Ralph Evans counted himself lucky to get back to New England earlier this week after a short trip to South Florida over the weekend. Only a man riding the high from a win of a promising 3-year-old winning his seasonal debut can make such a statement, especially considering the trade was sunshine, ocean breezes and temperatures in the 70s for snow, huge wind gusts and temps below freezing.
Truth be told, Evans said the snow that blasted Boston and other parts of New England didn't really materialize where he lives in Greenwich, Conn., but it's still impressive that he was unfazed flying into the nearby Westchester County Airport amidst the ominous forecast Monday night.
The thrills of the Triple Crown trail can do that, coming in waves and blasts, sometimes making those caught up in it numb to everything else around them. Evans isn't at that stage, still speaking and thinking with the same sense that made him a successful businessman. There is no mistaking that he's riding a pretty big wave now, thanks to the breakout performance of Upstart in the Grade 2 Lamholm South Holy Bull last Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
Evans, 77, described the win as a "thrill." He said Upstart's 5 1/2-length triumph - the New York-bred Flatter ridgling's first graded stakes win and first victory against open company - put him and his wife Judith, and their small group of friends from college and his working career that came out to watch the race "over the moon. Yes we are. There's no doubt about it."
This is new territory for Evans, who was introduced to racing by a bachelor uncle who lived with his family and took him to the races at Randall Park and Thistletown when he was growing up in Cleveland in the 1940s and '50s. He later took a job working the valet parking lots at those same two tracks, a perfect job for a young man with energy to burn by day and socializing to do by night.
"For a couple years there I was a valet parker at those two tracks," Evans said Tuesday. "In my college days, in the summer I parked cars there. That was a great job because you didn't have to get to work until like 11:30, so you could go out the night before and drink beer or whatever, and then you worked your ass off for an hour when they came in and an hour when they went out. That was a good job to have."
Upstart is proving to be a pretty good horse to have, too. Purchased by Evans for $130,000 at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred yearling sale, Upstart won two of four starts last year, placed in the Grade 1 Champagne and Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was on everyone's radar heading into 2015. The two wins came nine days apart last summer at Saratoga - a stylish maiden win Aug. 15 and a more workmanlike 1-length win in the Funny Cide Stakes Aug. 24 - a move purposely designed by trainer Rick Violette to get some seasoning and a little more time before the Champagne in early October.
Evans said he's received offers of "silly money" from other owners to purchase Upstart, who was nosed out of second in the Breeders' Cup by Carpe Diem and finished 6 1/2 lengths behind winner Texas Red after a rough trip. He's listened to the offers and would listen to more, but don't expect him to take any.
"There's been discussions in my family," Evans said when asked about owning a horse everyone's now talking about as a major Kentucky Derby contender. "My daughter is a big racing fan. My wife has become a big fan. My son could care less. We are stealing ourselves to turn down offers which have come our way. I suspect there will be more that come our way; silly money for a Derby horse.
"We know that it's silly money for the most part. While I might have considered it 20 years ago, when I was younger, it is remote that I'll be moved to do anything. The actuarial table is moving up on me and my family would be crushed if I sold. They're with me. They'd rather have the ride than the money. Fortunately, that money is not going to be, quote, case money, for me one way or another. If the creek don't rise and horse stays well, he's going to be running in the name of Ralph Evans throughout."
Evans got involved in racing in 1967, admittedly on a "smaller scale because my pocketbook was much smaller in those days."
His success in business came on Wall Street and as that improved so did his investment in racehorses. Evans teamed up with Violette in the early 1990s, starting with a couple horses. He typically buys two or three yearlings a year, depending on how well things went the year before.
Evans enjoyed his best season as an owner in 2014, winning seven races with four seconds and four thirds from 27 starts and accumulating purses of $762,438. That total ranked him 95th among all owners in North America, according to Equibase, and he's currently sixth on the same list through the first 27 days of 2015.
The best year for Evans prior to 2014 came in 2001, when his stable won six races from 20 starts and earned $533,010. March Magic, a daughter of Evansville Slew that Evans considered his best horse prior to Upstart, helped pad those stats with her best season that year with a Grade 2 victory, Grade 1 placing and earnings of $338,530. Free of Love flirted with the spring classics that same year and finished a hard-luck second in the Grade 1 Jim Dandy at Saratoga for Evans and Violette.
Evans considers Upstart a fluke, not because of that raw talent Violette saw when he inspected the dark bay or brown colt at the Summerfield consignment on the Saratoga sales grounds. Nor because of what he himself thought could be a useful racehorse as he analyzed Upstart's pedigree.
No, he considers it a fluke because of the numbers game.
"Last year was a year when I bought three horses, which is probably my outside limit," Evans said. "I would say I average two. So this is an immensely unique, or flukey, when you consider all the horses that get bought for lots more money and/or the owners that spend a lot more money and buy a lot more horses, so I feel very, very, I'm not going to say lucky because everybody says that. Truly this is, as far as I'm concerned, very, very unique. I hate to use the word, but it is a fluke. He's a fluke."
"I understand the vicissitudes of the game. When there are 30 or 40,000 yearlings a year and you buy two or three, it's pretty much a longshot you're going to get anywhere, so I take the good with the bad very well."
Evans said he's prepared for anything that comes Upstart's way, whether it's front and center on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs or quite the opposite, say an injury or illness that knocks him off the trail.
Upstart could show up next in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Feb. 21 at Gulfstream or two weeks later in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct. The Fountain of Youth route would most likely keep him on the South Florida path to the Kentucky Derby, with the Grade 1 Florida Derby March 28 as his final prep before Louisville. The Gotham option would most likely see Upstart also return for the April 4 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
Even though options abound, Evans is staying even keel, out of the spotlight and in the same mindset that made him relieved to be back in the cold and snow of New England after some fun in the sun in Florida.
"The water gets deeper, a lot deeper," Evans said of the next steps. "As you get closer your anticipation level is higher. I will admit to anxiety about the whole proposition. I do not like the notoriety, if there is such a thing, about it. Rick has a tendency to be very quotable. I cringe when I read those articles, but that's what trainers do. If he can get himself an important owner out of this, then by all means let him spout on the back of one of my horses. When I say I cringe it doesn't really bother me, I just prefer not to be quoted too much."
Upstart wins Grade 2 Lamholm South Holy Bull