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Updated on 09/17/2011 2:30PM
LaPenta: An owner with an edge
NEW YORK - Had things gone according to plan, Robert LaPenta would be watching Saturday's Kentucky Derby from his old Connecticut home. Instead, a twist of fate has him in a Churchill Downs box seat as the owner of the likely favorite, The Cliff's Edge.
LaPenta, 58, purchased The Cliff's Edge - known then simply as a dark bay or brown son of Gulch - for $200,000 at the 2002 Keeneland September sale. LaPenta's plan was to sell the colt the following February at Fasig-Tipton's 2-year-old in training sales at Calder. But the bidding stopped at $190,000, failing to meet the $200,000 reserve LaPenta had put on him. So, LaPenta bought him back.
Apparently, potential buyers were scared off when the colt worked poorly because a cat ran across the track while he was breezing.
"I love cats forever," LaPenta said during a recent interview at his midtown Manhattan office.
LaPenta said he received no offers for the colt following the sale, and he decided to keep him and race him.
The Cliff's Edge, named after Equibase chartcaller Cliff Guilliams, has since developed into one of the better 3-year-olds this year. After difficult trips in both the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, The Cliff's Edge broke through with any eye-catching victory over Lion Heart in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. That victory, combined with his two stakes wins at Churchill last fall, and the fact that trainer Nick Zito has won this race twice, could make The Cliff's Edge the slight favorite in a wide-open Derby.
"I've always felt that someday I might get a horse to the Kentucky Derby," LaPenta said. "I'm not sure whether that was a wish or a real goal.''
While many owners wait a lifetime to get a Derby horse, LaPenta has gotten one in just his third year after going out on his own. In the mid-1990's, LaPenta was involved in a partnership with basketball coach Rick Pitino, whom LaPenta met when he brought him to a business seminar as a motivational speaker. After a while, LaPenta wanted more control and went out on his own in 2001.
LaPenta said he hired Nick Zito as his trainer because, "he's got an eye for young horses that is bordering on the supernatural." LaPenta, along with Ernie Reichard, a longtime business associate who is now LaPenta's racing manager, devised a business plan they hoped would make Thoroughbred racing a profitable venture.
The plan was simple. Buy nice horses at moderate prices and sell them for a profit. Horses unable to meet their reserve would go into training with the hope that they would develop into prospects to compete at the highest level. Last year, LaPenta purchased 20 horses and sold 10 of them.
"The thing that I set out to prove was with a little business sense, intelligence, and with some good people, you can have fun in this game, be smart about it, not invest an incredible amount of money, and have some success," LaPenta said.
LaPenta had a wildly successful winter and spring in the sales ring. In February, he sold a Fusaichi Pegasus colt - for whom he paid $270,000 - for $4.5 million. The price was a world record for a 2-year-old in training sale. Last month at Keeneland, LaPenta sold a son of Dixie Union for $1.3 million. LaPenta purchased him for $160,000.
"I will sell just about any horse if I get my price," LaPenta said. "The Fusaichi Pegasus, I think, is going to be just an absolute superstar; he looks just like his old man. He's a wonderful, wonderful horse. The horse I sold at Keeneland was bittersweet to me because I think he's going to be a great horse."
At the same sale where he sold the Fusaichi Pegasus colt, LaPenta spent $1.05 million on a son of Storm Cat who is now in training with Zito in Kentucky.
"It's a dream, but on the other hand we all know that the horses don't know what they cost," Zito said. "Bob is a businessman, and obviously he's got good sense. His main thing was to get to the Derby, and somehow we did it.''
Reichard believes that Zito's patient handling of The Cliff's Edge is a big reason he made it to the Derby.
"Just because somebody else would have bought this horse, I doubt they would have been able to do what Nick's done with him and bring him to the Derby,'' Reichard said. "What a great job of training."
LaPenta, who is from Yonkers, N.Y., was introduced to horse racing by his mother. "She loved the horses," he said. "I could remember when I was 10 years old, my mother would pick 15 horses in the Kentucky Derby, bet $2 on each of them, and end up losing.''
LaPenta's father was a warehouse superintendent who never made more than $60 a week. LaPenta attended Iona College in New Rochelle, where he earned an accounting degree. He went to work for Loral, a company that dealt in high-tech military electronics, which was later was bought by Lockheed Martin
After getting what LaPenta termed "a bum deal'' from Lockheed, he and Robert Lanza formed L-3 Communications, which develops intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems for the United States Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. The company's business took off significantly after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001.
From the window of his 34th-floor office on Third Avenue, LaPenta watched as the twin towers fell on that terrible September morning.
"It was one of the most horrific sights I'll ever recall," LaPenta said. "I saw specks coming off the buildings. I got my binoculars, and what it was, was people holding hands and jumping.''
LaPenta said his son Robert Jr. could have been in the World Trade Center that morning had he taken a job offered by Cantor Fitzgerald, whose offices were in the towers. He turned it down.
Fate intervened that day, and it did again the following September when no one wanted to buy The Cliff's Edge. Now, LaPenta hopes fate will smile on him on the first Saturday in May.