Bill Parcells knows better than most other people the exhilaration of success at the highest level of sports.
Twice as coach of the New York Giants, he was carried off fields on his players' shoulders after winning the National Football League's biggest prize, the Super Bowl. Twenty-nine years have passed since Jan. 27, 1991, when Parcells and his Giants captured Super Bowl XXV. It's been some 14 years since he last coached an NFL game.
Yet, at the age of 78, there's a new passion that fuels the drive for success that earned him enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. More than anything else, Parcells wants to stand in the winner's circle after one of his horses wins a Grade 1 stakes.
"A Grade 1 win would be on a par with the Super Bowl," Parcells said. "I'm pretty sure it would."
Those helping Parcells with that quest know his words are sincere.
"Coach really wants to have a good horse," said Robbie Medina, one of Parcells' main advisers who used to work as an assistant trainer for Shug McGaughey. "He told me, 'If I can win a Grade 1, I'll probably drop dead.' I don't want to kill him, but I want to get that grade 1 win for him."
Parcells was hopeful of getting that dream-come-true top level win with Three Technique, who started his 3-year-old campaign in January with a promising second in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park for trainer Jeremiah Englehart. But an ankle chip, discovered after a fourth-place finish in the Rebel Stakes, has sidelined the son of Mr Speaker and reminded Parcells of the reality that injuries and setbacks can be as common on the racetrack as the football field.
"I thought I had a chance at a Grade 1 win this year, but as fate would have it, Three Technique got a little ankle chip," Parcells said. "He probably had it in the last race and that's why he didn't run up to par. He's given us some thrills so far. Some years are better than others in this sport."
While football made Parcells famous, now it's racing that brings joy to him and is foremost on his mind.
"I love going to Saratoga," he said. "It's a happy place for me. I need a little action and that's action up there."
It's a happy level of action for Parcells, after a life in the NFL that provided non-stop stress: games in the fall and winter, draft preparation in the spring, and training camp in the summer. Now, his life moves at a more genteel pace, enjoying race days at Gulfstream Park (pre-COVID-19) and Saratoga Race Course, or at a major sale in search of that elusive top-level horse.
"If Bill is mellower now, it's only because of his age, but he's very into racing. He's there every morning to watch his horses work," said Chris Mara, the Giants' senior vice president of player personnel who has known Parcells for about 40 years and is a regular investor in the Starlight Racing partnerships. "It's become a passion of his, and he's grown accustomed to the whole culture. He eats it up, and it's good for him. It's what he needed in his so-called 'afterlife.' "
Parcells might not be as intense as he was on the NFL sidelines, when he would angrily bark at a Hall of Famer such as Lawrence Taylor as freely as he would a backup on special teams. Yet do not believe for a moment that the fire is no longer burning.
"It's a personality flaw I have," he said. "I want to win."
In racing he has come to understand the required patience in a sport where a 25% win rate is coveted rather than grounds for firing.
"He's very competitive. It's taken him a little while to understand it's a very patient – and expensive – sport, but he's enjoying it," said Mara, whose owner's box is next to Parcells' at Saratoga.
Yet as much as Parcells has learned volumes about horse racing in recent years, he also has been a teacher to those around him, sharing his wealth of knowledge about competing at the highest levels during 19 seasons of coaching the Giants, New England Patriots, New York Jets, and Dallas Cowboys and offering advice on life in general.
Englehart, a lifelong Giants fan, felt a sense of awe when Mara first introduced him to the legendary coach, but through daily calls and chats with the Hall of Famer, he has developed a better understanding of the ingredients, both vital and subtle, that are necessary for success.
"He's very inspiring. There's no doubt why he was such a talented football coach, not just from an X's and O's standpoint, but for being able to rally the troops and get men to give everything for him," Englehart said. "We talk almost every day, and I know what he expects from me. Players were willing to run through a brick wall for him. I want to win grade 1 races for him.
"Football is a contact sport and a coach can be intimidating. Bill still uses it now, but he's very fair. He won't make decisions right away. He knows when it's the right time to make decisions, and I've learned life lessons from him and carry a lot of his analogies with me."
That horse racing was such a perfect fit for Parcells should not be a surprise. There are, after all, many more similarities with football than most people would expect.
Parcells has a deep love for the horses themselves, saying "once you get up close to a horse you appreciate the athlete in him. They are magnificent animals."
Yet he also knows owning a race horse involves a skill set similar to coaching a football team, especially in areas such as game plans and development of the athlete or knowing when to move on from a human or equine athlete.
"You respect the jockeys and the trainers and everything that goes into getting a horse to the races and being successful. It's a pretty big task," said Parcells, who has eight horses in training with Englehart and one with McGaughey. "With horses, just like players, some are eager, aggressive, and want to train. Others you have to coax it out of them. There are some attributes in all athletes that you can't see which allows them to go forward and flourish."
Parcells grew up in New Jersey with a love for baseball and boxing and developed an interest in horse racing through trips to Monmouth Park with his father. As his coaching career skyrocketed, he dabbled in ownership but did not fully embrace the sport until he finally stepped down from the NFL front office work in 2010.
"For the NFL, me owning horses wasn't their favorite thing," Parcells said. "In the late 1980s I started with a few New York state-breds, and when I got out of football for good, I increased the number."
Running under the banner of August Dawn Farm, Parcells started with trainer Gary Sciacca, who provided him with his biggest thrill to date, a victory in the 2013 Empire Classic Handicap with Saratoga Snacks.
Since 2011 August Dawn Farm has won 47 races from 266 starts with purse earnings of more than $3.2 million. During that time Parcells has largely eschewed the popular trend to race with partners, but that's no surprise to Mara.
"Bill wants to be his own guy, and I get it," Mara said. "That's his personality and good for him."
Not even watching Mara and his Starlight partners sweep the 2018 Triple Crown as part owners of Justify could sway Parcells from his chosen course.
"He congratulated me about Justify," Mara said. "Then he chided me about being the luckiest guy in the world."
About three years ago Parcells decided to become more involved at the sales and teamed with Englehart. One of their first purchases was Forty Under, a son of Uncle Mo bought for $180,000 from the James Herbener Jr. consignment in at the 2017 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale.
Forty Under, who through March has earned $211,376, gave Parcells his lone graded stakes win with a victory in the 2018 Pilgrim Stakes before finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
More recently – working with Englehart, Travis Durr, and Medina – Parcells took home an Empire Maker filly for $280,000 from the Randy Miles consignment at the Ocala Breeders' Sales' March 2-year-olds in training auction and named her Fits the Jill after his daughter, Jill.
Purchased as a yearling, the stakes-placed Three Technique exemplifies one of Parcells' tendencies in buying young horses. While breeders have mined the Northern Dancer or Danzig lines, Parcells has been following the "McGaughey line," buying young horses from stallions who were trained by the Hall of Fame conditioner.
Mr Speaker won the 2014 Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes for McGaughey. Three Technique was purchased for $180,000 from the Taylor Made Sales Agency consignment at the 2018 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale.
Parcells also bought a full brother to Grade 1-placed, Grade 3 winner Analyze It whom he named Shirelle. Purchased for $150,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September yearling sale from the Mill Ridge Sales consignment, he's out of the Consolidator mare Sweet Assay and is a 2-year-old son of the McGaughey-trained multiple Grade 1 winner Point of Entry.
He also has a 3-year-old daughter from the first crop of Honor Code , another multiple Grade 1 winner trained by McGaughey, who is named She Throws Heat. Trained by McGaughey, she went for $200,000 in 2018 from James Herbener's consignment at The Saratoga Sale, Fasig-Tipton's select yearling sale in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and is still a maiden after three starts.
"Coach loved Honor Code, so when he had his first crop, we had to get one. There was no doubt about it," Medina said. "I'm a little biased and I should be more open-minded, but if Honor Code doesn't turn out to be a great sire, I'll be scratching my head. He was as genuine a horse as I've ever been around."
Parcells bought another yearling from Herbener's consignment at the 2018 Saratoga sale, this one by Point of Entry. Purchased for $160,000, he won his career debut a year ago and then was third in the Saratoga Special Stakes. After two unsuccessful starts on turf to close his juvenile season, he opened 2020 with a pair of seconds in dirt allowance races at Oaklawn Park.
His name? It follows another of Parcells' patterns: naming horses after his former players or sports terminology.
In this case, it's Tuggle, named after John Tuggle, who was the last player selected in the 1983 NFL Draft and earned a special place in Parcells' heart for making the team during the coach's first season at the helm of the Giants. Tuggle became the Giants' special teams player of the year, but the endearing tale had a tragic end when Tuggle was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 1984 and died two years later.
"Coach told me the story about Tuggle, and he got emotional while talking about him," Medina said. "(Trainer) Chad Brown had told him to name a horse Tuggle. So when we bought the colt by Point of Entry, he was a really nice yearling and Coach asked what should we name him. I said, 'Name him Tuggle.'"
Tuggle joins a roster of August Dawn horses that has included stakes winner Bavaro, named for the Giants' All-Pro tight end; Carthon, the namesake of the running back on Parcells' Super Bowl winners; and Three Technique, a term for a defensive lineman who lines up on the outside shoulder of an offensive guard.
There's also Rouson, a 2-year-old son of Kantharos named after another running back on the Super Bowl champions. Parcells said he was thwarted in bids to name horses after two of his biggest stars, Phil Simms and Carl Banks.
Yet there's one name being kept in reserve that bears watching.
A few years ago Medina was driving back from Tampa Bay Downs on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, which honors the late Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hall of Famer. His interest piqued, Medina called Parcells.
"I asked him what position did Selmon play," Medina said. "He said, 'Whatever position he wanted to play. Is that good enough for you?" I said, 'He was that good?' He said "Robbie, he was that good. What a player. You couldn't get him off his feet.' So I told him when we find a horse that's the real deal, we're going to name him Selmon. He said that was fine and that's been our goal: to find a horse we can call Selmon."
If that happens and Selmon becomes a Grade 1 winner for Parcells, it just might produce one of horse racing's great twists of fate: A horse named after a Buccaneer great giving a legendary Giants coach a thrill as big as a Super Bowl win.
Who knows, there might even be a Gatorade shower in the winner's circle to cap it off.