Published in the June 15 issue of The Blood-Horse
In the 1970s, when he attended the University of Kentucky, Gary Drake would forgo class and head out to Keeneland "with $4 in my pocket trying to make my fortune." It's unlikely Drake made a score equal to the one he enjoyed when his New Phoenix Stable's Sarava shocked both him and the rest of the racing world by capturing the June 8 Belmont Stakes (gr. I). "Those $2 bets at Keeneland paid off, didn't they?" asked Drake, whose Belmont betting slips were likely in larger denominations. Drake, 44, grew up in the southern Kentucky town of Franklin, home of Kentucky Downs (formerly Dueling Grounds). He co-owns Sarava 50-50 with the husband and wife team of Paul and Susan Roy, who reside in Great Britain. The unassuming Drake, now a resident of Louisville, made sure to give recognition to Roy, a Merrill-Lynch president who bought Sarava through English bloodstock agent Richard Galpin out of last year's February Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-old sale. "He took the risk of buying this horse for a lot of money and he deserves the credit," said Drake a few days before the Belmont. "He's a great partner and a dedicated owner. But he has a board meeting and is devastated he can't make it here for the race." If Roy was devastated before the victory, he must have been downright distraught after Sarava took home the carnations. "He's never had a horse run in the U.S. before, so he probably thinks this happens all the time," Drake laughed. New Phoenix Stable derives its name from Drake's primary business, Phoenix Process Equipment. He owns the manufacturing company, which makes and sells water treatment filters to large industrial concerns such as Coca-Cola, Union-
Carbide, and Shell. After a stopover in Kentucky the day after the Belmont, Drake was on his way to Florida for a meeting. Drake was very much on the scene in New York, however, and seemed to be floating through a state of euphoria throughout the trophy presentations and post-race interviews. While he was shocked, though, he was not thoroughly surprised. "You don't bring one over there at 70-1 and not be shocked when you cross the finish line first," he explained. "But he's been training great all week. (Trainer) Kenny (McPeek) and I have been watching him improve every day, so while it was a surprise, it really wasn't, because the horse has been touting himself to us. I came here thinking I had a shot, but it's kind of one of those wildest dreams." It was 1989 when Drake began realizing his dream. While he played at Keeneland during college, he thought to himself how cool it would be to own horses. In '89, a neighbor introduced him to Alex Rankin, who raises horses at his Upson Downs Farm in Goshen, near Louisville. "We bought a couple of fillies privately and both turned out to be stakes winners," said Drake. "I figured this was pretty easy and it was a lot of fun. Thirteen years later I know it's not that easy--but it's still fun." Those first fillies were Ice Trick and Fatal Distraction, the latter of whom Drake still owns as a broodmare. She is now a multiple stakes producer. Drake has also campaigned Stage Colony and ran Lotus Pool in the 1992 Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), finishing 10th. Today he has five horses in training. And one star. Sarava raced last year for Roy in European turf contests, for which he showed little affinity. Galpin, with whom Drake had done business in the past, approached him offering half of Sarava. After studying his pedigree Drake determined that if Sarava could handle dirt, "he'd be a useful horse." He bought half for $250,000. When Sarava went out and broke his maiden going two turns at Churchill Downs, "useful" was discarded and "special" turned up in Drake's thoughts. Burk Kessinger Jr. trained Sarava in his maiden-breaker, and McPeek had a horse run third behind him. McPeek approached Drake after the race to see if he'd be interested in selling. "I told him we were gonna take our chances with him and see how he turns out," Drake said. Wise move. He was already dreaming Derby, and when Kessinger opted to remain up north over the winter, Drake asked McPeek if he had a stall at Gulfstream Park for Sarava. The horse changed conditioners. The Derby trail grew cold, however, because of a quarter crack that McPeek called one of the worst he's ever seen. "Kenny had to put up with me calling every week and asking when we were gonna get going with him," said Drake. That happened on the Preakness undercard, when Sarava buried the Sir Barton field by four lengths. That effort punched the two-time-winner's ticket to the Belmont. "I thought this horse had a great cruising speed in the mornings over this racetrack," said Drake of Belmont. "(Jockey) Edgar (Prado) shook him up and put him in the race and settled him, and when he started picking them off on his own I thought he had every opportunity to win. When he turned for home and made the lead I looked at Kenny because I wanted to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. I thought maybe I had the wrong horse. But Kenny said we were gonna win so I started cheering him down the lane." Drake had the right horse, all right. He also had a contingent of 20 work colleagues and college buddies with him for much of the week. "They kept telling me this horse was gonna win and I told them not to get too excited and get your feelings hurt. We're gonna have a good time tonight." Accompanying Drake was his wife, Kitty. Sons Joe, 8, and Josh, 6, were back in Kentucky. "They like going and playing with the horses and going to Churchill Downs in the afternoon," Drake said. "Racing is a great family thing. My wife is so supportive of all this. She's always enjoyed the business and encouraged me to take chances and have fun. In fact, Josh got War Emblem in a pool for the Belmont and he was getting mad at us when we said we were going to beat him. I had to tell him that if War Emblem won it wouldn't change his life, but if Sarava wins, it would."