01/05/2012 4:30PM

For owner Kaleem Shah, racing is in the blood

Barbara D. Livingston
Owner Kaleem Shah was introduced to racing by his father, a trainer in India.

It should come as no surprise that the son of a famous Thoroughbred trainer, imbued with a rich family legacy, is well on his way to establishing a high-profile racing and breeding operation, one with its sights set on nothing less than the greatest prizes offered by the game.

In this case the father happens to be one of the most successful trainers in the history of racing – in India. And his son, virtually forbidden by his father to enter the business, is making his mark instead in his adopted country of America.

Kaleem Shah, 49, was born in Bellary, in the south of India, where the subcontinent begins to taper toward Sri Lanka and the Laccadive Sea. The major metropolitan center of Hyderabad, complete with a major Thoroughbred racecourse, lies just to the north.

Shah’s father, Majeed Shah, was perennially among India’s leading Thoroughbred trainers. Two of his horses won the Indian Triple Crown.

“I was infatuated with his horses, and with racing,” Kaleem Shah said recently. “He trained the cream of the crop. But nothing was handed to him. His parents passed away when he was 10, and he had to work multiple jobs from a very young age.”

A similar tale is attached to the histories of such legendary American trainers as Woody Stephens, Charlie Whittingham and Jim Fitzsimmons, men virtually raised around the racetrack who worked their way doggedly through the ranks.

“My dad won titles, and many Grade 1 stakes and derbies,” Shah went on. “One race, the Eclipse Stakes of India for older horses – as prestigious as the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Pacific Classic – he won for 11 straight years.”

As a boy Kaleem Shah was especially smitten by his father’s world during the mild winter months when such headline British and Irish jockeys as Walter Swinburn, Christy Roche, and George McGrath would head for the sunshine.

“But more than an outstanding trainer, he was a wonderful father,” Shah said. “My dad kept us out of the racetrack life. He wanted me to concentrate on my studies, and he made it absolutely clear to us that he never wanted us in the sport as a trainer. Just like in the U.S., the top trainers – like my father – have it made, while the rest of them have a tough time, going month to month. So for us it was not even an option. He said should you be blessed with good fortune, if you want to own horses down the road, so be it.”

Shah’s studies led him to a degree in electrical engineering from Bangalore University in his native country and then to the United States, where he earned a masters in computer engineering from Clemson University and an MBA from George Washington University.

Shah settled in the U.S., at first working for Telenet as a software programmer and then founding his own communications company, CalNet, in 1989, which now has divisions in Virginia and California. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the U.S. government has been CalNet’s principal client.

“We provide intelligence analysis, information technology support, and language services,” Shah said. “It’s a classified world I can’t talk a lot about. Needless to say, I’m very proud to serve our armed forces throughout the world.”

And every bit as proud to be an American. Shah became a citizen in the early 1990s, giving up his Indian citizenship in the process. (“You can’t be married to two wives,” he explains.) A few years later he finally was able to indulge himself as a racehorse owner, adding as a flourish a set of silks representing nothing less than the American flag.

“Initially I tip-toed into racing in Maryland with Jim Murphy, a very fine trainer,” Shah said. “And later with Dale Capuano, one of the best horsemen there.”

More recently Shah expanded to California with a flurry of major purchases by Bob Baffert, among them the 2-year-old Take Control, a son of Horses of the Year A.P. Indy and Azeri who cost $1.9 million and won impressively in early 2010, but has not run since.

“I do realize that money does not buy love, and money does not always buy a good racehorse,” Shah said. “Certainly my goal is to win big races. So now with Bob I’ve pretty much told him to buy what they like. Not that I enjoy spending that kind of money. But that’s what it takes.”

To date, Shah’s most accomplished horse has been Concord Point, a 5-year-old son of Tapit who in 2010 won the $250,000 Iowa Derby by 8 1/2 lengths in June and then the $750,000 West Virginia Derby by a length in August. Such antics kept moving the colt up the Baffert batting order until, after West Virginia, he was being considered for a start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs against Blame, Zenyatta, and Quality Road.

Unfortunately, an ankle problem ended Concord Point’s career prematurely, and he was retired to a stallion career at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm in Kentucky to stand his first season in 2011. Being inbred to both Seattle Slew and In Reality, he boasts a pedigree that withstands scrutiny, although if nothing else it is the name of Concord Point’s dam – the Boston Harbor mare Harve (not Havre) de Grace – that would draw quick attention.

A number of Shah’s other runners have made the right kind of noise. May Day Rose, a robust daughter of Rockport Harbor, won the Santa Ysabel and Railbird stakes last year at 3. On the same day as the Railbird, Shah’s American Story finished a solid third after setting the pace in the Milady Handicap but was moved up to second on the DQ of first-place finisher St Trinians.

Seven weeks later at Calder, Shah watched as his Smash finished second to Indiano in the $200,000 Carry Back Stakes. The margin was a conclusive three lengths, which was somehow easier to take than the neck by which Shah’s Irrefutable lost to Giant Ryan later that day in the $350,000 Smile Sprint Handicap. Subsequently, Irrefutable finished second to eventual Breeders’ Cup winner Amazombie in the Ancient Title.

Such experiences of “close but no cigar” rarely sits well with a competitive racehorse owner. Shah has the advantage learning patience from a father who warned him of the pitfalls, and then quickly grew a thick skin of his own.

“If you don’t have one you shouldn’t be in racing,” Shah said. “But what really bothers me is when horses die.”

Shah’s stable suffered through three casualties in 2011. Global Exchange, a half-million-dollar son of Tiznow, sustained a fatal training injury, while Naseeb, a 4-year-old daughter of Belong to Me, broke down on the backstretch of a five-furlong turf race at Delaware Park in July. Naseeb made headlines because of her jockey, Rosie Napravnik, who fractured her arm and was sidelined three months. Naseeb could not be saved.

Then on Nov. 26, with his family present, Shah cheered on his best sprinter Irrefutable to a second-place finish in the Vernon O. Underwood at Hollywood Park. Upon returning to be unsaddled, the handsome gray collapsed and died on the spot, of apparent cardiac failure.

“Winning and losing is part of the sport,” Shah said. “Even if you’re expecting big things, you have to take defeat in stride. You’ve got to take the highs and the lows, and the lows when they come can be pretty low.

“I was raised around horses, so for a horse lover like me losing a horse is the saddest part of horse racing,” he added. “It hurts very much.”

Shah’s wife, Lubi, his daughter Sophie, and son Arman usually can be found alongside Kaleem at the races. There seems little doubt that there will be a third generation from the Shah clan deeply involved someday.

“Arman is very animated about the sport,” Shah said. “He seems to know everything about it already. You can ask Bob and Dale – as soon as a horse passes the wire my son will know just which stakes race they should be running in next.”

As for Shah’s father, Majeed Shah is 84 and retired from his career as a trainer, still living in India. Kaleem visited him recently.

“He is very frail and hard of hearing, but I know he is very proud of what I have accomplished in business,” Shah said.

“As for horse racing, I still don’t think he is happy that I have become involved. But that is always the prerogative of the parent.”

The 2012 season dawns for Shah with reasonably high hopes. In addition to the 4-year-olds Smash and May Day Rose, he has several young 3-year-olds out West brimming with promise.

Brigand, a son of Flatter, was a $925,000 purchase as a 2-year-old who finished second in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship. Fed Biz, a $950,000 son of Giant’s Causeway, was an impressive maiden race winner at Santa Anita on Dec. 30. And Eden’s Moon, a $390,000 daughter of Malibu Moon, was a fast-closing second in a mid-December race at Hollywood Park. Even Take Control, now 4, is on the comeback trail.

“Winning is not my game,“ Shah insisted. “It’s horse racing I look forward to, and if the winning comes as a result of racing, all the better. What I truly enjoy is my red, white and blue silks out there running.”