05/01/2014 1:06PM

Smaller ownership groups make their presence known in Kentucky Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
General a Rod is owned in part by Starlight Partners and Skychai Racing.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Racing has long been known as the Sport of Kings, and at the highest levels, that reputation is not altogether undeserved. When a horse is purchased for millions at a yearling sale or in a private acquisition leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the purchaser can sometimes be royalty – or simply as wealthy as a king.

So when Kentucky Derby entrant General a Rod was sold for an undisclosed amount earlier this week, the names of the purchasers, Starlight Partners and Skychai Racing, may have surprised some. The two groups, comprised mostly of Louisvillians, are far from royalty and actually started out owning claiming horses.

Starlight Partners, headed by Jack Wolf, is the more nationally known of the two partnerships, but Skychai has also risen to prominence in recent years.

Both groups will have two horses running in the Kentucky Derby, with Starlight Partners being represented by Intense Holiday and now General a Rod, while Skychai has an interest in longshot Harry’s Holiday with majority partner Terry Raymond, in addition to its stake in General a Rod.

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One of Skychai’s partners, Jimmy Shircliff, an investment adviser based in Louisville, interestingly owns pieces of all three Derby horses, also being a minority partner among the Starlight group that owns Intense Holiday. He and Wolf are longtime friends.

Asked how he will keep track of all three in the Derby, Shircliff said he plans to focus on General a Rod, who will carry his neon orange colors, while glancing toward Churchill’s massive jumbotron to spot the Trakus chicklits that correspond to Harry’s Holiday and Intense Holiday.

This is not the first Derby go-around for Shircliff and Skychai. In addition to Skychai’s two entrants this year, they owned Twinspired, who ran 17th in the 2011 Derby, and had minority ownership in Hansen, the juvenile champion of 2011 who ran ninth in the 2012 Derby.

Asked to describe his first Derby experience when he made the walk-over with family members, Shircliff had trouble controlling his emotion.

“I’m tearing up thinking about it now,” he said.

Other major partners in Skychai are David Koenig, a Union, Ky., resident who races under the name Sand Dollar stable, and Dr. Harvey Diamond, an occupational physician from Louisville.

Diamond is the barn regular of the trio and, having a biting wit, the group’s unofficial jester. It was he who came up with the name Skychai, a play on words, incorporating the Hebrew word “chai” (pronounced “high”), a popular symbol in the Jewish faith that means alive or living.

“Gentiles can’t pronounce it,” Diamond quipped, while showing off his “chai” necklace.

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The common denominator among Skychai purchases has been the endorsement of the trainer, Mike Maker.

Maker is instrumental in the selection of the 2-year-olds they buy at auction and in the established racehorses in which Skychai has bought an interest – such as Hansen, Harry’s Holiday, and General a Rod, all of whom were already in Maker’s stable.

Skychai and Maker have teamed together since 2007, when Diamond first met the soft-spoken trainer.

“That was the beginning of a good business relationship and a great friendship,” Maker said.