For Wake Forest couple, horse racing is an emotional ride

ldecock@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2013 

Barely visible through the mist, on the other side of the training track, the 3-year-old filly jogs under a tight rein. It’s almost impossible to make out any details other than her slow, controlled trot.

From a wooden bench outside the viewing shed at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland, in the rolling countryside not far from Baltimore and Philadelphia, George and Stephanie Autry watch the horse work out, at least what they can see in the rain on this gloomy, cold February morning.

From this vantage point, anything is possible.

The two Wake Forest lawyers own several racehorses, but Lady Banks is the star of their stable. They have flown north on this winter day to check up on her and monitor her progress. That afternoon, it will snow. In their minds, they are thinking only of spring.

They have visions of her running with the best 3-year-old fillies in the world at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Oaks, the female version of the Kentucky Derby, held a day before the big race in May. Among horse owners, it’s a prize only slightly less coveted than the Derby itself.

In Lady Banks, a muscular dark brown filly, they see stardom. Potential stardom, to be sure, but stardom nonetheless. For a horse like this, the Oaks is the pinnacle. Hundreds of owners and trainers all over the country have similar aspirations at this point. Only the fastest – and the hardiest – fillies will make it to Churchill Downs on the first Friday in May.

The Autrys haven’t been doing this long, but this isn’t the first time they have had a horse this promising. In 2011, they had a filly named Bellacourt, one of the first horses they bought. She won a stakes race as a 2-year-old and was nominated as one of the top 2-year-old fillies racing in New York. As high as their hopes are for Lady Banks, they were higher for Bellacourt.

That winter, before the Oaks was even an option for her, she suffered a potentially fatal injury in a training accident in November 2011. The Autrys made a considerable effort to save her life though she would never race again even if she survived. That December, after a series of complications, they had no choice but to euthanize her.

Their horses had lost races and suffered injuries, but they had never had a horse that good – or such a heartbreaking loss.

“It was unbelievable, something like that taken away,” Stephanie Autry said. “It wasn’t the money. It wasn’t racing. It was only a horse that didn’t deserve that to happen. How do you justify that?”

The question is unavoidable. They got into horse racing because they loved the excitement, but also because they loved the animals. They bought their first horse because they were worried about where he would end up, and pledged to make sure all of their racers found homes when they were retired.

“We don’t have a beach house,” George Autry said. “We don’t have a mountain house. My car has 220,000 miles on it. This is what we do.”

In the seven years they have owned horses, they have enjoyed amazing triumphs and endured devastating losses. They buy more horses each year, investing in hope in perpetuity on four legs. Lady Banks may be their next great horse, but as the Autrys know too well, nothing in horse racing is guaranteed. Everyone is gambling, the owners most of all.

An exclusive game

In their carefully preserved turn-of-the-century mill owner’s house in Wake Forest, they have two dogs, two cats with a total of three eyes, two extremely polite sons – one 12 and one 15, both runners – and almost as many pictures of horses as their children, all collected from their racing adventures of the past seven years.

The Autrys don’t do things halfway. For their legal clients, property owners in eminent domain cases, they have worked together to turn $400,000 offers from the state into multi-million dollar jury verdicts, including the largest ever awarded in Alamance County, $2.5 million. If they particularly like a restaurant, they might end up throwing a party at their house for the entire staff. When they open multiple bottles from their wine cellar for guests, predominantly very nice California reds, they send the half-full bottles home with them. And when they got into racing, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That isn’t much by racing standards. They are moving in a world of millionaires and billionaires, old money and private jets. The owners of Kentucky Derby winner Orb descend from one of Andrew Carnegie’s business partners.

North Carolina has a small thoroughbred industry, with a handful of owners and even a few breeders, but no racing. It’s not much compared to Virginia, let alone Kentucky or New York. The Autrys are outsiders in a world of insiders.

To get a horse into any of these races requires money, skill and an army of advisors with different areas of expertise. And luck. Sometimes the horses that win big races aren’t just the fastest horses. They’re the most durable.

The thoroughbred is precisely bred for speed, a finely tuned machine that puts enormous stress on any number of bones, tendons, hooves and other fragile body parts. It doesn’t take much to knock a horse out of training or into retirement, if not far worse – a tragedy the Autrys know all too well. A New York Times investigation last year found an average of 24 horses die a week on the track across the country. That doesn’t include deaths in training, where two of the Autrys’ horses have suffered fatal injuries.

They are blind neither to the risks nor the rewards, which only raises the stakes on Lady Banks.

“The thing you have to think about is, every race may be her last one,” George Autry said. “Bellacourt, if she had lived, it would have been so much fun.”

Bellacourt won her second race, in July 2011, and went on to race in three stakes races that fall. She finished third behind the top 2-year-old filly in the world in a big stakes at Saratoga, where New York’s racing elite spends the summer, and won $60,000 at Belmont on Oct. 22, 2011. She was 2-for-5 in her career, on the verge of greatness.

When Bellacourt was injured soon after that win, breaking her left foreleg, the Autrys went to extremes to save her life. She would never race again, but they turned to the same veterinarians that tried to save Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby champion who suffered a similar injury in the 2006 Preakness and fought for life for seven months.

Most racehorses would be euthanized in those circumstances, but both Barbaro and Bellacourt were deemed worth saving – in Bellacourt’s case, at considerable expense for a horse who had earned $101,550 on the track. After four surgeries, Bellacourt eventually succumbed, like Barbaro, to laminitis, a painful hoof infection that often afflicts injured horses.

“Everybody knew it was a long shot,” Stephanie Autry said.

“We cried for days,” George Autry said.

When the Autrys went to New York after Bellacourt’s death in January 2012 to attend the New York racing awards ceremony, where she had been nominated for best 2-year-old filly, Bellacourt’s breeder invited them to visit her mother. They got to the farm only to find out the mare, Golden Court, had died suddenly only two days after giving birth to a foal.

Bellacourt, who brought them so much joy, left them with only sorrow.

Still, they kept at it. They have seven horses in training now, with Lady Banks leading the way. It’s a money-losing indulgence and a tax write-off, but neither is the point.

“I don’t really care all that much about racing,” Stephanie Autry said. “I just love the horses. … (George) analyzes everything to death without a purpose. If he worked as hard on his cases, we’d have more horses.”

It is precisely because it is not a cold-hearted business for them that the losses are all the more heartbreaking. Among the keepsakes at their home: A lock of Bellacourt’s mane, that first great horse never forgotten.

An accidental indulgence

The Autrys were making small talk with a client in the summer of 2006, when Barbaro’s name was in the national news. That client owned a share of a partnership that raced horses in the Northeast. They bought in for $10,000. They won a few races. They were hooked.

They hadn’t been involved for long when the partnership got ready to dump one of its less successful horses in a cheap race. Too often, that’s the entrance to the netherworld of horse racing, where shady trainers pump injured horses full of drugs to run at small-town tracks.

“At that level, you don’t know where they’re going,” George Autry said. “The one deal we made, we’re going to see where they end up.”

They bought the horse from the partnership instead, and struck out on their own in the winter of 2008. Neither of the partnership’s trainers was interested in training that lowly horse, appropriately named Hasta Luego. They had to find someone willing to do it. And while they left the partnership, they never left the people who ran it, experts in assessing and buying young racehorses. Going out on their own, they needed both.

The partnership had sent a few unruly and injured horses to a former steeplechase jockey named James “Chuck” Lawrence II. The son of a trainer himself, unusually tall for a jockey, Lawrence was known for his skills as a horseman. Unlike many of the nationally successful trainers, who are as much businessmen as horsemen, operating through an army of assistant trainers, Lawrence had a hands-on operation.

The Autrys liked his old-school style. He owns and races a few horses of his own, but the Autrys are the only client in his tidy barn at Fair Hill. When they go visit their horses, they are welcomed, not tolerated.

They visit Fair Hill often. Stephanie Autry moves among the stalls, from horse to horse. When she gets to Divadora, a playful filly who stomps on the ground for attention, Autry coos to her, rubbing her nose between her eyes, offering Divadora a peppermint from her palm.

“It makes it so much more fun we’re doing it the blue-collar way,” George Autry said. “These moments, Chuck’s giving us and we’re giving him.”

Lawrence took Hasta Luego, 1-for-14 in his career, and started racing him on grass. Hasta Luego ended up winning five more races and earning more than $100,000 before the Autrys retired him to pasture.

To buy more horses, they stuck with the partnership’s main advisors, a former trainer named Patti Miller and a financial executive turned horse analyst named Jeff Seder. At sales of yearlings or 2-year-olds, Miller and Seder do stride analysis using slow-motion video and heart scans using sophisticated ultrasound technology. It’s leading-edge technology, and they make an odd pair, Miller the forthright horsewoman, Seder the wonky mad scientist.

Their firm, EQB, has clients who spend millions a year on horses and get right of first refusal on the most promising. Occasionally, a few slip through to the Autrys. Bellacourt was one of those, back in August of 2010, a yearling Miller and Seder rated highly who didn’t meet her minimum price at auction. Miller went back to the owner and negotiated a deal. She cost only $25,000.

Emboldened by Bellacourt’s success, undeterred by her untimely end, the Autrys would soon spend more.

In the spring of 2012, only four months after Bellacourt died, George Autry was Miller and Seder’s only client to attend a sale of 2-year-olds in training in Ocala, Fla. The Autrys had their pick of horses and bought two, for a staggering total of $275,000 by their standards: a filly they named Lady Banks, after the variety of rose growing on an arbor in their yard; and a burly colt they named Mingo Creek.

Lady Banks walked with a mincing stride on sore legs but still ran faster than many of her peers at the sale.

“George thought I’d lost my mind when I wanted to buy that horse,” Miller said. “But she had a very good heartbeat, she was a beautiful filly, had great cardio. It was something she was going to get over, and a lot of people were hitting her hard for that. She proved something to me I really liked: despite adversity, she put her head down and ran.”

George Autry kept calling and texting Stephanie: “If we can get her with Chuck, if she can run like that while she can barely walk with bucked shins, what if…?”

“What if” is the story of the horse-racing game. Mingo Creek never made it. He died that spring in a gruesome training accident, throwing his rider and crashing through a metal gate at Fair Hill. But Lady Banks thrived. She nearly won her debut in November, getting stuck behind a wall of horses, and roared from behind to win her second start.

On the basis of those two impressive races, the Autrys entered her in the Ruthless Stakes in January at Aqueduct, and Lady Banks made another charge from behind, winning by two lengths. Lawrence told the Daily Racing Form she had Oaks potential. Now they had to figure out how to get her there.

Decisions and disappointment

The article in the racing form wasn’t the only notice taken of Lady Banks. Considerable attention is paid to a horse that runs that well. Substantial offers well into six figures were made to buy her, and declined. The owners of her sire, Successful Appeal, took out an ad in a trade publication touting her success.

The Autrys were never forced to make these kind of difficult decisions with Bellacourt. Merely to get into the Oaks field, she would need to accumulate qualifying points in specific races run all over the East Coast, all at a higher level of competition than Lady Banks had yet faced. She would need to run at a much longer distance than she had in her career. And as well as she ran in the Ruthless, she would need to show considerable improvement – but Lawrence, based on his observations, and Miller, based on her data, were both confident Lady Banks had more to offer.

So at Fair Hill, that meant sorting through conflicting advice on everything from schedules to jockeys over lunch at Lawrence’s house. Miller, never shy to share her opinions, pushed hard for what most of her clients would do: Go to Florida’s Gulfstream Park for the first prep race, a big-money stakes that would give Lady Banks a chance to run at a longer distance. The laconic Lawrence only says what he thinks needs to be said, but it was clear he wanted to stay closer to home, in shorter races in New York, and give an abscess in one of Lady Banks’ hooves more time to heal.

“From my perspective, I’ve got a bunch of different people telling me how to do my job,” Lawrence said. “It’s frustrating at times, but at the same time, they’re taking me places that are hard to reach. The only way to get there is by making a reach.”

This tension between Lawrence and Miller – between old-school horsemanship and cutting-edge technology, between personal and corporate – is the duality that has guided the Autrys to whatever success they have had in horse racing. On this one, the Autrys were torn. Was she ready for this level of competition? How would she fare so far from home?

“If you go down there, a lot of things can happen,” George Autry said. “It’s an education.”

They went to Florida. The race was a flop. Lady Banks hated the hard, fast track at Gulfstream Park and not even Dreaming of Julia, the pre-race favorite and a top Oaks contender, could keep up with Live Lively, a speedball that took an early lead and never looked back. (It was her last win. In May, she suffered two broken legs while training and had to be euthanized.) Lady Banks finished fourth out of five horses.

Undeterred, convinced she had more to offer, the Autrys decided to enter her in the Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland, in Lexington, Ky., the Augusta National of horse racing, on Sunday, April 14.

With its old stone buildings and suit-and-tie crowd, Keeneland’s season is as unique as it is brief. There are only two race meetings, in the spring and fall, and some of the best trainers make it a point to stop at Keeneland on their way south for the winter or on their way home – or to Churchill Downs for the Derby.

As owners of a horse in the feature race that Sunday, the Autrys received top treatment from Keeneland – a special parking spot for their rental Toyota, a reserved box in the grandstand and a table in a private dining room high above the track exclusively for owners with horses in the Beaumont.

For all the expense of owning horses, there’s no way to quantify a moment like this, when your horse is loaded in the gate for the big race of the day, the jockey wearing your own blue-and-yellow silks, and anything can happen.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a horse in the Oaks,” George Autry said, awaiting the start. “This is so cool.”

The Beaumont, at a distance of a little more than seven furlongs, or 7/8ths of a mile, started across the track, from a chute off the back of Keeneland’s oval track. Lady Banks broke well. She was in the middle of the pack down the backstretch, between horses in traffic

Just before the horses entered the turn, a horse named Ciao Bella Luna made a move past Lady Banks on the outside, going wide to challenge the leaders. Jockey Joe Rocco Jr., sensing opportunity, urged Lady Banks to go with her.

“She gave me three jumps,” Rocco said afterward. “That’s all.”

With no response, the rest of the field quickly passed the slowing Lady Banks, who galloped home alone, last of 11, well behind Ciao Bella Luna, an upset winner at 7-1.

As the victors celebrated in the winner’s circle, Lawrence and the Autrys watched a replay of the race on a large video board. A fan standing nearby threw down his tickets.

“My horse ran last,” the gambler moaned.

“So did mine,” George Autry said, under his breath.

Taking their lumps

An hour later, Lady Banks walked through the barn to cool down, her head hung low. A Keeneland veterinarian arrived, and Lady Banks was secured in her stall. The vet snaked a camera down Lady Banks’ left nostril and found considerable bleeding in her lungs. This is not an uncommon problem in racehorses, capillaries in the lungs bursting under exertion, but it’s enough to keep them from running competitively.

Lady Banks had bled a little after the race in Florida. She bled more this time. Lady Banks was given Lasix before the race, a standard diuretic that often helps control bleeding, but it wasn’t enough. Two races in a row, she bled, each worse than the next. It’s a treatable condition, but her path to the Oaks ended there.

After a minor surgery to correct an issue with her palate that may have contributed to the bleeding, the Autrys still believed, based on the races she ran in New York, that they have an elite horse, even if her last two races hadn’t shown it.

“If her last two races are throw-outs, then she still has the ability to be as good as we thought she was,” George Autry said. “Obviously we don’t know. She sure didn’t prove it in those. Either they’re throw-outs or not. So we wanted to give her one good chance at a closer track.”

That track was Baltimore’s Pimlico, in the Black-Eyed Susan. What the Oaks is to the Derby, the Black-Eyed Susan is to the Preakness. There were fewer variables, a new jockey, old aspirations. They passed on another, shorter race on the card that might have been an easier spot to give her one last chance to show what she could do on one of racing’s biggest stages – nationally televised on NBC Sports Network amid the gaiety of Preakness weekend.

Lady Banks broke slowly and ran last all the way around the track, finishing 34 lengths behind winner Fiftyshadesofhay, 12 lengths behind the next horse up the track.

If you believe horses want to race – it’s in their blood, bred going back hundreds of years – and you love being around them, you’re going to race them. That makes it hurt all the more when you lose a horse like Bellacourt or a promising horse like Lady Banks can’t deliver on that potential. That makes the gap between success and failure seem tiny at times and insurmountable at others.

One of Autrys’ horses, Sampson County, finished only seven lengths back in a race last November. The winner of that race was Orb, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby six months later. Sampson County has raced only once since and has yet to win.

That’s the game, the good and the bad. It’s in their blood now, too.

“I don’t think either Jeff or myself thought they were in for the long term,” said Miller, who is boarding Hasta Luego on her farm until he can find a permanent home. “That was OK. It’s always good to get new people into racing. But they just keep showing up. They came to Saratoga and had a great time. The nice thing about both of them is they take their lumps with a sense of humor. That’s a big deal in this game. There’s a lot of lumps. You have to learn to like them.”

The Autrys entered three horses that weekend, Lady Banks and two promising 2-year-olds making their debuts. Two finished last. One finished second-to-last. They took their lumps.

“We’re pretty disappointed and confused,” George Autry said. “But we’re just lucky to have horses that can put you in a position like that. Next time, maybe we’ll have a better outcome.”

Lady Banks will undergo an MRI exam Monday to check for any hidden physical issues. If that comes up clean, she still has a bright future. Because she was bred in Ontario, Lady Banks could race in restricted races there that might offer better purses at an easier level of competition. While she has struggled at longer distances, she’s a proven sprinter. She may yet end up winning a lot of races, making a lot of money, taking the Autrys on the kind of ride they thought they were going to get this spring.

Lady Banks isn’t the horse they hoped she would be, not at this point in her career. She isn’t the next Bellacourt. Now they have to get her back to being the horse they thought she was, in a game where nothing is ever as you think it is.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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