Sanan spends plenty; he wants a Derby to show for it

Updated: May 2, 2007, 9:12 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- If you've ever suffered momentary insanity and paid way too much for a crappy car, a suit that doesn't fit right or Arizona Cardinals season tickets, I have the man you should root for to win the 2007 Kentucky Derby.

Satish Sanan
AP Photo/Gulfstream Park/Equi-PhotoSatish Sanan has spent $150 million without a Triple Crown win to show for it.
His name is Satish Sanan.

He is buyer's remorse personified. Nine figures worth of buyer's remorse.

Or at least he would be, if he'd allow himself to stew in his own thoroughbred racing red ink. But the self-made, filthy-rich technology entrepreneur doesn't wallow readily in regret. The gung ho guy who once bought horses like a sailor on shore leave -- all wallet, no sense -- is man enough to live with and learn from his very expensive mistakes.

In a sport rife with double-talkers and dissemblers, Sanan is startlingly blunt and refreshingly honest. The owner of Florida-based Padua Stables will matter-of-factly tell you he has invested a staggering $150 million in race horses since 1997, with exactly two Triple Crown appearances to show for it: a pair of embarrassing also-ran performances in the Kentucky Derby earlier this decade.

We can all relate to the feeling, if not the actual finances.

"The hit ratio," Sanan concedes, "after buying them, breaking them, training them and racing them, is pretty slim."

Despite three victories in Breeders' Cup races, the hit ratio is well south of the Mendoza Line. Only the sheiks of Dubai have tried harder to win Triple Crown races with less to show for it than Sanan.

While his high-priced herd of horseflesh was running like billy goats, relatively thrifty owners have gone on to win the Derby with cheap colts such as Real Quiet (a $17,500 purchase) and Funny Cide ($75,000).

Even when Sanan locked in on a can't-miss colt, something bad usually happened.

He paid $2.15 million for a yearling he named Vindication, which went on to win the Eclipse Award as the best 2-year-old and established himself as the strong Derby favorite in 2002. Naturally, the horse suffered a career-ending injury and never ran as a 3-year-old.

On one rare occasion when Sanan actually allowed himself to be outbid, it famously backfired. In 1998, Sanan went hard after a yearling who was a gorgeous son of Mr. Prospector, bailing out before the winning bid hit $4 million. Turned out to be Fusaichi Pegasus, winner of the 2000 Derby. The colt subsequently was syndicated for $60 million in breeding rights.

But Sanan is the Cubs fan of horse racing. His optimism and passion are unsinkable. The serial disappointments have not dampened his hope that the next horse will be the big horse, the colt that carries him to the grandest of all winner's circles -- the one at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Right now, he's two minutes and change from getting there. And Steve Bartman is nowhere in sight.

In a sudden flourish of good fortune, Sanan has become part owner of two very live shots in this Kentucky Derby field: Arkansas Derby winner Curlin, who is undefeated and unchallenged in three dominating victories, and Any Given Saturday, one of the leading contenders in trainer Todd Pletcher's powerful five-horse Louisville contingent.

When the horses go to post shortly after 6 p.m. ET Saturday, Curlin could be the favorite. And Any Given Saturday likely will be one of the top five or six betting choices in the field of 20.

It sure beats showing up with Exchange Rate (12th in the 2002 Derby) or Quinton's Gold Rush (18th in the '04 Derby). And it sure beats all the years when Sanan had watched a fortune in horseflesh dwindle and disappear by the time the calendar flipped to May.

Curlin
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeCurlin, training for the Kentucky Derby, could go to the post as the race favorite.
"We haven't gone away," Sanan said.

That, in and of itself, is a key characteristic of a great racehorse owner. Perseverance coupled with iron will, inextinguishable passion and a bottomless bank account are usually necessary to win big in this perplexing game.

Oh, and one other necessity Sanan possesses in extra-large proportions.

"He has the balls of a gorilla," said legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who helped waste millions of Sanan's dollars on horses that never panned out.

When the India-born businessman used to go to the yearling sales at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, he wrote checks that would make a normal millionaire's hand tremble. He bartered like the U.S. government working out a defense contract.

One thousand dollars for a wrench? Great. I'll take six.

Sanan roared into the game paying top dollar and lining up the two greatest trainers in the game, Lukas and Bob Baffert. If it was worth doing, it clearly was worth overdoing.

Sanan recalls his first trip to the auction ring, in July 1997: He bought three or four horses for a total of a couple million. He enjoyed it so much, he came back in September and spent $14 million for five or six horses, including $2.3 million for a single colt -- the highest bid on any yearling at that sale.

That horse went on to win a single race.

Didn't matter.

"By this time, we were hooked," Sanan said. "We were back at every sale."

Fact is, Sanan had gotten hooked on the racing game decades earlier, as a poor college student in England. He lived at the YMCA at the time and became a punter, as professional gamblers are called across the pond, putting himself through school with racetrack winnings.

"I had $25 in my pocket, and I put myself through three different universities," Sanan said.

Armed with an education, Sanan set about making a fortune. After several years of working in Canada, he founded a company in Clearwater, Fla., that supplied computer outsourcing and software services worldwide.

In 1989, the company had three employees and 900 square feet of office space. By 1996, it was worth $1.6 billion and was at the vanguard of companies that solved the threat of the Y2K bug to computer systems worldwide.

Sanan sold that company and attempted to retire. That lasted about six weeks -- but it also gave him a chance to immerse himself in his dream of owning thoroughbreds.

"It wasn't a question of getting in and claiming a horse," Sanan said. "We were going to do it at the highest level."

At that point, you might as well have stamped "PIGEON" across Sanan's forehead. He was business-savvy, but not necessarily horse-business-savvy. He had money; he was willing to spend; and he was eagerly fleeced by some of the sharpers in the sport.

"We kind of got screwed," Sanan said.

One of the oldest tricks in the horse-buying book is for a seller and a bloodstock agent to conspire to inflate the price of a horse, then split the profit. If the animal is worth $100,000, sell it for twice that to an unsuspecting buyer and pocket the extra revenue.

Sanan wasn't opposed to conspicuous consumption, but he was opposed to being robbed. He and another relative newcomer to the business, billionaire wine mogul Jess Jackson (of Kendall-Jackson fame and fortune), eventually took action against corrupt sales practices.

They've helped start an Alliance for Industry Reform, which plans to meet in Lexington the Monday after the Derby to discuss what can be done to shed some daylight on the murky day-to-day realities of horse racing.

"Everything has to do with disclosure," Sanan said.

But beyond that, Sanan has taken more of the game under his own control.

Any Given Saturday
Al Messerschmidt/WireImage.comAny Given Saturday won the Sam F. Davis stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February.
He has buttressed his Padua operation in Ocala, Fla., adding stallions and broodmares and reducing the reliance on middlemen and sales rings. Vindication, the injured 2-year-old star, is blossoming into a prime stallion. Exchange Rate and Yes Its True have done well in the breeding shed, as well.

And the farm has become a family affair. Daughter Nadia detoured from an Ivy League pre-med education to manage the Padua business operations. Son Sasha, a Vanderbilt graduate, is becoming his father's right-hand man on all thoroughbred purchases.

The nature of those purchases is changing, as well. Sanan has shifted his focus off the unproven yearlings in favor of older horses that already have shown something on the track. That's how he wound up with significant financial stakes in Curlin and Any Given Saturday, sending them to two of his main trainers, Steve Asmussen (Curlin) and Pletcher (Any Given Saturday).

Sanan is a smart enough horseman to let those men do their jobs. But he's also candid enough to give his feedback on how they handle his big-ticket investments.

"If you don't want an honest answer," Asmussen said, "don't ask him a question."

February was the month when this Triple Crown campaign clicked. Shortly after Any Given Saturday won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs, Sanan cajoled WinStar Farm into selling a share of the colt. That was a couple of weeks after he made the big score with Curlin.

On Feb. 3 at Gulfstream Park, Curlin made his racing debut. The chestnut colt decimated the field by 12¾ lengths in a seven-furlong race -- and Sanan, always on the lookout for a Derby prospect, was watching.

Satish, who was on his way to Bombay, called his son, Sasha. He told him to inquire about buying Curlin.

The same day, Satish got a call from Jackson. The two had blue-skied about one day partnering on a big horse, and Jackson said he had the perfect colt in mind but could not mention his name. Turns out they'd watched the same race.

"I know the horse," Satish told him. "Call Sasha, get with him and put a bid in."

About 2:30 in the morning, the deal got done. Satish said he was ready to buy the whole horse at that time, but wound up partnering with Jackson and others. They took a huge gamble, paying a reported $3.5 million for a colt that hadn't even run a full mile in competition yet.

"You're always taking a risk," Sanan said. "It's a high-risk, high-reward game."

For once, the high rewards of horse racing are rolling Sanan's way. He certainly has earned it.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.