Dean and Patti Reeves at home, with a few reminders of some good days at the races.
Photo: Steve Hummer/AJC
Photo: Steve Hummer/AJC

Say there’s no horse racing in Georgia? Check out these ties to Derby

With the first Saturday in May fast approaching, and tales of great good fortune populating every Churchill Downs barn where a Kentucky Derby horse stands, let’s accentuate the positive.

For the second time in eight years, Suwanee’s Dean and Patti Reeves are back as part-owners of a Derby horse. In 2011, their ticket to the big race was Mucho Macho Man, who finished third that year, did the whole Triple Crown thing and in 2013 won the Breeder’s Cup Classic. He’s busy these days cranking out genetic replicas.

Next Saturday, they return as partial owners of Tax, a gelding (grimace) that has gone from being a claimer to a 25-to-1 Kentucky Derby shot.  

» Tax time: 5 things to know about Derby contender

“(The first Derby experience) makes you want to come right back — the entire Triple Crown experience that we had,” said Dean Reeves, who splits his time between eponymous construction and horse-racing businesses. “Everything I did was to try to get back to that. We just tried to buy horses that will get you there — two-turn, dirt, distance horses. And it has taken eight years to get back.”

So happy and excited are the Reeves to be back in that elite mix. Let the party begin.

Here’s a mint julep. Sip on it and try to pretend you wouldn’t prefer a real drink.

We won’t even get into the time Reeves went a little wild and ventured into seven figures for the only time to buy a French filly that was to racing what Ryan Leaf was to the NFL draft. 

“We had such high hopes for this horse. We were going to go to the Royal Ascot. Meet the queen,” remembered Patti. “And the trainer calls one day and says, she’s done, she doesn’t want to race anymore. And I’m like what do you mean she doesn’t want to race anymore? There was nothing physically wrong with her, but her mind stopped.

Let’s not mention the time they partnered in another six-figure horse that, because of physical problems, never made it to the track.

Or the five years after Mucho Macho Man retired that Patti and Dean Reeves went through horse after horse trying to find another stakes race winner of any kind — never mind a Derby horse — and coming up short every time.

“You’ve got to be pretty resilient,” Dean said.

“I’m telling you it’s every week, almost daily I’m getting a text from somebody that says check out this horse, this one is for sale.

“More times than not, I’m wrong. I’m wrong a lot.” (Still, it should be noted that horses the couple have owned outright have reportedly earned nearly $6 million, and partnership deals have earned another $3.5 million. Not shabby at all).

No, this is the time to appreciate the rare moment when instead of the worst case it all comes together — the breeding, the science, the instincts, the blind luck — and a horse and his people make it to Kentucky.   

Atlanta ties to the Kentucky Derby are never plentiful, Georgia being about as connected to horse racing as South Dakota is to surfing. But when you find them, they, like so many others bonded to this race have an odds-defying tale to tell. Because in this sport, luck fuels more than the betting window. 

Another case in point: When Atlanta’s Tyler Alexander partnered with his buddy Clint Joiner in a Kentucky operation they named Calloway Stables, theirs was hardly a thoroughbred factory. At one point, they had but a single brood mare on the farm.  

“We were the world’s smallest breeding operation,” Joiner joked.

Yet that one mare produced a foal — named Plus Que Parfait by those who bought it from Calloway — that will run the Kentucky Derby a week from Saturday.

Alexander and Joiner will be going, not with an ownership stake in the horse but rather with the simple pride of helping produce a beautiful animal of great possibilities.

Tyler, whose day job is running an Atlanta-based company involved in the event-and-hospitality business, speaks a certain local heresy when it comes to ranking the Derby experience. “I’ve been involved in events all over the world and it’s a hard thing to say in Georgia and I’ve caught a little heat over it, but (the Derby) is the best event in sport. I hate to throw shade on the Masters, but it is the best event in sport.”

Tyler Alexander and daughter Ali admire a weanling that grew up to be Kentucky Derby entrant Plus Que Parfait. (Photo courtesy Calloway Stables)

How could they not go?

“It’s a lottery ticket. It’s an anomaly that the third foal we put on the ground has the opportunity to run in the Kentucky Derby,” Tyler said. “That’s the story here – it’s a complete fluke, and we’re just enjoying the ride. This is not a situation we’re monetizing. Owners, they’re trying to monetize it. This is an unbelievable experience for us, our families.”

If someone with a tangential connection to a Derby horse gets that worked up over witnessing the race, think of what it must be like for the part-owner who stands to reap both profit and pride if his horse runs well.  

In Mucho Macho Man eight years ago, Reeves Racing struck a gusher with one of the first wells it sunk. And he is the gift that keeps on giving with his work in the breeding shed. But, in truth, that success was deceptive. It’s not that easy, and Reeves has the fallow years to prove it. If you hit around .200 on buying into a winning, profitable horse, you’re doing OK, he said. The Mendoza Line (named after a baseball player, not a jockey) is a good thing in horse racing. 

Tax took a long, indirect route to reach Reeves. He originally was claimed for $50,000 by trainer Danny Gargan. Six different interests put in a claim for the horse, but it was Gargan who won the right through a blind draw to buy it. If he doesn’t get lucky, Reeves isn’t going to this Derby as an owner. That’s how capricious all this can be. Reeves didn’t know any of the other five parties trying to claim the horse. But he did know Gargan, and, more important, he was close to the man Gargan reached out to when he was ready to sell Tax, Randy Hill.

Since their purchase, Tax has gone on to win the Withers Stakes and finish second in the Wood Memorial, both at New York’s Aqueduct.  

Having gone all-in with the racing thing since his Mucho Macho Man experience, Reeves said he has interests in nearly 50 thoroughbreds. Said Patti, “Our friends like to tell us that we used up all of our racing luck early on, and we’ve been spending all these years trying to get back to it. But it’s been a blast.”

And here is the single case in which Tax isn’t a dirty word. Instead, the horse by that name is a reminder that there is a very good reason to speculate on horse flesh. There is a flip side to pricey French fillies that don’t care to run.    

And how are you going to beat the rare experience of telling your friends and neighbors you’re headed for an owner’s box the first Saturday in May? 

“It is unique, there are not a lot of owners in it in the Atlanta area,” Reeves said. “But it is the only sport I know of on a professional level that anybody can get in on. Nobody here is going to own an NFL franchise. Or a baseball team. But anybody can go to the sale, buy a horse and that horse could win the Kentucky Derby. It’s my own sports franchise and I can make it as big or small as I want to.”

And now, for a second time, he and his wife have a prime seat for their own kind of Super Bowl.

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