05/03/2012 2:26PM

Kentucky Derby 2012: Byrne back on the big stage

Barbara D. Livingston
Patrick Byrne trained Favorite Trick and Awesome Again in the late 90s. Take Charge Indy’s Florida Derby win was Byrne’s first graded win in seven years.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. − Not that long ago, Patrick Byrne was the golden boy of racing.

In 1997, Byrne trained Favorite Trick, the undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner who became the first 2-year-old since Secretariat in 1972 to be voted Horse of the Year. The following year, Byrne guided Awesome Again to a 6-for-6 campaign, capped by a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Somehow, Awesome Again was eclipsed by Skip Away in voting for Horse of the Year.

But as quickly as success came for Byrne, it went. A falling out with owner Frank Stronach led to a parting of ways 15 months into what was supposed to be a five-year deal. It left Byrne scrambling to recoup his business. Through the next decade, Byrne fell into relative obscurity, averaging just 40 starters a year from 2006 to 2010. Since 2008, Byrne has won 21 races from 151 starters; 15 of those wins have come in maiden races.

Despite having just 12 horses to train, Byrne, 54, is back in the national spotlight. On Saturday, he will participate in his first Kentucky Derby, sending out Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy in the 138th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. When Take Charge Indy won the Florida Derby, it was Byrne’s first graded stakes victory in seven years.

That victory as well as Take Charge Indy’s subsequent training has Byrne as confident as a horsemen could be entering the biggest race of his life.

“I’m very confident in this colt,” said Byrne, who has three-time Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel to ride. “I know he likes the racetrack. He’s going to run a super race.”

Jill Byrne, Patrick’s ex-wife, said the trainer’s confidence is reminiscent of 1998, when he brought Awesome Again to the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. 

“I don’t know of a trainer who does a better job pointing a horse for a specific race,” said Jill Byrne, who worked as Patrick’s assistant for many years and is now a racing analyst for Churchill Downs. “I see him preparing this horse and talking about this horse’s preparation in the same way he talked about Awesome Again going into the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He is extremely confident.”

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Awesome Again won the 1998 Classic over a star-studded field that included Silver Charm, Skip Away, Victory Gallop, Touch Gold, and Swain. That should have been the culmination of a fabulous first year for Byrne as the private trainer for Stronach.

Byrne had taken a private job with Stronach at the beginning of 1998, following a sensational year in 1997, when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Countess Diana and the Juvenile with Favorite Trick, who went 8 for 8 and was voted Horse of the Year. Byrne had a 36 percent win rate (51 for 141) in 1997 and went 14 for 17 at that spring’s Churchill Downs meet.

The morning after the 1997 Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park, Byrne was on the private plane of Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who was looking to hire Byrne as his trainer for The Thoroughbred Corp.

Byrne was being courted by many high-profile owners, but he turned them all down to take a private job for Stronach, for whom he had to give up Favorite Trick as well as his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Countess Diana.

“Frank Stronach couldn’t miss,” Byrne said. “He had a lot of money, he had a breeding operation, and it’s a numbers game. He had all the ingredients to be successful, so I went in thinking if I could just do five years with this guy I’m going to win some Breeders’ Cups and train some future champions. That was my mindset. But the tradeoff was losing the people that supported me. It was such a crazy time. My feet weren’t touching the ground.”

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Byrne understood it to be a five-year deal, with a base salary of $250,000 per year and 8 percent of earnings.

In 1998, Byrne won at a 38 percent clip and won 12 stakes with the Stronach horses. In addition to Awesome Again’s five graded wins, he won stakes with Relaxing Rhythm, Wild Rush, and Perfect Sting, a turf filly who would eventually become a champion − though for somebody else.

Despite the success with Stronach, Byrne never felt comfortable in his position, and three months into 1999 he and Stronach parted ways. Byrne said there were people who worked for Stronach who didn’t want him to succeed.

“There were people that were on their own agenda, and nobody gave a [hoot] about Pat Byrne,” he said. “Frank himself was not the issue. Frank was actually good to deal with. It was everybody in place was on their own agenda, and there was little to no teamwork.

“I walked into a situation where I thought it could be good,” Byrne said. “Maybe I saw the talent level that was there. But they had just pulled horses from Dave Hofmans, who did a good job. What was I thinking? Was I going to change this operation? I walked in and had a target on my back.”

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When Byrne and Stronach split, Byrne claimed Stronach tried to stiff him out of thousands of dollars. Byrne sued Stronach for breach of contract, and the suit was ultimately settled for $84,000 in unpaid trainer’s fees.
Byrne was able to recoup some business, backed by owners Robert Sangster, Coolmore, and Robert McNair’s Stonerside Stable.

In 1999, Byrne won a pair of stakes with the turf filly Nani Rose for McNair. However, in August, Nani Rose was scratched out of the Lake Placid Stakes at Saratoga after New York racing officials discovered a veterinarian had given the filly a vitamin shot in her stall the day of the race. Byrne served a 45-day suspension for the incident.

Though his business dropped from 2000 to 2004, he did average 25 winners and $1 million in purse earnings per year.

Byrne was starting to feel the effects of his job. In 2006, Byrne said he felt like he “had the flu forever.”
“I was stiff and achy all over,” he said. “I couldn’t stand up.”

It was ultimately determined that Byrne was suffering from stress. Byrne said doctors told him “to back away from what you’re doing, meaning ‘don’t worry about [things] as much, and you’ll get better. It’ll take you 18 months. It’s nothing you can be treated for, but it’s up to you to have a different attitude.’ ”

Byrne said he got to the point where he thought about retiring from training horses. Though he didn’t go that far, Byrne got involved in some real-estate ventures that helped supplement the income he got from racing.

“Real estate was a hobby for me,”he said. “I was flipping properties not really knowing what I was doing. I did really well with the real estate. I was making money. I always wanted to be horse trainer, but the phone wasn’t ringing, and I wasn’t getting any business.”

One day in 2009, Byrne was driving his daughter Devon to college when he got a call from Charlie Sandford, a man he had never before met but who wanted Byrne to train horses for him and his wife, Maribeth. The couple ran a successful woven-bag business in Chicago.

“I figured I’d get a Hall of Fame-type trainer, and this guy doesn’t have many horses, so my horses will get a lot of attention,” Sandford said. “He was somebody I’d seen a little bit on TV, and I thought I’d get along with him very well personality-wise. All of that came true. He’s probably my best friend now.”

Said Byrne: “It would have been such a disaster for me not to answer that call. Not only have they been supportive of me, but they’re like family.”

Last year, Sandford went partners with pinhookers Carl Bowling and Tami Bobo on Take Charge Indy. Since then, Sandford has bought those other two out and is now the sole owner.

Take Charge Indy is by A. P. Indy out of the Grade 1-winning dam Take Charge Lady, making him the best-bred horse in the Kentucky Derby field. He won his debut by 6 1/2 lengths but did not win again until the Florida Derby, where he beat, among others, Union Rags.

That win came three weeks after Byrne had scratched Take Charge Indy out of the Tampa Bay Derby. Byrne simply wanted to run once more before the Kentucky Derby, and had he run in Tampa, he probably would have had to run again.

Decisions like that exemplify the confidence Byrne has in himself. He is proud of what he’s accomplished in his career, mainly training a small string of horses.

“I’m happy with where I am right now,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy this Derby run. I’m going to enjoy this horse.”

Personally, Byrne is also content. Last summer, he and Jill divorced after 24 years of marriage, though the two remain close friends. He lives in Florida, about 20 minutes away from the Palm Meadows training center, owned by Stronach.

“Jill and I just grew apart,” Pat Byrne said. “There was never any negativity there. We just grew apart. We decided to get divorced last summer. I’m happier for it. I’m sure she is.”

Jill Byrne said her family and Pat’s family will be at Churchill Downs on Saturday, hoping Take Charge Indy can win the Derby.

“I’m definitely rooting for him, absolutely rooting for him,” Jill Byrne said. “We’re very good friends. I respect him. I spent a lot of time watching other trainers. I can honestly say he is one of the best natural horsemen I’ve ever been around.”