04/28/2017 3:36PM

Hovdey: For Moss, the hits just keep on coming

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jerry Moss will try for for his second Kentucky Derby trophy with Gormley, and possibly Royal Mo, who is currently just outside the points cutoff.

In May 1983, the flashy chestnut Fighting Fit gave Jerry Moss his first big hit in the racing business, winning the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park. Two months later, “Every Breath You Take” by The Police reached No. 1 on the pop music top 20 for the A&M record company founded by Moss and Herb Alpert and stayed there through the rest of the summer.

In August 1986, as A&M’s Chris De Burgh hit the top of the charts in England with “Lady in Red” and “Nasty” was spending its third month on the U.S. top 20 for A&M’s Janet Jackson, Moss and two partners were winning the Grade 1 Arlington-Washington Lassie Stakes in Chicago with the rapid filly Delicate Vine.

Then, in September 1989, Moss and Alpert sold A&M Records to industry powerhouse Polygram for a reported $500 million. Moss celebrated a few months later by winning the 1990 Santa Anita Handicap with Ruhlmann at odds of 22-1.

These signposts only scratch the surface of a career in Thoroughbred racing and popular music that dates to the early 1960s, when A&M Records burst onto the scene with “The Lonely Bull,” first recorded in Alpert’s garage. Both businesses are relentlessly competitive, accompanied by giddy highs and depressing lows.

Somehow, Moss has managed to keep his two worlds straight and emerge more than half a century later with his sights set on yet another golden moment.

Next Saturday at Churchill Downs, in the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, the colors of Ann and Jerry Moss will be carried by Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley in what shapes up as a wide-open version of America’s most famous horse race. There is also a chance that Gormley will be joined in the gate by his stakes-winning stablemate Royal Mo, who finished a close third in the Santa Anita Derby.

Ten days before the race, Moss was revving up for the experience.

“I love every race, and I want to win every race,” Moss said. “I keep a book at home with all the races we’ve won, pictures of the horses, notes of my thoughts about the races, even tickets from shows I might have seen at the time. It’s ended up being quite a panorama, and very autobiographical.”

The biography starts in the Bronx, N.Y., where Moss was born on May 8, 1935. He went to Brooklyn College, then the Army, and in another life, he might have followed his father and older brother into the department-store business.

“That’s a tough life,” Moss said. “It would have made me crazy. I happily moved to the entertainers’ table.”

For his trouble, Moss ended up with a star on Hollywood Boulevard and a plaque in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But while Alpert is still performing and recording, Moss has very little to do with the music business these days. Working with Burt Bacharach, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, and The Carpenters was a gas, but right now, Moss would rather try to win the Kentucky Derby.

Through the years, Moss has owned more than his share of precocious young horses – Sardula, trained by Brian Mayberry, won the 1994 Kentucky Oaks – but for the most part, he has employed trainers like Bobby Frankel, Charlie Whittingham, Richard Mandella, and John Sadler, who take their time and allow the animal to lead the way.

In fact, the Moss colors have flown in the Derby only twice, most recently in 2007, when Tiago finished seventh to Street Sense.

“He only ran once as a 2-year-old, and then in his fourth race, he won the Santa Anita Derby,” Moss said. “We always felt he needed a little more experience, and it showed. He ran really green in the Derby, looking around. And, let’s face it, for a young horse, there’s a lot to see. But he turned out to be a tremendous horse for us.”

Tiago, a son of Pleasant Tap, is also the answer to the trivia question of who finished third in the 2007 Belmont Stakes behind the thrilling duel between Rags to Riches and Curlin. Tiago developed as promised, going on to win the Swaps, Goodwood, and Oaklawn Handicap and finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic while earning $2.3 million.

In one regard, Tiago never had a shot in Kentucky. There are some acts you never want to follow. In 2005, the Moss stable lit up the Derby scoreboard with Giacomo, Tiago’s older half-brother, to the tune of 50-1, and half-brothers have never won the Derby. Moss will never shake the memory of the day – winning the Derby in his first try.

“It was just amazing how the horse just kept coming,” he said. “I picked up on him moving pretty good when the others were tiring. And then when they hit the finish, and he’s won, there was this gasp from 150,000 people – ‘Who’s that?’ It was incredible, just incredible.”

At the time, Moss was serving his second year as a commissioner on the California Horse Racing Board, a role he played for two four-year terms. His tenure coincided with some of the state’s most industry-shaking events, including the tumultuous transition to synthetic surfaces, the bankruptcy of Santa Anita’s parent company, and the futile attempts to save Hollywood Park.

Moss lent his business acumen to each discussion and still considers the closure of Hollywood a monumental failure on the part of California’s industry leaders. However, the paramount issue for Moss through most of his time on the board was the health and welfare of the equine athletes. As an owner, he was sensitized early.

“I remember when Bobby Frankel lost a horse called Sweet Diane,” Moss said, harking back to the tragic running of the 1984 Santa Ana Handicap. “He was very emotional about it, which for Bobby was something. You realize that as much as you do for them, you can’t help them through the race. A bad thing can happen. It can be a matter of a single step. I’ve had it happen, and it’s a terrible thing to go through.”

To that end, Moss found a soulmate in John Shirreffs, the trainer of Gormley and Royal Mo, Giacomo and Tiago, and such Moss stakes winners as Tarlow, Private Chef, Stanley Park, Madeo, and Neko Bay.

“John is remarkable,” Moss said. “I love to win races, but it’s more important that the horses are healthy and happy. I don’t think there’s anyone better than John at that. You take good care of them, and the winners will follow.”

Their greatest collaboration has been, as everyone knows, the grand mare Zenyatta. Her Hall of Fame career spanned four seasons from late 2007 to November 2010, when she was narrowly beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, her only loss in 20 starts.

Moss has built in Zenyatta time during Derby week for a visit at Lane’s End Farm, where she is due to deliver her Medaglia d’Oro foal on May 21. Even in retirement, Zenyatta has been the gift to the racing world that keeps on giving. “I just want to touch her, be close to her for a while,” Moss said. “She’s just amazing, especially with kids. And we’ve been able to do a lot of charitable work with her, thank God.”

This included a visit not long ago from a young boy through the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

“You know he doesn’t have a long time to look forward to, unfortunately,” Moss said. “She just swooped right down on him and kissed him on the forehead. How does she know?”

After the Zenyatta visit, it will be on to Louisville and the Derby, where Moss hopes the third time will be as charming as the first.

“We’ve only won three races this year, but they’ve all been stakes – the Derby and the Sham with Gormley and the Robert Lewis with Royal Mo,” Moss said.

Both colts have made six starts for Shirreffs, but the similarity ends there. Gormley, a son of Malibu Moon named for a British artist, is all or nothing, with four wins and two drubbings. Royal Mo, a big boxcar of a Thoroughbred by Uncle Mo, has hit the board five times.

“A wide-open Derby is kind of a perfect scenario for him because he’s made for the mile and a quarter, and he will finish,” Moss said. “That’s his game.”

Gormley, though, has already come through on big days.

“He has speed, and I think John is educating him to use his speed later in his race,” Moss said. “That should help him in the Derby. Gormley is a strong, wiry type of guy. He takes a lot of dirt in his face and keeps on coming. And, let’s face it, that’s the kind of horse you need in the Derby.”