03/07/2013 1:33PM

Q&A: John Oxley talks Kentucky Derby trail, past and present

Email
Coady Photography

A prominent Thoroughbred owner and breeder, Oxley’s greatest victory came with Monarchos in the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He made a fortune in the oil-and-gas business after founding Oxley Petroleum in 1962. He will be at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday to watch his Dynamic Sky run in the Tampa Bay Derby, a race he won last year with Prospective. He also has Uncaptured on the trail for the Kentucky Derby and Spring in the Air as a candidate for the Kentucky Oaks, a race he won in 1995 with Gal in a Ruckus. His stable earned more than $5.1 million in 2012, his highest total ever. He spoke with Daily Racing Form earlier this week by phone from south Florida.

Age: 76

Birthplace: Tulsa, Okla.

Residences: West Palm Beach, Fla.; Midway, Ky.; Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Family: wife, Debby; son, Randy; daughters Mary Anne and Tracey

Can you ever remember a time when horses were not a major part of your life? No, I can’t. I can pull out a copy of a newspaper article from my desk drawer that describes a ride on one of my dad’s Thoroughbreds when I was 6 months old. My dad was saying this boy’s going to ride, and it wasn’t too long before I was. From the time I was 10 I was caring for my dad’s polo ponies. He was a Hall of Fame polo player and I played for 51 years. I bought my first racehorse 40 years ago now.

Word has it that your horsemanship skills from all those years of playing world-class polo are top-notch: I’m proud of some of my successes in life, but I’m proudest when people call me a horseman.

How often do you think about the Derby you won with Monarchos? I think about it pretty often, actually, because I’m still in pursuit of another one. I’ve got pictures and memorabilia all over the walls here in my office in Florida. It’s been a lifetime dream of mine to be part of the Derby ever since my dad gathered us around the radio, and we listened to the call of the 1946 Derby. I was really captivated by that call. A few years thereafter my dad took us to Kentucky to see the Derby. It was 1954, and a gray colt from California, Determine, was the winner.

I’ve always thought it was very ironic that 47 years later I won the Derby with the gray colt (Monarchos). It really wasn’t a dream of mine to win, but just to somehow be involved. That’s been a goal ever since I bought my first horse in the early 70’s. I bought a horse at a 2-year-old-in-training sale at Hialeah for $7,500. He broke his maiden there, and then we ran him back at Gulfstream Park, and I was already thinking, “Maybe I have a Derby horse here.” But he ran fourth. The winner was Forego. I’ve had quite an education in racing ever since then.

John T. Ward Jr., now the executive director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, was your trainer for 34 years. How did Mark Casse come to be your main trainer? Obviously, when John began planning on taking the new job, I needed a new trainer. I’d known Mark from sending him some pretty slow horses maybe a few years before, and I went back to him on the recommendation of my neighbor in Kentucky, Charles Nuckols. He’d remarked that Mark has been a horseman all his life like I have.

One of the first horses we had together after that was Game Ball. He won 10 races for us before he was claimed. Mark and I just hit it off. We seemed to think alike. He’s an honest, genuine guy, and he’s in his prime, and he devotes his entire life to horses. It’s obviously going in a very favorable direction.

What kind of chances do you give Dynamic Sky and Uncaptured to win the Derby? Mark says Uncaptured is training extremely well and will make his next start on March 23 at Turfway Park in either the Spiral or Rushaway: I was just looking at those odds on my horses (in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager), and they have my horses 50-1 and 35-1. I guess I think we have a little better chance than that. But I am realistic. Only one horse can win the Derby. The goal has become to just get in the top 20, and if you do get in, you’d probably think you have a shot to win.

I just love the whole pursuit, starting from the time the 2-year-olds begin to develop. Then it’s a great campaign − there are a lot of great stakes from the Hopeful through the Belmont. I just like to be in the game, and you have to be in the arena to have a chance to be in the Derby and win it.

These next two races mean a lot for both of our horses. I think Dynamic Sky (by Sky Mesa, whom Oxley raced) would have a very good chance if he could get in the Derby based on his pedigree. I really think he can get the distance. But there are a lot of milestones to hit between here and there.

Spring in the Air hasn’t run since the Breeders’ Cup but also has been training well in Ocala. What are you looking for from her? We plan to run her Monday in the OBS [Filly] Championship in Ocala, then back in the Ashland at Keeneland on the first Saturday in April. If she’s first or second then, I’m sure we’ll go to the Oaks. She’s also got the pedigree that’s favorable, but with her it’s a question of how she’ll do on the dirt. We know she’s excellent on the synthetic.

You are among just a handful of people still living who has won both the Derby and Oaks as an owner, the others being Michael Tabor, Mike Pegram, Ann and Jerry Moss, Arthur Hancock, and Diana Firestone: I’d wondered about that but never taken the time to check it out. Offhand, I wasn’t able to think of anybody still alive who’d done it, but there you go. It’s quite an honor I’d say.

You are well known for your philanthropy, for your polo career, and for your enthusiasm for racing. Anything else we need to know about you? My wife, Debby, and I have a great relationship. We seem to think alike, and we enjoy a low-key lifestyle when we’re away from the racetrack. She’s equally enthusiastic about the Thoroughbred game and she’s originally from Louisville, too. We really enjoy the part of our life where we’re out to dinner or with our friends or traveling. But obviously racing is a huge part of our lives.