
“She gave me three jumps,” Rocco said afterward. “That’s all.”
With no response, the rest of the field quickly passed the slowing Lady Banks, who galloped home alone, last of 11, well behind Ciao Bella Luna, an upset winner at 7-1.
As the victors celebrated in the winner’s circle, Lawrence and the Autrys watched a replay of the race on a large video board. A fan standing nearby threw down his tickets.
“My horse ran last,” the gambler moaned.
“So did mine,” George Autry said, under his breath.
Taking their lumps
After a minor surgery to correct an issue with her palate that may have contributed to her poor performances, the Autrys still believed, based on the races she ran in New York, that they had an elite horse, even if her last two races hadn’t shown it.
“If her last two races are throw-outs, then she still has the ability to be as good as we thought she was,” George Autry said. “Obviously we don’t know. She sure didn’t prove it in those. Either they’re throw-outs or not. So we wanted to give her one good chance at a closer track.”
That track was Baltimore’s Pimlico, in the Black-Eyed Susan. What the Oaks is to the Derby, the Black-Eyed Susan is to the Preakness – nationally televised on NBC Sports Network amid the gaiety of Preakness weekend. Lady Banks broke slowly and ran last all the way around the track, finishing 34 lengths behind winner Fiftyshadesofhay, 12 lengths behind the next horse up the track.
If you believe horses want to race – it’s in their blood, bred going back hundreds of years – and you love being around them, you’re going to race them. That makes it hurt all the more when you lose a horse like Bellacourt or a promising horse like Lady Banks can’t deliver on that potential. That makes the gap between success and failure seem tiny at times and insurmountable at others.
“I don’t think either Jeff or myself thought they were in for the long term,” said Miller, who is boarding Hasta Luego on her farm until he can find a permanent home. “That was OK. It’s always good to get new people into racing. But they just keep showing up. They came to Saratoga and had a great time. The nice thing about both of them is they take their lumps with a sense of humor. That’s a big deal in this game. There’s a lot of lumps. You have to learn to like them.”
Lady Banks underwent an exhaustive series of tests this week that found nothing wrong rest won't fix. She'll take the rest of the summer off, but her future remains bright.
Because she was bred in Ontario, Lady Banks could race in restricted races there that might offer better purses at an easier level of competition. While she has struggled at longer distances, she’s a proven sprinter. She may yet end up winning a lot of races, making a lot of money, taking the Autrys on the kind of ride they thought they were going to get this spring.
“We’re pretty disappointed and confused,” George Autry said. “But we’re just lucky to have horses that can put you in a position like that. Next time, maybe we’ll have a better outcome.”
Lady Banks isn’t the horse they hoped she would be, not at this point in her career. She isn’t the next Bellacourt. Now they have to get her back to being the horse they thought she was, in a game where nothing is ever as you think it is.
DeCock: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947
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