03/22/2012 12:51PM

Q&A: Team Valor's Barry Irwin

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Barbara D. Livingston

The founder and chief executive officer of Team Valor International, which won last year’s Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom

Birthdate: April 21, 1943, in Long Beach, Calif.

Family: wife, Kathleen; daughter, Chloe

Got into racing because . . . From the time I was a little kid, I liked racing, both horses and human. My dad, myself, and my brother competed in track and field. I liked any kind of racing. My family hated horses, hated gambling. Fortunately, I had an aunt who loved to go to the track. She took me to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita when I was 7 or 8.

It is nearly one year since the Kentucky Derby win. Was it a life-changing experience? I think, for me, not as much as I’ve heard it can be for others. For me, it was a lot of satisfaction and gratification at having won it. It’s your goal to try to win it, but you don’t ever think you can. I had a very good chance with Captain Bodgit. He didn’t get it done. I thought that was my chance. I didn’t ever really think it was going to happen. In my everyday life, I don’t walk around thinking about it, but it helped my stature with other people.

In what ways did you glean satisfaction and gratification? I have my own ideas on breeding and racing, and because I have people who will invest, I can be pretty independent, and I’ve taken a path that I think is a good way to do things. In Kentucky, I’m kind of an outlier. I’m not with the establishment. I’m not a commercial breeder. I breed to race. I’ve got my own ideas about stallions, and I’ve taken a lot of agitation because of that. For me, to be in Kentucky, to have bought the sire, imported the mare, and bred the foal, that’s a lot of satisfaction.

You have been an advocate of European-based, distance pedigrees, so was it gratifying to win the Derby taking that approach? With Pluck, this horse, and Howe Great, the sires came from another world and are doing well here. The sire of Howe Great, I found him in Japan. I found the dam in South America. I like taking horses I like based on their bloodlines and conformation, mating them, then taking the produce and winning the kinds of races people think are the best types of races.

Do you think the breeding industry is moving toward distance pedigrees, or is the emphasis still on speed? There are two worlds out there. The commercial world, which is what I live in here in Kentucky, they take a mare off the track, breed her to a first-year stud, and try to eliminate all risk. You can’t knock the dam for not having a runner, nor can you knock the sire for not having had a runner. They want to go to the marketplace with something to sell. The other world, which doesn’t have the population it used to, includes guys like me and Ken Ramsey, who are doing their own thing, breeding to race. You go to the racetrack with what you breed. The only hope I see is that some people are having a different outlook toward freshman sires, or when first or second crops come to market, and not running to them like they used to. When I breed, I’m breeding to race. If I put the horse in a sale and don’t get what I want, I will race the offspring. A lot of people I know are realizing they may have to race their offspring, so they are going to more proven stallions to protect themselves.

How is Animal Kingdom progressing from his recent injury? It has only been a week, so we don’t really know. He’s got a stress fracture. If we had brought him back to the track, it would have been a hairline fracture, so fortunately, we got it right at the proper time. After a couple of months he will be able to go on the Aquatred. It wasn’t a big deal, but we were hoping to run in Dubai, and we blew that, so that’s the worst part of the deal.

Was it a punch to the stomach to have to bypass this year’s Dubai World Cup after having pointed to it for so long? Not that much. Maybe it would have been if we had not won the Derby. But once you win the Derby with a horse like that, if you have a setback, you can roll with it. The horses you have great hopes for, who never achieve those hopes, those are harder.

Animal Kingdom’s last prep race before the Derby was the Spiral at Turfway. You will be in the Spiral on Saturday, too. Can lightning strike twice at Churchill Downs on May 5? If everything went right, I could see Went the Day Well running in the Derby. He can get the distance, and he can run on dirt. When he first came here, he was stuck in quarantine for 13 or 14 days and lost a ton of weight. It cost us a race. He’s one race behind where he should have been. Of the horses I have, I think he would appreciate the trip the most. Lucky Chappy, I don’t think he’s a dirt horse. He does everything better on grass or synthetic. He loves that Tapeta. Howe Great has won on dirt. I think he’s a pretty damn good horse.

Howe Great is a fantastic name. He’s by Hat Trick. Are you a hockey fan? Not at all. When I name horses, I go to Google and look up a bunch of things. I looked up hat trick, and that’s where I got the Howe idea.

Besides Animal Kingdom, who is the best horse you’ve owned? The most talented horse I’ve owned would be a horse running in South Africa now, Ebony Flyer, who has won 7 of 10. She won their guineas down there. And she’s done that despite having a problem with her air. She’s a big, black, physical monster, like Zenyatta. I have had some pretty good South African horses, like Ipi Tombe and Iridescence, and I think she’s better than them.

How many horses do you have in South Africa? I’ve got a dozen broodmares, about six older horses, and five 2-year-olds.

Hobbies? I like collecting sporting art, especially Depression-era stuff. Something about that art, from the late 1920s and early 1930s, appeals to me. One artist whose work I have a lot of is Lee Townsend. But my first love, and I still love it, is track and field. This year I’m going to go to the Olympics for the first time. I’m also going to go to the Olympic Trials, which is a 10-day meet up in Eugene, Oregon.

Almost everyone’s ambition is to win the Kentucky Derby, and you’ve won it. So what else do you hope to accomplish? I don’t have a specific goal. My biggest charge is finding a diamond in the rough, finding horses in different places, bringing them here, and having them do well. When we started out, a lot of people made fun of us – You can’t buy your own horse? Do you own the tail? – but we have some seriously wealthy and prominent guys who buy 5 or 10 percent of a horse, and they get as big a charge out of it as someone who has the whole horse. Bringing together people like that and seeing the charge they get out of it, that means a lot.