Donegal Racing
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Two Atlantans hold small share of Derby dream

May 1, 2015

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Article via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Steve Hummer

Keith Mason went to his first Kentucky Derby in 1991, back when he was Gov. Zell Miller’s chief of staff, if only to look at the big hats and the gleaming horses and to mingle with some Bluegrass State pols.

It was his gateway visit, and in no time he was hooked on the Sport of Kings (and sheiks and tycoons and Wall Street giants).

Pretty soon he was making the Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby pilgrimage an annual routine. He was mastering the code of the Racing Form. Summers at Saratoga became de rigueur.

Now look at Mason. Not only will he be in Louisville for horse racing’s most famous weekend, he will own a little piece — two hoofs and a fetlock maybe — of horses in both the $1 million Oaks for fillies and the $2 million Derby. It is the ultimate ownership exacta.

Along the way, Mason brought in another Atlantan, Larry Connolly, a semi-retired businessman looking an outlet, for another 2.5 percent share in an ownership syndicate that will take two dozen partial owners from all over the country to the big races.

“I’ve had a lot of great thrills in my life,” said Mason, a partner in the Atlanta law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge. “I’ve worked with the president of the United States (as part of the Clinton administration), been a lot of places, done a lot of things personally, professionally and politically. But this is by far one of the top experiences. It’s up there.”

“I haven’t felt this way since Christmas Eve when I was a lad,” Connolly said.

Along the path of Mason’s indoctrination to racing, he befriended Jerry Crawford, head of Donegal Racing, an Iowa-based partnership group. Each year, Donegal buys a small collection of yearlings, with each shareholder sharing proportionally in the fortunes or failings of each horse.

“A couple years ago, my wife gave me some money to invest in a race horse,” Mason said, acknowledging the exchequer in the family with a chuckle. “I looked around for a partial ownership deal. I wanted to go in with somebody I could trust and a program that I knew.” So he gave Crawford the money. Connelly followed later, after one member of the group fell out.

During the 2013 yearling sale in Keeneland, Donegal bought 10 yearlings. One subsequently died, the other nine went to train. Out of thousands of horses bought each year, only 20 would make it to the Derby and fewer to the Oaks. There is no mystery to the Donegal objective — “We work to identify and buy horses that can run a classic distance and make it to the Kentucky Derby. Period,” it proclaims on its web site. But it’s really not that easy.

One of their 2013 purchases was Keen Ice, whose sire was 2007-08 Horse of the Year Curlin. He cost $120,000. Keen Ice will start from the 14th hole in Saturday’s Derby, at 50-to-1 early odds, with late speed and a couple third-place prep race finishes to recommend him. Three-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux will be aboard.

Another, the only filly the group bought, was Puca, which also will start on the outside, 14th in the 15-horse Kentucky Oaks on Friday. She was 15-to-1 in advance.

The odds on a couple of guys from Atlanta jumping into a small partnership and landing in these two races were far longer. Mason and Connolly have won an equine lottery, as they are fully aware.

“We clearly didn’t enter this as a pure investment opportunity,” Connolly said. “I am not experienced enough to do this as a business investment. I’m doing this with my heart and hoping for a favorable outcome, which has been exceeded in spades this year.”

In six years of operation, this is the third horse Donegal has brought to the Derby. Both the other two finished in the money, both third. You get the idea the partners would be quite happy if Keen Ice followed that form.

The emotional payoff likely will be substantially more certain than anything passed through the betting window. Especially should Keen Ice be anywhere in the mix during Saturday’s stretch run.

“I like to fancy myself as normally calm, but I think all that goes out the window during horse racing,” Connolly said.

“Even to the casual fan, the person who goes once every five years, if you’re betting money and your horse is in the hunt, it’s exhilarating. Never mind being an owner, that’s over-the-top exciting,” he said.

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