The big man came rolling out of the shade of the barn and into the early morning light, 300-plus pounds (maybe more than a few plus-pounds) of NFL nosetackle now inhabiting an altogether different world. A crisis of context ensued. This was three days before the May 2 Kentucky Derby, on the backstretch at Churchill Downs, and Vince Wilfork was visiting world-class thoroughbred trainers, studying horses and dodging the various pungent obstacles that are very much a part of the backside ambience at any racetrack. From a distance, Wilfork shouted to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, whose colt, Frosted, would later finish fourth in the Derby. The two men came together and dropped into an easy banter of the type that’s common around the barns—workout this, conformation that, and so on. It is the language of Wilfork’s other passion.
When Saturday came and American Pharoah flashed beneath the wire as the winner of the 141st Derby, Wilfork (along with his family and former teammate Rob Gronkowski) was in owner Ahmed Zayat’s finish line suite, a guest of Zayat’s son, Justin, whom Wilfork had met at last year’s Preakness. “To be right there with the people who won the Derby,” said Wilfork on Tuesday, “it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
Among his other experiences, Wilfork, 33, has played 11 years in the NFL and won two Super Bowls as a member of the Patriots, most recently in February, when New England defeated the Seahawks 28–24 in Super Bowl XLIX. (Wilfork was later released by the Patriots and signed as a free-agent with the Texans.) He was one of the most familiar faces on the most successful franchise in the NFL. But in racing, says Wilfork, “I’m like a little kid.”
Wilfork was hooked by the game seven years ago when he became fascinated by Big Brown, who won the Derby and the Preakness before washing out in the Belmont Stakes. His wife bought him a lame horse that never made it to the races, and he bought a few cheap claiming horses. He began visiting racetracks and meeting successful trainers like McLaughlin, Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott. “This is a sport where you can go up to owners and trainers and ask questions and learn,” says Wilfork. “I’ve had a pretty strong passion for football my whole life, but I got pretty passionate about racing right from the start. I really gravitated to it.”
He was subsequently introduced to the management of Claiborne Farm, and the storied Kentucky operation privately sold him a yearling in 2012. That yearling became Great Minds, a colt who is still racing as a 4-year-old, with two victories and three seconds in 11 lifetime starts, and career earnings of $102,165.
Following the Preakness, which he will be unable to attend this year, Wilfork will go to a popular 2-year-old sale in Maryland. He says that he and two partners, both former teammates who are still active in the NFL (but whom Wilfork prefers not to name), have their eyes on a filly at the sale. Many novice owners buy colts in hopes of fast-tracking a big win (which is wildly unlikely), but Wilfork is hoping to use fillies to build a stable of broodmares. He and his partners tried to buy three horses at a sale last month in Florida, but were outbid on each of them. “This time,” says Wilfork, “I think we have the budget to get it done.”
Hores racing is a not an economic venture with guaranteed returns. There is an old adage that the quickest way to become a millionaire in racing is to start with $2 million. “I realize racing is a gamble,” says Wilfork. “But this is one way that I can actually spend my money. I could just give it to some guy who is probably running a Ponzi scheme and he just sends me fake statements every month. Or I can buy horses and go watch them race. That’s a lot more enjoyable.”
Racing is desperate for mainstream appeal. The sport has long attracted the wealthy, but that is a decidedly elite demographic. Many hardcore fans like to bet. Some worship the beauty of the thoroughbred in motion. But a wider audience is attracted to the sport’s human angles. A year ago, California Chrome became immensely popular because his owners had bred an $8,000 mare to a $1,500 stallion and won the Kentucky Derby. (That story began crumbling at the Belmont and is still crumbling today, but it was powerful for a time.) The best horse in America, until he was injured in April, was a 4-year-old gelding named Shared Belief, who is owned by radio and TV personality Jim Rome.
Wilfork is certainly elite and wealthy, but he is also an African-American who happens to play the most popular sport in the U.S., two things that make him extremely rare—and fascinating—among thoroughbred owners. “Racing gets a bad rap for some reason,” says Wilfork. “The goal for me is get horses, build a stable and be seen at the track. Let people see athletes and celebrities in the sport and they’ll watch more and participate more.”
A year ago Wilfork attended the Preakness and spent the day in a VIP lounge at Pimlico Race Course with then-teammates Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty. They sat at a table adjacent to the one occupied by Justin Zayat and struck up conversation. “I happen to be a Giants fan,” says Zayat, 23, who is the racing manager for his father’s operation (while finishing his senior year at NYU). “But Vince is just an unbelievable guy. So humble, so friendly. And he loves racing.”
At last year’s Preakness, Wilfork and his teammates decided that Zayat’s voice sounded a little like Gronkowski’s—it really does—and dubbed him “Little Gronk,” which they use to this day. Zayat rooted for the Patriots in the Super Bowl and Wilfork texted Zayat every time American Pharoah laid down a bullet work or won a prep race in advance of the Derby. “He was into it,” says Zayat. “And he knows the sport.”
On the first Saturday in May, Wilfork became the most famous of Pharoah’s fans. While he won’t be able to attend Saturday’s Preakness, he’s planning to go to the Belmont Stakes three weeks later. “That’s when we’re going to see the Triple Crown,” says Wilfork, with the conviction of a man smitten by a game that will break his heart endlessly.