Owner Finds Joy in Loyalty

Big Brown Part of Pompa's Payback

A look inside the community of 120 grooms, hot walkers and stable workers who live full-time at the Pimlico racetrack, tending to the horses -- and each other -- all year long.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008; Page E01

NEW YORK -- Paul Pompa Jr. glanced at his laptop screen Wednesday morning, eagerly checking if the e-mail he was waiting for had appeared. "Not here yet," he said. In most ways, this day was like any other for the owner of horse racing's star of the moment. Pompa woke up at his home in Warren, N.J., at 4:30 a.m. and arrived at his office in Brooklyn by 6:30. He ensured the trucks left the yard on time, then settled behind his desk, one room over from his brother Tom and his cousin Pete.

Pompa owns Truck-Rite Corp., the business he took over from his father then built from a small, family operation into one of the largest trucking companies in the city. Truck-Rite employs roughly 200 workers, and Pompa can match a name with every face. Pompa's presence in the office ceased being necessary for his own financial well-being long ago, but he works every day, anyway. "What else am I going to do?" he said.

Wednesday, though, was different, more urgent and more exciting. Five minutes had passed, and he spun around in his chair and refreshed his e-mail again. "Oh," he said. "Here it is." Confirmation had arrived.

"You're here when history is being made," Pompa told a visitor. "We're selling the breeding rights to Big Brown."

Pompa, 49, is a common man within stunningly close reach to one of sport's most uncommon feats. He bought a horse for $190,000 at a 2-year-old-in-training sale at Keeneland in April 2007, shortly after he had renewed Truck-Rite's lucrative contract with United Parcel Service. To celebrate, and to give a nod to the drivers of UPS trucks, Pompa named the horse Big Brown. That horse won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, and he may become the first since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, the second leg of which will run Saturday at the Preakness Stakes.

Pompa owns just 25 percent of Big Brown now, since he sold the majority of him to International Equine Acquisitions Holdings for about $3 million after Big Brown's maiden race in September. But Pompa, some eight years after he jumped into horse racing, has forged a unique place at the sport's apex, a blue-collar New Yorker without pretense in an industry loaded with it.

"I hope to be thought of as different, yeah," Pompa said, a thin smile spreading on his face. And he is. Trainer Patrick Reynolds met Pompa in 2002, when they ate lunch in Pompa's Truck-Rite office. Reynolds, who like Pompa was born in New York, drew an immediate contrast between Pompa and the other owners he knows.

Pompa wears modest clothing and no gaudy jewelry. He and his wife, Lisa, have two sons -- the eldest will be graduating from college this year; the youngest will be graduating from high school. Pompa speaks directly and honestly. He brings his cousin Jerry, a longtime handicapper, with him, because Pompa relies on him for advice. Reynolds has seen owners bluster their way into -- and quickly out of -- the horse racing game.

"In this day and age, it's a daily hustle; it's a war," said Reynolds, who trained Big Brown before the sale to IEAH. "If the game had more owners like him, it would be a whole lot easier to negotiate. He takes care of the people around him. He's the best owner that I've had."

Pompa entered horse racing in 2000 because, he said: "I needed an outlet. I needed some action." He's received all he wants in the past year, ever since Big Brown won his first race by 11 3/4 lengths, a staggering margin. He took 26 family members and friends with him to the Kentucky Derby, paying the expenses for them all.

"It's fun to be me right now," Pompa said.

The week after his victory, though, he was back at his second-floor office, the one that overlooks the East River. He brought with him a stack of victory photographs from the Derby, but nothing else had changed. He didn't need to be there, and yet he was.

"He could walk away and live a nice life," Tom Pompa said. "There's a concern for the 200 employees."

Said Pompa: "It means something when they see the boss of the company -- a Kentucky Derby-winning owner -- here at 6:30 in the morning."

By 2000, his trucking business had begun to nearly run itself, more successful than his father ever could have imagined. Paul Pompa Sr. was the first one in his family born in the United States rather than Italy. He worked on an assembly line at Curtis-Wright Aeronautical until 1966.

"He said, '[Forget] this, I'm starting my own business,' " Pompa said.

He bought a couple trucks and a building in Manhattan. He and his brother drove and delivered freight themselves, and Paul Sr. swelled the business enough that he could send the oldest of his four children off to Kings College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Paul Jr. graduated from Kings in 1980 and returned home unsure of what would come next. He had been a journalism and government double major; maybe, he figured, he would become a senator. In the meantime, he went to work for his father, who asked him, "What the hell did I send you to college for if you want to do this?"

But Pompa's education had allowed him to see more potential in Truck-Rite than his father ever had. He struck deals with paper companies springing up around New York and doubled Truck-Rite's revenue in eight months. Paul Sr. had always squeaked by on his street smarts, and his son's education offered a perfect balance.

"You always use the textbook method," his father would tell him.

In 1982, his father named him company president at age 24. Father and son moved their business from Manhattan to the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, where Pompa's 85 trucks now occupy eight acres. In 1980, the company made $500,000. Last year, Truck-Rite grossed $20 million.

It was not always smooth. Pompa's two largest accounts declared bankruptcy in 1990, and production dwindled. His workforce was too large for the amount of work required. Pompa didn't lay off a single driver. He and Pete Durante, his cousin and partner, would wait until 3 a.m. some nights to make sure all the truckers arrived back in Greenpoint safely.

"We could have been doing a lot better off if we had" fired people, Durante said. "We could have cut a bunch of people. Paul is the most patient person I've ever met in my life."

The partnership with UPS came in 1994, and Pompa never worried about employing too many drivers again. Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. worked in the same office together until November 2000, when Paul Sr. suffered a heart attack and died. Paul Sr.'s desk remains untouched in tribute, its contents as they were when he passed away: black, plastic shelves holding paperwork; a toy model of a Mack truck; a thick, multicolored glass dish; two pens jutting up from a gold nameplate that reads "Paul Pompa Sr."

Before he died, Paul Pompa Sr. watched horses his son owned win three races. The first horse Pompa bought, a filly, gave Pompa his first victory. He named her Textbook Method.

Pompa owns roughly 20 horses aside from Big Brown, including one who doesn't race anymore. He once sent a horse to a farm, and a disabled girl who lived there became attached to it. The farm's owner wrote Pompa a four-page letter detailing how much the girl had fallen in love with the horse, how she saw courage in it and how it had helped her healing. Pompa told the farm's owner to keep the horse.

"We're only here for a short time. If you don't help other people, what good are you?" Pompa said. "I made more money in my life than I ever thought I was going to make. If you don't do right by other people, then what good are ya?"

He paused.

"I'm not trying to be a philosopher. I'm just trying to give you the way I feel about life. I try to treat people the way I want to be treated, and I think I've been rewarded for that. If I gave you a story or two or three, it would be bragging. I don't want to come off as a braggart. But you know, I've helped a lot of people in my life. I view this run that I'm on right now as, maybe, sort of payback for being a good person."

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