Jim Covello is a junkie.
He’s got it bad. “Get thee to an AA meeting” bad.
And it’s starting to rub off on the wife and kids.
“It’s really fun to share all this with them,” he says.
Just give it time. A family intervention looms.
Epinephrinism is a progressive disease. Get the progeny hooked on horse racing and next thing you know, they are working the trading floor on Wall Street, leaving at the bell to tear Pa from his office at Goldman Sachs and off to the nearest Adrenaline Anonymous meeting.
A family that fight-or-flights together stays together.
If the Covello kids weren’t adrenaline junkies before, they certainly are now. They’ve got a Kentucky Derby horse. His name is Falling Sky.
It ought to be Cloud Nine because the Covellos haven’t come back to earth since their colt won the Sam F. Davis Stakes back in February, launching him – and them – on the trail of the rose-colored grail.
A month later, at the Tampa Bay Derby, they were joined by Teri Covello’s 90-year-old grandfather. He wore a suit, tie and fedora, like an extra from “Seabiscuit.”
Had the time of his life.
“That’s the one thing about horses, you can share the experience with friends and family,” Jim Covello said. “That’s one of the reasons why I love this game.”
Horse racing puts the lie to the old saw that says the best things in life are free. Love, as we know, isn’t cheap, but owning horses is more expensive than dating a Kardashian.
Falling Sky will be a longshot in Derby 139 next Saturday, but that won’t get him any discounts at the racing secretary’s office. It will cost $50,000 just to enter the beast. Fortunately, Covello has two partners, Newtown Anner Stud and Joe Bulger. Covello’s share of the horse (and the entry fee) is 40 percent (or $20,000).
Additional expenses will cost Covell another $15,000 for horse-related fees – vets, trainers, riders, barn rental, etc. – and the family’s food, lodging, airfare and such.
Covello, 40, has owned horses for 10 years. He’s so tickled at having a Derby horse, his first, that you get the feeling he’d pay that 35 grand twice over if he had to.
“For what could be a once in a lifetime experience, it’s worth it,” he said.
Good thing Covello is a successful research analyst for one of the world’s great investment banks. He specializes in the semiconductor industry. He studies it in between peeks at the Daily Racing Form.
“People think I’m crazy to have a hobby that’s as volatile as my day job,” Covello said, “but they are both a lot of fun.”
Ups and downs are name of both games. Two years ago, Covello owned a filly named Lilacs and Lace. She won the Ashland Stakes, a big race at Keeneland Race Course, then a month later ran 12th in the Kentucky Oaks.
That was a good result by comparison. Covello’s first Oaks filly, Fitz Just Right, didn’t make the race. She chipped an ankle bone in her final workout.
“It’s a crazy game,” Covello said. “But I can’t help loving it.”
Truth be told, Covello is cross-addicted. He’s also an information junkie. When he’s not checking a stock ticker, he’s scouring his Twitter feed for news on Falling Sky.
Tuesday he saw that Mike Welsch, DRF’s workout analyst, praised the colt’s powerful morning gallop. Covello was so stoked that he immediately forwarded the tweet to his wife, Teri.
“Oh great,” she said. “Just what you need. Another jolt of adrenaline in the morning.”
Teri has no one to blame but herself. She created this double espresso of a man by extending their honeymoon with a visit to legendary Saratoga Race Course, which takes its name from her hometown in upstate New York.
Jim had never been to a race track before.
“Seeing your first race at Saratoga is like seeing your first baseball game at Yankee Stadium,” Covello said. “It was incredible.”
A junkie was born.
The information addict was well into his disease. Covello was a crack student, good enough to attend Georgetown University, where he played one year of football and two seasons of baseball. Because, you know, merely grinding through classes at an elite American college wasn’t sufficiently stimulating.
Not that Covello got much stimulation playing first base for the Hoyas.
“I was a defensive replacement on a team that rarely got a lead,” he quipped.
Falling Sky is almost always on the lead. He led from gate to wire in winning the Sam Davis, a Grade 3 race. Falling Sky also shot to the fore in the Tampa Bay Derby, a Grade 2, but was quickly headed by mighty Verrazano, the early Kentucky Derby favorite.
Falling Sky finished third in that race. The runner-up, Java’s War, went on to win the Blue Grass Stakes on April 13.
That same day Falling Sky led the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby with only 1/8 of a mile to run. All three Covello kids were there: Robby, 10; Julia, 8; and Andy, 6. Their hearts pounded in anticipation of an upset win.
Then three horses blew by in the last 200 yards.
Bummer. But the trip wasn’t a total loss. Fourth place paid $50,000, and Robby got a first-person look at the American South, the subject of a recent social studies unit. He got a 104 on the test.
“Who said horse racing isn’t educational?” Pa said.
One of the things Jim Covello has learned is to shy away from buying untested horses. Falling Sky had already won two races when Covello and Co. shelled out $425,000 for him four months ago. Falling Sky has earned back $205,000 so far.
Not a bad deal as horses go, particularly in light of Falling Sky’s pedigree. His sire, Lion Heart, finished second to Smarty Jones in the 2004 Derby. His maternal grandsire, Sea Hero, won the roses in 1993.
It seems unlikely that Falling Sky will enjoy similar success. He has stepped up in class twice since February and finished farther back each time. He might go off near 40-1 next Saturday.
You could do worse, though. By all accounts, Falling Sky is thriving at Churchill Downs.
“He’s at least as good as he’s ever been, if not better,” Covello said. “I’ll run a longshot, but I’d never run a horse that wasn’t 100 percent.”
Covello bets horses as well as owns them. He’s good at it too. He uses special speed figures produced by a firm called Thoro-Graph.
One wag wrote that Falling Sky’s Thoro-Graph numbers are too slow to regard him as a Derby contender. However, Covello notes that his colt’s numbers are the same as Palace Malice, a horse many insiders really like. So there’s that.
Pennsylvania-breds never get much credit – unless their name is Smarty Jones. He was the favorite in ’04, but his homeboy Lil E. Tee was dismissed at 17-1 when he upset the 1992 Derby field.
In addition to hailing from the wrong neighborhood, Falling Sky is kind of a plain little colt who runs better than he looks. Since horses earn purse money for running, not modeling, that’s fine with Covello.
Julia, however, was underwhelmed when she first saw Falling Sky down in Tampa. The young lass was infinitely more impressed with a tall, dark and handsome rival, the imposing Verrazano.
Horse racing is a lot like life. There’s always somebody prettier and richer to be found. The race track is great place to find them.
“Daddy,” she said, “why can’t we get a horse like that?”
“Because daddy has to work for a living,” she was told.
Postscript: If you’re looking to back a Covello-owned longshot, don’t sleep on Swift Warrior in the Woodford Reserve on Derby Day. He’ll be around 20-1.
It’s a Grade 1 race that might draw the two best turf horses in America, Point of Entry and Wise Dan, the 2012 Horse of the Year. Swift Warrior is in pretty deep, but he’s a fast 5-year-old in peak condition.
“I’m as optimistic as you can possibly be going into a Grade 1 against two amazing horses,” Covello said.
Swift Warrior has already won two minor stakes this year, and the best race of his life came over Churchill’s grass course.
“If he runs back to that race, I think he’ll be right there,” Covello said.