Preakness Stakes 2012: J. Paul Reddam’s philosophy of horse racing
By Andrew Beyer,
Post-race interviews in the Triple Crown races rarely deviate from the usual cliches, and it is safe to say that there had never been a reference in the winner’s circle to the author of “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.”
But as owner J. Paul Reddam accepted the trophy for the 2012 Kentucky Derby, NBC’s Bob Costas asked him: “As a former philosophy professor at USC, which of the great philosophers summed up a day like this best?”
“Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Reddam replied, and quoted the arcane Austrian thinker: “After all the philosophical problems have been solved, nothing of importance will have been accomplished.”
“So,” he told the stunned Costas, “we got into horse racing.”
That was a summary of Reddam’s life, from academia to Churchill Downs and to Pimlico for Saturday’s Preakness, though in the middle there was another key phase — a business innovation that allowed him to go from being an underpaid teacher to an owner of high-end racehorses.
A native of Ontario, Reddam studied at the University of Toronto, got his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California — and was teaching at Cal State in the 1980s. He loved philosophy, particularly logic and epistemology — the study of knowledge — but he didn’t relish the academic world. He said, “It’s really competitive, absolutely cutthroat, and it doesn’t pay anything. I asked myself: ‘Why am I doing this?’ ”
He thought, briefly, that he might be able to support himself as a bettor. Reddam had been a harness-racing fan since his youth in Canada, and he bought his first standardbred when he was in college. But when he moved to California, beheld the majestic setting of Santa Anita and watched great horses such as Spectacular Bid and John Henry, he fell in love with thoroughbred racing and became a student of the game. However, as he tried to support himself by gambling, he learned a familiar lesson: “When you have to do it for a living, it’s really hard.”
In order to make a respectable living, Reddam went into the mortgage business. His father was a mortgage banker, and Reddam practiced the business in a conventional fashion until he had the “Eureka!” moment that changed his life.
Driving on a Los Angeles freeway, he passed a billboard that showed the current temperature in LED lights. An idea shot through his mind: Why not put today’s interest rate for a home loan on a sign like that? In the mid-1980s, anybody who bought a house used some type of middleman to obtain a mortgage. Why not, Reddam thought, sell those mortgages directly to the buyer? After one false start, he founded Ditech Funding. Its interest rates went up on billboards, and its ubiquitous commercials — with a fat mortgage broker grumbling, “I lost another loan to Ditech!” — made the company’s name famous. Reddam sold the business to General Motors Acceptance Corp. in 1999 but subsequently got further involved into subprime finance by founding CashCall, a company that makes unsecured loans to high-risk borrowers.
His business success gave him the resources to start buying good thoroughbreds. He made some successful purchases of horses who had established some form for other owners — including Swept Overboard, who won the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont, and Wilko, who captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He subsequently ventured into auction markets, and he acquired I’ll Have Another out of a sale of 2-year-olds for the modest price of $37,000.
Reddam employs several California trainers as well as agents and advisers, but he is not a passive owner. He has his own strong opinions about the game, some of them informed by his academic background. In racing, he said, “People draw conclusions from events when they don’t have enough evidence to draw those conclusions. A horse wins on a sloppy track and people say, ‘He loves the mud,’ but there could have been a dozen factors besides the surface that affected the outcome. They make a lot of inferences about pedigrees in that way. People don’t allow a little space to entertain other ideas.”
Owners with strong opinions often do more harm than good; their trainers are the professionals with the knowledge to manage horses. Yet Reddam held an opinion — one that would have been disdained by most racetrack people — that wound up making a chapter in Kentucky Derby history.
When I’ll Have Another was about to make his 3-year-old debut this winter, Reddam discussed the choice of a jockey with trainer Doug O’Neill. The top riders at Santa Anita weren’t available and the owner wasn’t enthusiastic about any of the second-tier options. Reddam had watched a virtually unknown rider named Mario Gutierrez in action and said, “He looked very professional in the irons,” proposing his name to O’Neill. The trainer made some inquiries and then told the owner, “If you want to ride him, okay.” (Reddam said: “Doug’s attitude is: ‘Whatever the client says is right.’ I think sometimes he takes too much input.”)
After Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another won at odds of 43 to 1, the colt became a leading contender for the Santa Anita Derby, plenty of people were telling O’Neill that he would be crazy to and ride the kid in the $750,000 race. But Gutierrez kept the assignment. Reddam said, “We all knew it would be bad karma to take him off the horse for the Santa Anita Derby.”
The rest is history. After winning the Santa Anita Derby, Gutierrez came to Churchill Downs for the first time in his life, rode a perfect tactical race in the Kentucky Derby, seizing the lead in mid-stretch. “The last eighth of a mile took 13.3 seconds,” Reddam said, “but it seemed like an hour. It seemed like time stopped — and it did. Then suddenly the security people were on me saying, ‘Come this way.’” Reddam was on his way to the winner’s circle to celebrate the most joyous moment of which a horse owner can dream.
Wittgenstein once declared: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” On the first Saturday in May, an ex-philosophy teacher might have disputed one of the great thinkers of the 20th century.
For Andy Beyer’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.