If you watched the Kentucky Derby coverage on TV, one name flashed past over and over: Jeff Ruby.
As in Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, the sponsor of winning jockey Mike Smith, who was virtually the only jockey whose trousers were still white after this year's exceptionally muddy Run for the Roses.
At least six other jockeys also were wearing the restaurant's logo, though some might not have been seen because of the mud. And in Saturday's Preakness, all but one of the jockeys in the field will be wearing it.
How — and why — did Jeff Ruby come to own horse racing?
"We’ve been doing it for a long time," Ruby said this week. "I’ve been with Mike Smith for quite a few years, and Joe Talamo since he was 19."
Jeff Ruby sponsors Talamo even though the young champion jockey races almost exclusively on the West Coast, where Ruby has no restaurants.
In fact, his steakhouse has only four locations, with another coming to Lexington once the CentrePointe/City Center buildings are finished. ("The Lexington one is going to be our best one yet," Ruby said.)
Several years ago Smith approached Ruby and said he'd like to wear the Jeff Ruby logo because he liked the steakhouse so much. But Ruby said he didn't think he couldn't afford to do it; at the time, Ram Truck had launched a major sponsorship with the Kentucky Derby, including a VIP lounge area for jockeys and horse owners.
"Mike said, 'we love your restaurant, you don’t have to pay us anything,'" Ruby said. Instead, Ruby made a donation to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which supports riders who have been severely injured, such as Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat and is now paralyzed.
Ruby had met Turcotte in his restaurant in Lousiville. "He couldn't be nicer," he said.
"That’s how it started, then everybody wanted to jump on that bandwagon," Ruby said. Now riders get an annual fee for doing it.
"I call it a 'parimutuel admiration society,'" Ruby joked. "It’s a horse racing thing now."
Last year, Ruby won the sponsorship Triple Crown: jockeys he sponsored won all the Kentucky Derby (John Velazquez on Always Dreaming), the Preakness (Javier Castellano on Cloud Computing) and the Belmont (Jose Ortiz on Tapwrit.)
Ruby won't say how much he pays the jockeys for putting his logo on their pants. But he's convinced it's worth the cost, even as TV viewership for racing has plummeted.
"The ratings are down but brand value for the Derby is estimated well over $1 million and you get a lot of residual, what I call collateral advantage … before the Preakness they'll show that Derby win over and over," Ruby said.
In the beginning, nobody else in his organization thought it was worthwhile. That's changed.
At last year's Preakness, his attorney texted him, saying "you're a genius," Ruby said. "He’s watching an hour before the race and they're showing all the reruns, with the pants, and interviewing Javier with the hat, with the shirt under their silks."
That ubiquitous logo prompted NBC sportscaster Cris Collinsworth to text Ruby, too: "This is the Jeff Ruby Preakness!"
Not quite, but now Ruby really does have a race: The Jeff Ruby Steaks (get it?) debuted this spring at Turfway Park.
And expect to hear a lot more about that race because the winner, Blended Citizen, is slated to run in the Belmont.
And yes, the jockey will be wearing the Jeff Ruby Steakhouse on his pants.