The Boss' private joy

George Steinbrenner's stable of racehorses brings out the best in the Yankees owner.

Published May 7, 2005

He watched from a private box, and the result left him wanting.

Ebony Breeze had lost the Manatee Stakes by a length at Tampa Bay Downs and her owner, George Steinbrenner, expected more. Eyes shifted toward the 74-year-old. His was the volatile personality who had changed managers 21 times since buying the New York Yankees in 1973. He spent hundreds of millions to win six World Series and lambasted high-dollar players when he wasn't happy with their play.

This eruption, they grinned, was going to be good.

But they saw the other side of Steinbrenner that mid February day in Oldsmar.

Steinbrenner shared his goodbye hug and kiss with three little girls sitting on his knees, then handed Victoria, 11, Alexandra, 6, and Charlene, 4, back to their father, Eddie Sexton, who manages his Kinsman Farm in Ocala.

"He turns around and he taps me on the shoulder and he says, "You know, Edward, that to me is better than any horse winning' " Sexton said. "That's the part of the man that nobody knows. And it's a very touching thing for me to hear such a big, high-powered man say that. The man is a very affectionate and a very, very real person. People don't give him credit for it."

It might take another horse to expose that softer side to a public that knows the hard edge much better. Bellamy Road might very well be the one to do it in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. The Wood Memorial winner is expected to go off today as one of the favorites at the 131st Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky.

Steinbrenner so enjoys this colt, his employees suspect he has kept a low profile in the weeks leading up to the Derby to avoid becoming a distraction. There is likely a selfish element at work as well. Steinbrenner chooses to be very public in the running of the baseball team. The horses are a private joy, a family matter. All his children live in houses on his 850-acre farm. Most of his stock is bred there by his son, Hank.

"He would rather have the focus on Bellamy Road and let the horse have great things happen to him," Bellamy Road's trainer, Nick Zito, said. "Horse racing is like an outlet."

Steinbrenner would speak at length about his last Derby horse - 11th-place finisher Blue Burner in 2002 - but his reclusiveness also suggests he thinks this might finally be the one. He deferred questions and interviews to his daughter Jessica, 47, who runs the farm, then imposed a media blackout.

"I think he's going to be the best one we ever take to the Derby," Steinbrenner told the St. Petersburg Times. "I was fortunate enough to have a (farm) trainer in Eddie who can really feel what a horse is all about. But we also got lucky. I have spent a lot of money, yes, but you have to get lucky. Baseball has rewarded me there in New York, and now we get to find out if this colt can reward us."

Though Steinbrenner was not seen in the barn area, his impending arrival on Friday was the source of great speculation around Churchill Downs. It was as if Steinbrenner would swoop into Louisville, buy the other 19 starters and scratch them to ensure his first Derby win.

The truth is, Steinbrenner has spent modestly and wisely in horse racing. Bellamy Road was purchased for a bargain $87,000 at the 2004 Ocala Breeders sale of 2-year-olds in training. Steinbrenner has bred or raced more than 30 stakes winners but has struck out in four swings at the Kentucky Derby, including fifth with Steve's Friend in 1977 and ninth with Diligence in 1996 and Concerto in 1997. Hank Steinbrenner did not breed Bellamy Road, but he bred his father, Concerto. The breeder, Alachua-based Dianne Cotter, was born in Cleveland, where Steinbrenner's ancestors settled in 1840. Kinsman Farm is named after the street where they lived. A lot of Steinbrenner's life seems to weave neatly through this strapping bay.

"He feels an awful lot like a homebred to us," George Steinbrenner said.

Sexton didn't know he was suggesting Steinbrenner buy a son of Concerto at the time of the sale, however. He just knew he had been smitten with the colt since breaking and working him as a yearling when he worked at Ocala Stud.

"He's all of his life been trying to breed a Kentucky Derby winner and I come in and all of a sudden this is his best chance to win, this year," Sexton said, at first sounding immodest. "A lot of people don't give credit where it should be. His son Hank is an absolute genius when it comes to pedigree and breeding. Hank bred Concerto, so without him, we wouldn't have Bellamy Road. I suppose it would have been nice to have bred him here instead of buying him in, but we have him now and it doesn't matter how we got him.

"I told him, "If you want to buy a horse that will win the Derby for you, this is the horse.' "

Sexton, whose family owns a large horse farm in Kildare, Ireland, retired to Ocala two years ago, but he missed horses so much he found himself looking for jobs on one of Marion County's many farms. Steinbrenner may enjoy Sexton so much because in the 37-year-old Irishman he seems to have found a kindred spirit.

"When I took the job (at Kinsman) I had people come up to me and say, "You won't last six weeks, Eddie, with than man,' " Sexton said. "I said, "I'll last as long as I want to last.' There's two things I told him, you know, I said, "I'll do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay, I'll always tell you the truth, but I'll never kiss your a--.'

"He just looked at me and laughed and said, "Why is that?' And I told him you or no one else has enough money."

Sexton went to work initially as head trainer in February 2003, but within weeks took over as farm manager. With Steinbrenner's rubber stamp, he turned Kinsman upside down, admittedly "gutting the place" by firing every longtime employee and shutting down training for two months.

Fiercely loyal to Steinbrenner and convinced good luck is a product of good work and good karma, Sexton unabashedly predicts a Triple Crown payoff for the Boss.

"Mr. Steinbrenner just doesn't have time for Bellamy Road because he's Bellamy Road," he said. "He was up here a few Saturdays ago, and we have over 100 horses on the farm, and he went through every single one of the horses, not just one of them. All the horses here - good, bad, middling, it doesn't matter what you are, you get royal treatment - they're all his friends, they're all his pets. He loves them all."