The owners of the horses entered in the 117th running of the Kentucky Derby, scheduled for May 2 at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, are a varied lot. They include an American CEO, a successful rapper, and a rambunctious Japanese entrepreneur. Allen E. Paulson, CEO of Gulfstream Aerospace and half-owner of Arazi, can count on a close duel with Tomonori Tsurumaki's A.P. Indy. And don't count out Hammer's entry, Dance Floor. For the skinny on their run for the roses, read on:
HAMMER HOOFS IT DOWN TO CHURCHILL
When his three sons were growing up in the ghetto of Oakland, Calif., Lewis Burrell Sr. took them to horse races at county fairs around the state. It wasn't long before they caught the racetrack bug and promised Pops that one day they'd have horses of their own. His usual reply: "Oh, sure."
Pops is a skeptic no more. One son, Stanley, became famous as Hammer, the dancer and rapper, and the whole family has become rich furthering his career. Some $5 million of that fortune has gone into the family's Oaktown Stable, which is sending Dance Floor to the Kentucky Derby.
Not bad for an operation that has been in business all of 15 months. In that time, Hammer and family have raked in $1.3 million in purses. That figure may surprise the racing veterans who dismissed them as easy prey for more experienced judges of horseflesh. That impression was reinforced when Oaktown's first horse, Media Plan, turned out to be a $450,000 bust. After that, though, the Burrells enlisted the help of pedigree consultants and went on to spend $1.2 million for the three-year-old filly Lite Light. Six months and a series of impressive wins later, offers of up to $7 million for Lite Light are rolling in. "It's no longer: 'The Burrells are being taken,' " says Lewis, 52. "It's: 'The Burrells stole something.' "
PACKED STANDS. Perhaps, but the Burrells are giving something back, too. When Hammer showed up for the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on Apr. 11, the Kentucky track set a one-day attendance record. Perhaps those in attendance were hoping for a repeat of Hammer's display last July at Belmont racetrack in New York. To celebrate Lite Light's victory in the Coaching Club American Oaks, Hammer stripped off his turquoise-leather suit jacket, doled out high-fives, and paraded bare-chested through the stands. No victory dance in Kentucky, though--Hammer's horse finished fourth.
The bluebloods who dominate racing have never seen the like. But they're not complaining. Jim Peden, communications director of the Jockey Club, a New York clearinghouse for racing information, says he has "not a shadow of a doubt that Hammer generates publicity that translates into higher attendance."
For all the high-fives and high jinks, though, the Burrells take their racing seriously. Hammer leaves the running of the 18-horse stable to his father and his brothers Louis, 32, and Christopher, 31. And they leave as little as possible to chance. "Why not control our own destiny?" says Christopher. With the help of a personal computer, he decides where and when to race Oaktown's horses.
Most handicappers don't believe that Dance Floor can beat Arazi and A. P. Indy. But Hammer & Co. aren't worried. They've already shown racing's know-it-alls that it doesn't pay to underestimate the Oaktown brain trust.