By T. Rees Shapiro
Friday, April 30, 2010; D03
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway will try to hold back tears Saturday afternoon as he walks to the paddock with his 72-year-old father to send off their colt, Stately Victor, as a last-minute entrant and long shot for the 136th run for the roses.
For most thoroughbred owners, Conway said, an entry in the Kentucky Derby is the "thrill of a lifetime," regardless of the horse's finish.
But May could be an exciting month for the Conway family for another reason. In two weeks, Kentuckians will head to the polls to vote in the state's U.S. Senate Democratic primary and then it will be Jack Conway's turn to race.
Conway, a George Washington University Law School graduate, is running to be the Democratic candidate in the November election to replace retiring Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.). While Stately Victor is considered an outlier in his race -- early odds place him at 30 to 1 -- Conway is a rising political power in the Democratic party who has achieved success as attorney general.
Tom Conway, Jack's father, is a former teacher and football coach who is now a Louisville lawyer. He has been in the thoroughbred industry for 35 years and likes to say the most homesick he's ever been for his native Bluegrass state was listening to the Kentucky Derby broadcast on Armed Forces Radio while he was overseas.
The father and son have always shared a passion for thoroughbreds. When Jack was a child, Tom helped him memorize every Kentucky Derby-winning horse and jockey.
"We used to drag him out at cocktail parties like a trick pony," Tom Conway said. "I used to take him to the track with me and watch the horses work. He grew up with a love for horses."
Conway has spent the last year on the campaign trail trying to gather support against his main Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo.
"I try to keep the two things separate, the horse racing and running for U.S. Senate," Conway said. "I'm extremely fortunate that people who are passionate about the horse racing industry recognize my passion for horses as well."
Running a campaign is hectic enough without adding a racing schedule to it. On April 10, Conway spoke at a rally with the Northern Kentucky Women's Network and a young Democrats convention. Then, that same afternoon, he rushed from Louisville to the Keeneland racetrack in Lexington to appear in the winner's circle after Stately Victor galloped away with the Blue Grass Stakes.
The horse's surprising win was the first time in six starts that he appeared on the board after his maiden victory on the Saratoga turf last September. He went off at 40-to-1 odds and had the largest betting payout in the race's history.
Longtime turf writer Bill Nack said Stately Victor is "a horse to watch."
"This is one of these kind of horses that comes out of nowhere," said Nack, who wrote the 1975 book "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion." "He's moving up, not going down or even. This last race was the best race he's ever done and he should improve. His arc is up and that immediately makes him dangerous."
In the turn for home, Stately Victor rallied from sixth place to chase down the leader and win by more than four lengths.
"I might be mimicking my horse's running style a little bit coming into the stretch," said Conway, who, according to an April 12 Louisville Courier-Journal poll has closed within three points of Mongiardo. "I've got all the momentum going into this race."
The Conways got their horse a year ago when Tom Conway sent trainer Mike Maker to a 2-year-old sale to check out a colt that had caught his eye in the catalog. The colt's sire is Ghostzapper, winner of the 2004 Breeders' Cup Classic. His mother is a stakes-winning mare whose father was Dynaformer, a breeding legend and sire of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.
Without seeing the colt in person, Tom Conway told Maker to bid "whatever it takes," which turned out to be $250,000.
Tom asked his son to join him in a partnership with the new horse and Jack agreed, noting when he first laid on eyes on him he said he appeared "regal looking."
As his son can attest, Tom Conway has a penchant for naming horses after friends and family. "Heck, he even named a horse after his doctor one time," Jack Conway said, noting his father's horse, Jack Spratt, was named for him and the character from a popular nursery rhyme.
But when it came time to name their colt, both agreed he was worthy of a someone close to their hearts. Victor Perrone and Jack Conway grew up as inseparable best friends. But on June 29, 1992, Victor, then 23, died in an automobile accident.
Now to be honoring his best friend with a Derby horse, Jack Conway said he feels slightly overwhelmed.
"I'm a dad to my 9-month-old daughter, my horse is in the Derby and I'm running for a U.S. Senate seat?" Conway said. "Oh, wow."
For Tom Conway, this is his life's peak. Every year he and his son have met in the Churchill Downs clubhouse to watch the owners parade their horses to the paddock for the derby.
"We always said, 'Someday we'll do that,' not really thinking," said Tom Conway. "But it turns out we're going to make that walk. You just don't know the odds."