John Clay

John Clay: Torre loses sleep with case of Derby fever

LOUISVILLE — Joe Torre hoped he had a Kentucky Derby horse two years ago.

The Los Angeles Dodgers manager and his friend Louis Lazzinnaro were minority owners of Vineyard Haven, a promising 2-year-old owned by Bobby Frankel, the late New York trainer.

But after Vineyard Haven won first the Hopeful at Saratoga and then the Champagne Stakes at Belmont in 2008, Godolphin Stables offered Frankel $8 million.

The trainer said no.

So Godolphin came back with a $12 million offer.

Frankel said yes.

"The next day, he had seller's remorse," Torre remembers.

But, now, a year later, Torre might have another chance. The Dodgers' skipper is part-owner of Homeboykris, a 3-year-old gelding who sits right on the cutoff line, 20th in graded-stakes earnings for the 136th Derby.

Should there be no defections, and should trainer Todd Pletcher enter the filly Devil May Care in the Derby, Homeboykris would be bounced from the field May 1.

But with the Dodgers playing a three-game series in Cincinnati, Torre made the drive down I-71 Wednesday.

"I got that middle-of-the-night wake-up call saying he was going to work," said Torre, whose Dodgers had lost 11-9 to the Reds on Tuesday night. "It's pretty cool, though. It's very cool."

It was Torre's first chance to actually see Homeboykris, owned by a group that includes Torre and Lazzinnaro, and trained by Rick Dutrow. The son of Roman Ruler worked 6 furlongs in 1:144⁄5 under jockey Julien Leparoux.

"I've been a racing fan for a long time," Torre said. "When I was growing up, my brother Frank used to take me to both the horse and harness track. Then I got away from it a little bit."

That was until Torre was manager of the New York Yankees and Don Zimmer was his bench coach.

"The mistake I made was giving him a couple of hundred dollars just to go to Pimlico," Torre said. "And he came back and gave me money. Once that happened, I got hooked."

Torre bought into horses, including Sis City, a filly who won the 2005 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, then ran fourth in the Kentucky Oaks.

That was the year Torre's former boss, George Steinbrenner, owned the Kentucky Derby favorite in Bellamy Road, who unfortunately ran up the track.

"I know it's something that George has longed for for a long time," Torre said. "It's something that's missing from his trophy case."

But it was Torre's connection with Lazzinarro that got the manager involved with Homeboykris. The horse had been partially owned by Lazzinnaro and Frankel before the trainer became ill with leukemia. Frankel died last November at age 68. While ill, Frankel turned over the horse to his friend Dutrow, who trained Homeboykris to a win in the Champagne.

After that, Lazzinnaro asked Torre whether he wanted to buy in, and the manager did.

"I knew Louis," said Torre, "and Jack Mandato (another owner) is also a friend of mine."

Unfortunately, Homeboy's 3-year-old campaign has yet to match his 2-year-old success. He ran fifth in the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 23, then second behind Radiohead in a $44,000 allowance race at Gulfstream on Feb. 27.

Still, Dutrow shipped the horse from Florida to Churchill on Tuesday.

That fit Torre's schedule. The manager drove down from Cincinnati with friends, saw the work, then visited with Bob Baffert, who trains Game On Dude, another horse in which Torre is a minority owner. Game On Dude is to run in Saturday's Derby Trial.

Torre, who won four World Series titles managing the Yankees, then stopped by Steve Asmussen's barn to get a look at another champion, Rachel Alexandra.

"It's exciting," said the manager. "From the time you understood anything, you knew what the Kentucky Derby was, and Churchill Downs. It's special. It really is special."

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