Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers, and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs.
In the latest installment, he speaks to Wayne Cutler, whose AWC Stables owns Harvey Wallbanger in partnership with Harold Lerner, Nehoc Stables, Scott Akman, and Paul Braverman. AWC Stables is named for Cutler and his wife, Adriana.
The son of Congrats was a $50,000 yearling purchase by Lerner. A runner-up in the first three starts of his career before he broke his maiden, Harvey Wallbanger looks to take the next step toward the run for the roses when he competes in the $1 million Xpressbet.com Florida Derby at a mile and an eighth on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
PEDULLA: How long have you been in the business?
CUTLER: Fourteen years.
PEDULLA: How did you get involved?
CUTLER: It really dates back to when I was a kid and my dad (Burt) owned harness horses on Long Island. When I was probably 14, 15, 16 years old, he bought a few harness horses and I really enjoyed it. In the morning, I’d ride my bike about 15 minutes (to old Roosevelt Raceway) and help muck the stalls. It was a special time for my dad and myself. I’ve always loved the animals and the analysis behind it. I was hoping one day I would have enough money to get into the Thoroughbred business.
PEDULLA: What led to your investment in Harvey Wallbanger?
CUTLER: I guess about four or five years ago we were sitting at a table at the Anna House gala in Saratoga. Harold was sitting at our table and we started a conversation. A lot of it is just chemistry and we really hit it off well. Every year now we put together an amount of money and we buy horses with Kenny (McPeek) and Jeremiah (Englehart).
PEDULLA: Harvey Wallbanger was part of your strategy of buying yearlings on a regular basis?
CUTLER: Correct. We usually get three to four yearlings with Kenny and three to four yearlings with Jeremiah.
PEDULLA: What is it about Kenny that he could spot a horse like Harvey Wallbanger for $50,000?
CUTLER: He has a great eye for a potential runner. From the conversation I’ve had with him, he tends to look at the horse first and the page second. He looks for a runner, he looks for value and pretty much every year he finds something that far exceeds what we ever imagined.
PEDULLA: When Harvey Wallbanger opened his career with three straight runner-up finishes, how did you react to those?
CUTLER: The first race, when he ran second to Complexity, who eventually won the Champagne, we were very encouraged. To finish second to a Chad Brown horse at Saratoga, we really thought we had a runner then. The next race, he just missed by a whisker to Plus Que Parfait. The race after that, I was actually at the race at Churchill, that was a little disappointing. I kind of felt he had the potential for seconditis. You always want the horse that has the heart to want to finish ahead of every other horse.
PEDULLA: What were your expectations going into the Holy Bull?
CUTLER: He was off a maiden special weight into a Grade 2 race. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that is a huge jump. I was just hoping he would show some run in him. I was not expecting the race that he had. I didn’t even go to Florida to watch the race, which is rare. A Grade 2, I would typically go to watch the race.
PEDULLA: Did you watch the race live?
PEDULLA: What were your emotions as the race unfolded?
CUTLER: In a minute and 43, I went from just hoping he would run to having a horse on the Kentucky Derby trail. It’s going from zero to 100 miles per hour very quickly.
PEDULLA: Did you have some disbelief?
CUTLER: It wasn’t so much disbelief as excitement, pride, just sheer joy. I was in Saratoga watching it with my son (Brendan), who is very into racing, and we were just jumping up and down and screaming. It was just total euphoria. My wife called from the supermarket. She was screaming. My daughter (Shaynna) face-timed us from London, where it was close to midnight. She was screaming. To win a prestigious race like that, it was just priceless.
PEDULLA: What kind of reports have you been getting on Harvey since the Holy Bull?
CUTLER: He’s a small horse so Kenny felt, and it was absolutely the right move in hindsight, to give him time to grow and mature for the Florida Derby. It’s a big hill to climb on March 30, but we’re cautiously optimistic. Not that many analysts are giving him much credit. He’ll be a longshot again in the Florida Derby. But, at the end of the day, speed figures don’t matter as long as you have a horse that has heart and he knows where the finish line is and he runs to the competition, which is what he’s done in all five of his races.
PEDULLA: Is it surreal for you to be on the Derby trail?
CUTLER: It’s surreal and it makes the winter go faster. We’re trying to be careful about getting too ahead of ourselves, but that’s why they call it Derby fever. It’s hard not to imagine us walking the horse in front of the twin spires to the paddock. It’s every horse owner’s dream to do that.
PEDULLA: Is the rest of the family caught up in Derby fever?
CUTLER: We are only taking one family trip. We asked our four children – Braz, Wesley, Brendan and Shaynna – if they would rather go to the Derby (if Harvey Wallbanger qualifies) or Chile. Hands down, all four of them said the Derby. They said, “We can always do a vacation. We can’t always be in the Derby.”