Tampa Bay Downs trainer Chad Stewart isn’t sure how he will react when 4-year-old gelding Tightend Touchdown – a horse he bred with his wife, veterinarian Dr. Laurie Stewart, at their Grace Full Oaks Farm in Ocala – enters the gate for Saturday’s $1-million GEICO Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita.
“Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it much,” said Stewart, who raced Tightend Touchdown in his first two starts as a 2-year-old before selling him privately to trainer David Jacobson. “It’s neat to say we have a horse we bred running in the Breeders’ Cup, but a lot of other people are saying the same thing. I don’t sit around and dwell on it. I think about the next champions we are going to raise.”
Tightend Touchdown is owned by Mr. Amore Stable and trained by Jason Servis, who has engineered a 2013 campaign in which he has won three of eight starts, with four seconds and a third. Included is a victory June 1 in the $150,000 Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup Handicap at Penn National going five furlongs on turf, plus a pair of runner-up efforts in Grade III turf sprints at Parx Racing.
The GEICO Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint is a six-and-a-half furlong race and has drawn a field of 14. Tightend Touchdown will break from the No. 7 post and be ridden by Javier Castellano.
Tightend Touchdown appears to have as much early speed as any horse in the race. Whether Castellano can make it last is anyone’s guess, but the Stewarts and their sons – Christian, 14, Zackary, 12, and Jacob, 10 – may get the thrill of a lifetime if their old friend leads the field on a merry chase on Santa Anita’s unique downhill turf course.
Few horses epitomize the rags-to-riches possibilities of Thoroughbred racing as well as Tightend Touchdown, who has been claimed four times since Stewart sold him – twice by his current owner, Ron Lombardi’s Mr. Amore Stable.
In 2008, the Stewarts sent their then-9-year-old mare Starry Mark, an allowance winner on the track, to Lou-Roe Farm near Morriston to be bred to Pure Precision, who they had purchased a share in when he went to stud. Pure Precision was precocious as a racehorse, winning the Grade III Sapling and the Tyro at Monmouth as a 2-year-old.
The Stewarts named the resultant foal after their then-10-year-old son Christian, who was scoring touchdowns left and right as a tight end on his youth football team.
“We raced two other horses out of the mare and they all acted like they could really run, but the first two turned out to be just horses,” Stewart said. “But (Tightend Touchdown) worked like a really good horse and showed ability from the first time we breezed him.”
Tightend Touchdown’s first career start on a sloppy track at Calder Race Course in Miami on Halloween of 2011 was a nightmare for the Stewarts. The 2-year-old ducked into the rail from his inside post position at the start and never reached contention, finishing last in a seven-horse field in the five-furlong, $12,500 maiden claiming race. But Stewart was not discouraged and decided to give him another chance to display his potential at Tampa Bay Downs before the year ended.
“He was very quick, and we thought he could win his first time out,” Stewart said. “He didn’t get a good chance at Calder with the weather and breaking poorly, but we really liked him when we entered him at Tampa.”
On Dec. 29 of that year on a fast track, Tightend Touchdown sprinted to the lead in the seven-furlong maiden claiming race and drew away under jockey Ademar Santos, romping by six-and-a-half lengths in an impressive time of 1:25.29. He paid $80.60 to win as the second-longest shot in the race.
“People think I bet all the time, but I don’t,” Stewart said, chuckling. “But we really liked him that day.”
Although he was not claimed, offers immediately rolled in for Tightend Touchdown. Stewart sold him through a bloodstock agent to Jacobson, who won three consecutive starts with him going six furlongs at Aqueduct and Pimlico.
Other than a start in the You and I Stakes on the dirt at Belmont as a 3-year-old in which he finished fourth, Tightend Touchdown raced exclusively in claiming company until Servis tried him in the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup Handicap. He drew off under Castellano to win by five-and-a-half lengths from top turf sprinters Bridgetown and Ben’s Cat in a stunning 54.62 seconds, .01 off the track record.
With a lifetime record of nine victories and five seconds from 21 starts, Tightend Touchdown is his sire’s top money-earner with winnings of $431,545. The majority of his earnings have come on the turf, where he is 3-for-8 with three seconds.
“He has a strong turf pedigree through his broodmare sire (multiple-Grade I winner Marquetry, who finished fourth in the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Classic),” Stewart said. “He has really blossomed all of a sudden. I really liked him when we raced him, but we got a really good price for him so we sold him. I don’t have second thoughts about selling him – I’m just happy for the little horse we named after one of our sons.”
The Nebraska native and wife Laurie have about 50 horses in training at 94-acre Grace Full Oaks and will look to improve on their sixth-place standing last season at Tampa Bay Downs, when they sent out 22 winners, when the 2013-14 meeting resumes Dec. 4. Earlier this year, another Chad and Laurie Stewart homebred – 3-year-old gelding Red Rocket Express, which they own in partnership with Tom Gregerson – finished second in the Grade III Carry Back Stakes at Calder, and Stewart and Gregerson’s 8-year-old gelding Let It Rock is a graded-stakes winner.
But family always comes first. Zackary has a youth football game Saturday that starts about the same time as the race (5:05 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time), and it was a no-brainer for his dad deciding whether to attend the game or watch the race at home on television.
“To me, the football game is more important. The decision was pretty easy. We really enjoy the kids’ games, and we probably miss a lot of other stuff to watch them play,” Stewart said.
“I’ll be able to watch the race on my phone, and we can watch the replay over and over on the computer. We might get some funny looks if the other team scores in the game and we’re up in the bleachers cheering for Tightend Touchdown. The boys hardly know anything about horses, and we don’t force it on them. They all do well at school and are into sports, and I’m happy with that,” he said.
“But we’ll all be rooting for the horse. It’s very exciting knowing a horse you bred is in the Breeders’ Cup.”