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Horse Racing

How baseball Hall of Famer Joe Torre fell hard for horse racing

With Mike Smith aboard, Game On Dude won the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap in March, becoming the first three-time champion in the race's 77-year history. Photo:

With Mike Smith aboard, Game On Dude won the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap in March, becoming the first three-time champion in the race's 77-year history.

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I would tag along to the horse races with my older brother, Frank. And when I was a minor leaguer with the Louisville Colonels in 1961, I went over to Churchill Downs one afternoon. But it wasn’t until Don Zimmer brought me $600 that I became hooked on the sport.

I was managing the Yankees against the Orioles in Baltimore in 1996 -- the first year we won the World Series -- and Zim was my bench coach. “Want to go over to Pimlico?” he asked me. I said no, but I gave him some money and told him I would go in on a few bets with him. He came back later with that $600, and I was off and running. As we were winning four world championships together, I used to joke with Zim that I could never afford to retire because he got me into horse racing.

But I am so glad he did, because it opened the gates on what has been an incredible ride for me as a sports fan and horse owner.

Through Zim and some of his connections, I met the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel. We were both from Brooklyn, and we became great friends. Bobby would seem like he had a bit of a gruff personality, but once you got to know him you realized how warm a guy he was. I always admired the way he cared so much about his horses. Bobby came to me once with a chance to buy in with him on a horse that he thought had great potential. We paid $250,000 for Vineyard Haven, and after he won the Champagne Stakes we sold him for $12 million. Even as we turned $250,000 into $12 million, Bobby had seller’s remorse. He loved his horses that much.

As I have had the chance to own other horses, I can see why Bobby had such strong feelings. They are amazing athletes with unique personalities. And for me, there has been no horse quite like Game On Dude. I bought him four years ago with my friend Bernie Schiappa. In baseball, there were always those guys you would want up there with the bases loaded. Whether they got a hit or not, you knew they weren’t going to shy away from the challenge. We bought The Dude when he was a 3-year-old, and as he has won big race after big race since then, I have seen him stare down challenges just like that hitter who says, “I dare you to get me out.” Other horses will run up alongside him, and The Dude just seems to look at them and say, “No you don’t.” He’s been an amazing horse to watch. Even in his advancing age -- he’s now 7 years old -- you know he will give you everything he’s got.

Photo:
I wish The Dude had done better in his two Breeders’ Cup Classics, because it is such a magical race experience. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is the World Series -- the best of the best, head-to-head. I went into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July with Greg Maddux, a guy whose pitching I always loved to watch. I admired him even when he was pitching against my team. The two days of the Breeders’ Cup are as incredible to watch as having a front-row seat when Maddux was on the mound.

I realize I’m lucky. Not only do I get to watch the best horses in the world, I have gotten to experience the thrill of being down there in the paddock with the horses and trainers and jockeys before a race or after a win. There’s a fraternity in racing -- a great group of people who root for each other and have the sport in their blood. Thanks to that $600 with Zim, I’m one of them.

Written with Brad Young

Known as the richest two days in sports, the Breeders’ Cup awarded more than $26 million in prize money in 2013. And this year, viewers have the chance to win big, too, by playing Million Dollar Finish during the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series on NBC Sports. There’s $15,000 up for grabs during each of the 11 qualifying races, a VIP trip for two to the 2014 Breeders’ Cup in Los Angeles this fall and a shot $1,000,000 during the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1.

Breeders' Cup Challenge Series
Win & You're In
date network time (et) race track winner qualifies for post times (et)
August 23 NBC 4:30 p.m. Ballerina Stakes Saratoga Race Course Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint 5:08 p.m.
August 24 NBCSN 8:00 p.m. Pacific Classic Del Mar Thoroughbred Club Breeders' Cup Classic 8:44 p.m.
August 30 NBCSN 6:00 p.m. Forego Stakes Saratoga Race Course Breeders' Cup Sprint 6:45 p.m.
September 27 NBCSN 6:00 p.m. Jockey Club Gold Cup Belmont Park Breeders' Cup Classic 6:08 p.m.
September 27 NBCSN 6:00 p.m. TBD Santa Anita Park TBD 6:30 p.m.
September 27 NBCSN 6:00 p.m. TBD Santa Anita Park TBD 7:05 p.m.
September 27 NBCSN 6:00 p.m. Awesome Again Stakes Santa Anita Park Breeders' Cup Classic 7:45 p.m.
October 4 NBCSN 4:30 p.m. Jenny Wiley Stakes Keeneland Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf 4:35 p.m.
October 4 NBCSN 4:30 p.m. Breeders' Futurity Keeneland Breeders' Cup Juvenile 5:08 p.m.
October 4 NBCSN 4:30 p.m. Shadwell Mile Keeneland Breeders' Cup Mile 5:45 p.m.
October 5 NBC 5:00 p.m. Bourbon Stakes Keeneland Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf 5:08 p.m.
October 5 NBC 5:00 p.m. Spinster Stakes Keeneland Breeders' Cup Distaff 5:45 p.m.

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