LEXINGTON, Ky. — If Skywalker wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4, the Houston Post should get the inside story.
One of the many owners of the 3-year-old colt who won the Santa Anita Derby is Mickey Herskowitz, a sports columnist for the Post.
"It's a wonderful way to have a conflict of interest," says Herskowitz, who has attended Kentucky Derbys, and has covered two. "I'm finding it difficult these days to sit down to write without humming 'The Camptown Races' to myself while I'm working."
Skywalker, the first Derby starter to arrive at Churchill Downs, 70 miles northwest of here, is 50% owned by his breeders, the Houston consortium known as Oak Cliff Thoroughbreds. The rest of the horse belongs to Herskowitz and nine other limited partners, including Terry Puhl, an outfielder with the Houston Astros.
Last year, before anybody knew how good Skywalker was, Herskowitz was sitting in the office of Don Sanders, a Houston stockbroker who is a shareholder in the Astros. Puhl and Astro pitcher Nolan Ryan were also there, waiting to go to lunch.
"Sanders was on the phone, trying to sell the last two shares in a package of five or six horses for Oak Cliff," Herskowitz said.
When Sanders hung up, Herskowitz said: "That sounds like a good deal--put me down for one of those units."
Then Puhl said: "And I'll take the other unit."
Herskowitz, 48, was feeling kind of flush, because he had just signed a contract to write his 17th book, a biography of Bette Davis. He and Puhl had never owned a horse. Short in stature, Herskowitz could pass for a retired jockey, but other than his three trips to the Derby, he can remember being around horses only twice--having his picture taken as a kid on a pony outside a barber shop and going on a trail ride a few years ago to do a story for the Post. "I couldn't sit down for a month when I got back from that one," he said.
Herskowitz is not the first newspaperman to be connected with a prominent horse. The winner of the 1983 Preakness, Deputed Testamony, was bred in Maryland at a farm owned by Bill Boniface of the Baltimore Sun and his family. Deputed Testamony was trained by Boniface's son.
Herskowitz and Puhl reportedly paid $100,000 for each of their units in Skywalker, which gives them each a 5% interest in the horse. "That kind of money would be way over my head," Herskowitz said. "Of the guys in the office, Nolan was the guy who should have been buying the horses, but I guess he's more interested in cows. I was able to get in because they didn't want much cash. The deal was financed by a bank, with five years to pay the money."
Skywalker, who didn't make his first start until late November of his 2-year-old season, wasn't even mentioned in the package. Herskowitz said the best horse in the group was supposed to be a colt named Lavalanche, a son of Nijinsky II.
Lavalanche never ran a race for Oak Cliff. Sent to France, he developed a respiratory problem and was traded for a mare. At that point, it looked as though Herskowitz's venture into horse racing was going to be as star-crossed as some of his previous business investments, which included:
--A Texas bank that closed following a fraud scandal.
--A 2% interest in what was then an unsuccessful Houston Rockets basketball team.
--And an interest in a brassiere factory in Tulsa, Okla. "That was in the '60s when women were burning their bras and not wearing any," Herskowitz said.
But the Oak Cliff deal wasn't going to be added to the list. In late January, Sanders called Herskowitz to say: "I've got some good news for you regarding the horses."
Said Herskowitz: "If you have, it'll break one of the longest losing streaks in the history of investments."
"You might have a horse that's going to the Kentucky Derby," Sanders said.
That's when Herskowitz first heard Skywalker's name. The colt had made three starts, winning a maiden race at Hollywood Park in November, running a troubled fifth in the $1-million Hollywood Futurity in December and in mid-January he won a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Santa Anita in an excellent time of 1:42.
A few days after Sanders' update, the 10 limited partners received letters from Oak Cliff, giving them the chance to relinquish their units at face value--$100,000 each. But the word was out on Skywalker and there were no sellers.
By staying in, Herskowitz has been introduced to the costly realities of horse ownership. "I didn't realize how expensive oats are," he said. "And now I'm aware of veterinarians' bills and insurance. Skywalker was insured for only $10,000 at the start of the year. Now that's been increased to $1 million or so."
Herskowitz will arrive in Louisville a week before the Derby, to scout the opposition and try to write some objective columns.
He says that if Skywalker wins, he might have trouble making his deadline. Besides drinking champagne, he'll be giving an interview instead of writing about one.