EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –
Chris Mara was 10 years old when his father first took him to a racetrack.
“We went to Belmont Park,” Mara said. “The horse I bet on in my first race ever, I didn’t understand quite what the odds were, and the horse was like 60:1 and I thought that was better. But the horse has not finished the race yet.”
Asked if he remembers the name of the horse, Mara said, “I don’t know. Dead Last?”
Despite that inauspicious beginning, Mara was hooked on the sport. He parked cars at Yonkers Raceway in high school and college. Mara, 57, visits a track whenever possible and studies horses only slightly less zealously than he does football players as the Giants’ senior vice president of player evaluation.
“I’m pretty much glued to everything during the three-year-old season, the two-years-olds to following all of the Triple Crown races,” Mara said.
This month, Mara attended his 10th Kentucky Derby. But for the first time, he was there as a part-owner of not one, but two horses in the race, Intense Holiday and General A Rod. Approximately 10 partners from Starlight Racing own each horse. The purchase of General A Rod was completed just a week earlier.
“I wasn’t really expecting it,” Mara said. “I’d been hearing about that horse all winter, because my managing partner had been telling me how much he likes this horse. I knew he was looking into trying to buy it, I just didn’t realize it was going to be right before the Derby.”
Intense Holiday finished 12th in the Derby, just behind General A Rod, but that did not diminish the enjoyment of Mara’s trip to Louisville or the thrill he felt at owning a Derby horse.
“There are so many different guys that I knew, friends of mine, who have spent a fortune in the business and have never even sniffed getting a horse to the Derby,” Mara said. “Just to get one there, believe me, is a huge, huge thing.”
Mara, of course, has bled Giants blue his entire life. His grandfather Tim, the founder of the franchise, and father Wellington, are both in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His older brother John is the Giants’ president and chief executive officer. Chris Mara has seen thousands of football games and remained calm and relaxed through almost all of them, including five Super Bowls. But having two horses in the Derby made him uncommonly nervous. The partnership bought Intense Holiday for $380,000; the price for General A Rod is undisclosed. But Mara said money was not the root of his anxiety.
“For 40 years, every time the Kentucky Derby came on, all I could think about was how cool it would be to have a horse win the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “Years ago, (former Washington Redskins owner) Jack Kent Cooke, that’s all he wanted. He wanted to be the first guy to have a Super Bowl and a Kentucky Derby winner. I always remember hearing that.”
Cooke’s team won three Super Bowls, but he never did step into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.
The previous Wednesday, Hoppertunity was scratched from the Derby with an injured front foot. The news sent a shiver through Mara.
“As an owner, you’re waiting for that phone call that you don’t want to get,” he said. “That’s what I had thought I had gotten (the previous) Saturday and it had nothing to do with your horse scratching, it was to ask me if I would be interested in another horse in the Kentucky Derby. It was just the opposite, really.
“Once it got down to Friday and Saturday at race time, I wasn’t quite as nervous, I guess, because I had burnt out all that energy from the last two, three weeks worrying about the horse getting to the starting gate. That’s your biggest fear as an owner: not getting to the starting gate.”
Like football, horse racing is a family affair for Mara. His wife, Kathleen, is a member of the famed Rooney family, which not only owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, but has been influential in horseracing for decades.
“She’s not as nutty as I am, but she loves it, too,” Mara said. “My father-in-law (who also owns part of General A Rod) has been in the business forever. They have a stud farm over in Ireland. He owns 80 horses or something - 81 now.’
Chris and Kathleen's sons, Danny and Conor, and their significant others joined them last week in Louisville. The family rented a house and socialized with the other partners and their families on Friday. At 10:30 the following morning, Mara was at the track, almost eight hours before post time of the Derby. The rest of the family arrived at 1 p.m.
“I’m a little different than they are,” Mara said. “I like to watch all the races. I was a little too nervous to be sitting around the house all day.”
One of the day’s major highlights occurred about 90 minutes before the race.
“You go over to the backstretch and walk the horse over with your group on the track,” Mara said. “We went over to this little staging area and the horses get on the track from where they are at the barns and walk over to the paddock. That’s a pretty big deal for the Derby. So you walk with your horse over to the paddock area and then I went into the paddock area prior to the race and then up to my seats.
“It was all it was cracked up to be. I kept hearing about it. I just never knew you would get so uptight and nervous prior to it.”
During the race, Mara kept his binoculars fixed on Intense Holiday, whose post position was 16.
“He had a perfect trip,” Mara said. “The only problem was that he had to run four or five wide the whole time. But there was nothing else the jockey could do when there are 19 horses in the race. It’s really hard to establish position when you’re coming from that outside post. The horse who won (California Chrome) had a perfect post (5) and he’s the perfect horse. He got out in front and never looked behind. We were in a great spot. We really had no excuse. The horse just didn’t have enough. That was the first time these horses had run that extra 1/16th of a mile, so you just never know what’s going to happen.
“He came in 12th and General A Rod came in 11th. If they don’t come in the first three, you really don’t care what they come in. You just want the horse to come out of the race sound. A lot of times the jockey will see that we’re not going to get there, let’s hold up, let’s not kill the horse to finish off. I’m not saying that’s what he did, but that’s kind of what the feeling is with the jockey. Let’s save him for the next race.”
General A Rod is expected to run in the Belmont Stakes on June 7. It is uncertain when Intense Holiday will next race; Mara and his partners will soon make that decision. What is guaranteed is that Mara is already looking forward to having another horse in the Derby.
“Now that it’s happened, you’re dying for it to happen again,” he said. “It’s no different than winning a Super Bowl – you can’t wait for the next one.”