Few in the crowd on Saturday will feel the emotional weight of the Kentucky Derby quite like the team with a chance to relive the great opportunity that took them to the pinnacle of American racing 12 months ago.
Barry Irwin and four members of the Team Valor partnership that triumphed under the Twin Spires last year with Animal Kingdom will be back as part of the group that owns Went the Day Well, who will attempt to join his stablemate in racing history. Irwin, CEO of the Kentucky-based stable, bought a majority interest in Went the Day Well in England last fall and syndicated him within a few hours among 10 clients.
Four of them -- Mark Castellano, Norton Herrick, Carl Pascarella and Bruce Zoldan -- experienced the joy of a Derby victory with Animal Kingdom last spring in a 20-member partnership.
Their participation has added a special layer to the path that brings Went the Day Well into the Run for the Roses for the same trainer, Graham Motion, and with similar credentials as Animal Kingdom at this point a year ago.
"I've been to Churchill every year for the last 20 and last year was very, very special," said Pascarella, who previously had a unique Derby viewpoint from his time as the CEO of the credit card giant Visa when the company offered a $5-million bonus for a horse who could sweep the Triple Crown.
"The only thing that we were hoping for last year was for Animal Kingdom to qualify and then that he would stay healthy so we could walk behind him from the backstretch to the paddock, to have that enjoyment and that feeling. When he won, it was euphoric. It was like no other feeling that maybe I've ever had, or at least not in a long time.
"When you've been to the Derby as many times as I have and you have a horse in it, it really changes the experience and the level of involvement. With all the people that I know that are affiliated with Churchill and the Derby, it just makes you feel much, much more apart of everything that is going on. It was just a unique and very honorable experience.
"One of the things that my wife, Yurie, and I have talked about it is 'How do you go back the next year after that phenomenal experience of Animal Kingdom, Barry and Graham and everyone associated with it?' When Howe Great and Went the Day Well started making some noise this winter, it really re-kindled that fire and you're almost afraid to think about what's possible," added Pascarella, who now runs a private equity firm and lives in San Francisco. "Just the idea of being able to have a horse again is just a phenomenal thing. We pray that he stays healthy, and if he does, that walk from the backside again will be very, very memorable. But, as my wife pointed out, gosh, we want him to do well, too."
Zoldan, the CEO of Northern Ohio's B.J. Alan Company, Phantom Fireworks and the Youngstown Phantoms of the U.S. Hockey League, points to the long odds for reaching America's greatest race with one colt, let alone two years in a row, from an annual North American foal crop of around 30,000.
"Last year, the words were 'surreal' or 'off the charts,' and being back in it with another opportunity, being one of 20 Thoroughbreds again with a chance to win the Derby, it's just amazing," Zoldan said. "Some family and friends are starting to believe that I have some sort of extraterrestrial connection. I have to give the credit to Barry."
Last spring, Zoldan spiced up the winner's circle celebration, bringing along his friends Joey Fatone of N'Sync and celebrity chef Guy Fieri.
"I've been going to the Kentucky Derby for 25 years, even before I partnered with Team Valor," Zoldan said. "It's just a great event, and it's hard to imagine what it will be like having another chance to win it, being there with my friends and family."
Herrick is a real estate investor and Broadway and Hollywood producer. He won a Tony Award three years ago as a producer of the revived musical "Hair."
"Nothing comes close to the Derby; that was an unbelievable feeling," Herrick, who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, and New Jersey. "I'm just really looking forward to racing this horse and bringing home a winner again, which would be totally incredible. I can't wait."
Castellano, a New York native who is retired from Wall Street and lives in Far Hills, New Jersey, has experienced a great run at Churchill dating back to Pluck's victory in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner. He carried a dream of owning racehorses ever since his father would take him to Aqueduct and Belmont Park in his childhood, giving him a deep perspective of the significance of seeing Animal Kingdom's name in gold above the Churchill paddock as the reigning Derby winner, and what it would be like for Went the Day Well to succeed him.
"Obviously everyone keeps comparing him to Animal Kingdom because of the nearness to what just happened," Castellano said. "It's easy, to the point that the horse wins the Spiral, just like Animal Kingdom, and with the same saddle cloth number. Tell me about scary. His whole progression has been unbelievable. At first it seemed like he started off a little slow but then all the sudden he wins, he wins, and now he's in. The whole thing is becoming surreal in many ways."
In 137 years, only 12 owners have conquered the Derby more than once. The only back-to-back winners were Col. E.R. Bradley in 1932 and 1933, fabled Calumet Farm in 1948 and 1949, and Meadow Stable in 1972 and 1973.