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Viewpoint Relishing life in an amazing game

May 3, 2019

Brian Spearman pulled away from his Ridgefield home Thursday and headed for Louisville with Kentucky Derby hopes and not without a horseman’s sense of humor.

Gray Magician, the 3-year-old gray colt Spearman partly owns, has been made one of two 50-1 longshots in the 145th running of the sport’s greatest race.

“The good news,” Spearman said, “is the horse doesn’t know he’s 50-1.

“He’s a big strong horse that can come off the pace and this mile and a quarter is not going to scare him. He’s a good closer. The real question will be how will he handle all this travel?”

Gray Magician finished second in the UAE Derby in Dubai last month and picked up 40 points to push him to 18th in qualifying points and secure a position among the 20 Derby entrants. The colt returned to California and trained well for Peter Miller, and over the past week the green light was given to send him Louisville.

“California to Dubai to California to Kentucky, temperature differences, humidity differences, differing training surfaces,” Spearman said. “We think he’s a beast and ready to go. Time will tell. There’s a school of people who always say it’s difficult to come back from Dubai and do well in the Derby.”

This is the fourth Derby horse Spearman has been involved with as part of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. There was Danza, who actor Tony Danza went to watch run, in 2014. Danza didn’t show “Who’s the Boss,” but he did show, finishing third behind California Chrome and Commanding Curve. There was Destin, sixth in 2016. And there was Tapwrit, sixth in 2017. Both would be part of incredible Belmont Stakes finishes five weeks later.

“For me the Derby is like the Olympics,” Spearman said. “If you get your horse to the starting gate, he’s an Olympian and you’re proud of him. You just don’t know if he’s a gold, silver or bronze medalist until they all cross the wire.”

Spearman, who retired as a long-time PepsiCo executive in 2016, grew up in Saratoga Springs. He worked at the track as a kid. His dad worked as a Pinkerton security guard during the Saratoga meet. He has been around the sport his entire life. Yet it wasn’t until a dozen years ago that he said he could find himself in a position in life to dabble in horse ownership. That’s when he met Dogwood Stable’s Cot Campbell.

“He’s a legend in the industry,” Spearman said of a man who passed away last November at age 91. “He needed me at that stage of the game like a hole in the head. We just hit it off. He was syndicating less horses, but he let me participate and gave me an unbelievable education in the sport. My love for the game grew.

“If the bug bites you in this sport, it’s very hard not to want to continue to participate. That’s what happened with me. I’ll reach back to my Frito-Lay days and (the Lay’s Potato Chips ad), ‘Bet you can’t eat just one.’ Who gets to take their passion as a second career and turn it into a business? No one, right? I’m ridiculously blessed.”

Gray Magician is co-owned by Eclipse, Gary Barber and Wachtel Stable. Aron Wellman is the president and founder of Eclipse.

“Aron’s the expert on our team and he’s outstanding,” Spearman said. “His original partners got out and a handful of years ago, I joined him just as Eclipse was hitting its stride. We’ve just had a blast.”

The biggest blast came at the 2017 Belmont Stakes when Tapwrit ran down Irish War Cry in the final stretch to win by two lengths.

The Belmont had brought Eclipse and Spearman a heart-breaking loss one year earlier. Creator closed furiously on the outside to beat Destin by a nose in only the fourth photo finish in Belmont history.

“I get goosebumps now thinking about Tapwrit,” Spearman said. “It was unbelievable. I am a New Yorker/Connecticut guy. So to win the Triple Crown leg where you call home — Belmont and Saratoga are my home turf — in such an exciting fashion and to have my wife and children there, it was crazy, a dream come true. There are people in this game 40 years and don’t get to win one of the classics.

“And how special was it after what happened at Belmont a year earlier?”

Still, no horse can mean more to the Spearman family than an 8-year-old bay currently kept in a Georgia stable. The son of Malibu Moon was picked from a few horses Cot Campell had showed Spearman in Aiken, S.C. in 2012.

“My first son was born in 1991 and he passed away in 1993 on Christmas morning,” Spearman said. “He was 2 1/2. To this day, we are not 100 percent sure what caused Nolan’s death. He was quite healthy.

“As you can imagine, it was absolutely devasting.”

Spearman and his wife would have two more children. Laura Noel is 22 now. Aidan Nolan is 20.

“They never knew their brother, but we always tried to keep him in their minds,” Spearman said. “When the kids came of age, middle school, early high school, well, I always wanted to do something to remember Nolan in a significant way.”

Spearman talked to Cot about a horse.

“I told him he didn’t want any partners on this one,” Spearman said. “I told him I want to buy this horse. I want to raise it at Dogwood (in Aiken). You can manage it. But this is going to be the family horse.”

A Post-it was stuck on the kitchen refrigerator, so everybody could write their suggestions for a name. Laura put an end to the family contest.

“She said, ‘Well, dad, there’s none like Nolan.’ ”

No further discussion needed.

“Talk about a father getting emotional,” Spearman said. “None Like Nolan raced 10 times. Seven times in the money. A good horse, but not stakes caliber. We would never sell him. We retired him. He has been retrained, it took nearly two years, but over the last 12 months we now ride him. It’s a wonderful thing for the family to go and see him and help to keep the memory of Nolan alive.”

With that Brian Spearman was off to Louisville. Eclipse also has a filly named Point of Honor. She is a second extra, and if a couple of horses scratch by Friday morning she’ll run in the Kentucky Oaks. An Oaks and Derby horse on the same Churchill Downs weekend? That is any horseman’s dream.

You just never know when the mint juleps start to fly. On Saturday, Drayden Van Dyke will climb aboard a 50-1 longshot, whose sire is Graydar, whose dam is Burg Berg and full brother is Lombo, and he will push into post position 4. What happens next? As Danza, Destin, Tapwrit and None Like Nolan rush through his memories, Brian Spearman knows only one thing.

“This game,” he said, “is amazing.”

jeff.jacobs

@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123