The Quest for Derby Roses and Super Bowl Rings
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Chris Mara is standing near the barn area at Churchill Downs, some 90 minutes before post time, with two items tucked under his right arm: the Daily Racing Form, and a printout of the New York Giants’ draft board.
He’s been at the Kentucky Derby for exactly 43 minutes, and nearly every passerby has given him the same greeting. “You made it!” booms restaurant mogul Chris Sullivan, one of the founders of Outback Steakhouse. “How was your draft?”
“It was good,” Mara says. “But I was just saying, it’s like a yearling sale. You love ’em all, and then a year later, you hate ’em all.”
Mara is uniquely qualified in the matters of NFL prospects and thoroughbred racehorses. As the Giants’ senior vice president of player evaluation, the draft is his most important time of the year. But as a partner in Starlight Racing, Saturday was also the most important day on the racing calendar. Mara’s only solution to the dilemma was to attend to both, which makes sense if you know the history.
Racing was in the Mara family before football. Chris’ grandfather, Tim Mara, founded the New York Football Giants in 1925 and supported the team through his earnings as a legal bookie. “That was the only way the Giants would survive,” Chris says. “Because football wasn’t very popular back then. It was all about boxing and horse racing.” His parents, the late Wellington and Ann Mara, went to the Kentucky Derby every year.
Chris Mara, 58, grew up on football and horse racing, going to races at Belmont Park as a kid and later parking cars at Yonkers Raceway as a teenager. Feeling lucky after the 2011 football season—a Giants’ Super Bowl victory, followed by his daughter Rooney’s Oscar nomination for her role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—Mara looked for an entrée into the horse racing business. He signed on as one of 10 partners with the Louisville-based Starlight Racing, which had Itsaknockout in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby.
This wasn’t Mara’s first Derby horse—the group had Intense Holiday in last year’s field—but it was the first time he can remember the NFL draft being held on the first Saturday in May, a day that has traditionally belonged to the Derby. Mara is certain the overlap wouldn’t have happened during his father’s nearly five decades as co-owner of the Giants.
“If my dad were alive, the two would not have coincided, because his two best days of the year were Derby day and the draft, and he had a little bit of pull in the league,” Mara says. “I don’t have that pull.”
John Mara, the eldest of 11 children, took over the helm of the franchise after Wellington died in 2005. Chris Mara, the second-oldest son, started out as a Giants scout in 1979 and has operated largely behind the scenes. On Saturday, however, he pulled a rare double duty that would have made his father proud.
Chris Mara starts the third and final day of the NFL draft inside the Giants’ war room in East Rutherford, N.J.
Earlier in the morning, the Giants’ second-round pick, Landon Collins, arrived at the facility after being drafted on Friday night. The Giants had made a trade with the Titans to get the Alabama safety, moving up seven spots after sending fourth- and seventh-round picks to Tennessee.
Mara had joked earlier in the week that he could perhaps convince the Giants to pull a Mike Ditka and trade all their picks away to clear his schedule on Saturday. As it turns out, the seventh-rounder that New York traded was due to be picked right around the Derby’s post time. “That had nothing to do with me,” Mara insists. “If it had anything to do with me, we’d have traded the fifth-rounder, too.”
The possibility of this draft day conflict first materialized in late February, when Itsaknockout won a Derby qualifying race in Florida. Word traveled quickly among the Giants staff in Indianapolis for the NFL combine, even though the horse still had to compete in one more race, in March, and remain healthy until the Kentucky Derby—no easy task, considering that three of the 21 horses were scratches.
Last week, Mara began planning his balancing act. At five minutes a pick on Day 3 of the draft, he calculated that the Giants’ fifth-round selection would be made around 2:15 p.m. He planned to leave as soon as they settled on a name.
2:02 p.m., the Giants pick Mykkele Thompson, a defensive back from Texas, with the No. 144 overall pick
Mara really liked the Thompson selection in the fifth round. “Kind of a need for us,” he says. “Played mostly corner his senior year, but he can play both. We need one of those guys, because we’re a little short back there. I think they’ll try him at free safety first and see where he fits in. Smart, has played a bunch of positions, and he’s got special teams temperament, which is good.”
2:03 p.m., Chris Mara leaves the war room for Teterboro Airport
The Giants had been on the clock about 15 minutes earlier than expected, and Mara’s traveling party was already waiting for him at the airport: wife, Kathleen; sons Daniel and Conor; 9-year-old granddaughter, Kailee; and Conor’s girlfriend, Chelsea. (Daughters Kate and Rooney, the actresses, are on location in L.A. and Australia). The drive to Teterboro takes just 12 minutes.
2:25 p.m., the plane takes off
Mara lucked into another timesaver, a faster business jet that shaved 20 minutes off the 743-mile flight to Louisville. But there’s no Wi-Fi on the plane, so he’s incommunicado with the war room while up in the air.
3:51 p.m., the Giants draft Geremy Davis, wide receiver from Connecticut, with the No. 186 overall pick
Daniel’s phone picks up enough cell service to get news of the sixth-round pick as the plane makes its descent. Hearing the name, Mara knows he didn’t miss much debate in the war room. “He’s a player who we discussed in the fifth round and almost took then,” Mara says. “Big, strong, tough kid. He’s more of a possession guy, but he’s got a special teams temperament also.”
3:54 p.m., the plane touches down in Louisville
Knowing the Maras would be cutting it close, Derby organizers sent a car to pick them up on the tarmac. Based on the number of private jets parked at the airport, they appear to be the last ones to arrive in town. Next stop: Barn 40, where Itsaknockout is resting until post time.
4:32 p.m., Mara arrives at Churchill Downs
Most of the Starlight owners have a racing form, but Chris Mara is the only one holding an NFL draft board, too. He’s also the only owner wearing a Super Bowl ring, a scaled-down version of the Super Bowl XLII championship bling on his right hand. The Giants organize their draft board in so-called rows, with each row containing 32 names. Each one is listed with the player’s height, weight, speed, injury grade and a final grade. He’s brought along eight pages, rows 1 through 8.
Every team grades players differently, and the Giants usually don’t get past their sixth row of names during a draft. The highlighted names on his sheet are players who have already been drafted; Mara also wrote the grade he individually assigned based on his own scouting next to each player’s name. When he left team headquarters, the Giants still had two picks to make, so he brought this along as a reference sheet. But the real scouting work had already been done in the weeks and months prior.
Mara remains in touch with the war room through his nephew, Tim McDonnell, a pro scout for the Giants. Cell service is spotty, so texting is best.
“Look, if we were in the first or second round today, I probably wouldn’t be here,” Mara says. “But at this point, it’s kind of like when you step up to the betting window and put your picks in. You’ve already put your picks in, and you’re just waiting to see how it falls.”
Mara isn’t one to underestimate the importance of the draft’s later rounds. He’s largely credited with bringing in 2007 seventh-rounder Ahmad Bradshaw, the former Giants back who was a staple on both of the recent Super Bowl teams. Mara’s daughter, Kate, introduced her dad to Bradshaw’s college coach after she filmed We Are Marshall, and that conversation was part of the reason why the Giants drafted Bradshaw.
Mara remains in touch with the war room through his nephew, Tim McDonnell, a pro scout for the Giants. Cell service is spotty amidst the sea of 170,000 fans at the Derby—more than double the turnout for a home game at MetLife Stadium—so texting is best. A little after 5 p.m., McDonnell texts Mara five names the Giants are talking about for their seventh-round pick. Mara sends back the three he likes best.
5:25 p.m., the Giants draft Bobby Hart, offensive lineman from Florida State, with the No. 226 overall pick
Hart was on Mara’s short list here. He’d been discussed a few weeks ago, in pre-draft meetings, as someone who might be there for the taking in the seventh round.
“Once the draft is over, the hardest guys to sign are those big-bodied guys,” Mara says. “They go quickly, because everybody needs them. One of our shortcomings is the offensive line, so we focused on a guy who played at a major level of competition at FSU, a big offensive lineman who can come in and maybe make the team.”
Now the Giants must prepare to sign undrafted free agents, a feeding frenzy that begins when the seventh round ends. Back in East Rutherford, the board in the war room is being rearranged into a list of players to call, based on position and grade. But in Kentucky, Mara is putting his phone away. “The hay is in the barn, so to speak,” he says.
5:53 p.m., Itsaknockout begins “The Walk”
This is one of the Derby’s best traditions: A short parade on the track, with the owners joining their thoroughbreds as they make their way to be saddled in the paddock.
Kailee, Chris’ granddaughter, grabs her grandpa’s hand for her very first Derby walk. She’s wearing a necklace with a charm of the 2007 Super Bowl ring, and a bracelet with a charm of the 2011 ring, for good luck. “If we win,” her father, Daniel, says, “you’re coming every year.”
When Chris broached the idea of getting into the horse business with his wife, Kathleen, her first thought was, Here we go again. She is the former Kathleen Rooney, and she comes from perhaps the only family that can rival the Maras’ football and horse racing ties.
Kathleen’s father, Tim, owns Yonkers Raceway in New York; her grandfather, Art Rooney, Sr., founded the Steelers in 1933, in part with money he earned from being a client of Tim Mara’s, the legal bookkeeper. According to family lore, Tim Mara helped Art Rooney earn around $250,000 during one weekend at Saratoga in the 1930s (about $3 or 4 million in today’s money), after which Rooney promised that he and his pregnant wife would name their next son Tim (Kathleen’s father).
But Kathleen’s initial hesitation soon wore off. “The next year, we were at the Kentucky Derby, and neither my dad nor my grandfather had ever made it to the Kentucky Derby,” she says. “So I said, ‘OK, maybe he knows what he’s doing.’ ”
This year’s Derby horse, Itsaknockout—which Starlight purchased for $350,000 at a boutique yearling sale in Aug. 2013—was a late bloomer. Every yearling, like every rookie drafted into the NFL, is a gamble. There’s no surefire way to know how they’ll develop, if they’ll get injured, or how they’ll handle the higher level of competition—in this case, a 1¼-mile race against the best thoroughbreds in the world.
“You pay a lot of money for them and they have tremendous pedigrees behind them, but every one is different,” Mara says. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
6:07 p.m., Mara is in Suite 13 near the winner’s circle
The view here is perfect, low to the track and close to the finish line. The refreshments are top-flight: four flavors of macarons, pirouettes filled with lobster mousse and a raspberry cheesecake precariously placed on a ledge, which Daniel is concerned will go flying should their horse win. Itsaknockout is a long shot, at 28-1 odds in the 18-horse field. The favorite, American Pharoah, is at 3-1.
About a half hour before post time, Jack Wolf, founder of Starlight Racing and a former Murray State tight end, is enraptured in conversation with Mara. Daniel, a 33-year-old sales trader for the Bank of Montreal, takes a wild guess as to what they’re talking about. “The fact that he was in a war room four hours ago,” he says. Any way to cut the pre-race tension is welcome.
“My dad is as nervous right now for this as he would be if we were lining up for a field goal in the Super Bowl,” Daniel says. “And if he won this, he’d be as happy as if he won the Super Bowl. Actually, maybe even happier, because he’s never experienced this. Yeah, I’d say happier.”
Meanwhile, in Chicago, the No. 245 pick of the draft—the selection the Giants traded away to the Titans—has just been announced.
6:42 p.m., the P.A. announcer shouts: “They’re in the gate, and they’re off!”
Kathleen is standing on a wicker chair, angling for a better view. Mara is in the front row of the box, holding Kailee’s hand.
“Poppy, what’s happening?” she asks.
“Well,” Mara says, “we’re kind of in the middle of the pack.”
6:44 p.m., American Pharoah crosses the finish line
Unlike football, Mara says, horse racing brings just two emotions: How you feel at the start, and how you feel at the finish. That was especially true of this Derby, which was controlled from wire to wire by the top three finishers: American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund.
When a horse finishes out of the money, everyone remains frozen in place in the owner’s box. They stare at the track’s jumbo video board, fixated on replays, trying to process the letdown that follows what is famously known as the most exciting two minutes in sports. In ninth place, Itsaknockout finishes 10½ lengths back.
Finally, a woman’s voice calls out: “Next year!”
A few minutes later, Mara takes his first sip of a mint julep.
7:16 p.m., the long walk out
Less than three hours after arriving, Mara is exiting through the paddock and already talking about watching the race tomorrow morning. Just like football, you never know exactly what happened until you watch the tape. “But the bottom line is we lost to better horses,” he says. “This is going to go down, in my opinion, as one of the great Derby fields of all time.”
Itsaknockout came out of the race in good shape, but the trainer hasn’t yet made the call on when he’ll race again. One likely scenario is that he’ll sit out the Preakness and try for the Belmont. Another of Starlight’s horses will race next week in hopes of qualifying for the Belmont, and there’s also a 3-year-old filly that Mara named for his daughters—Itsonlyactingdad—running in a stakes race later this month at Belmont.
The business of horse racing, just like the business of football, just keeps on going.
Mara doesn’t think he’ll have to pull this double duty again, because he doesn’t think the NFL will schedule the draft to overlap with the Derby next year. For one, the first weekend in May proved to be tough on television ratings, with ESPN viewership of Thursday night’s first round down nearly 30 percent from a year ago. The first two nights of the draft competed with the NHL and NBA playoffs, and with Derby coverage on the third day. But either way, Mara will continue on in his quest for his own personal double crown—Kentucky Derby roses to go with his Super Bowl rings.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about that,” Mara says. “Last year we were here, and as they tell you, you smell the roses. We smelled them again this year. One of these years, hopefully, we’ll be able to bring them home with us.”
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