- Jane McManus, Reporter & Columnist, espnW.com
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Joe Torre was raised nowhere near the hallowed track of Churchill Downs. He grew up in Brooklyn with concrete sidewalks and elevated subway trains, not bluegrass and the smell of hay. He had no interest in horses. Sure, his older brother, Frank, would let him tag along sometimes to Aqueduct or other racetracks, but it wasn't until Torre started sitting next to Don Zimmer in the New York Yankees dugout that horse racing got in his blood.
And now that has led him to Churchill Downs.
What started in 1996 when Zimmer, then the Yankees' bench coach, took his friend to Pimlico in Baltimore, will come full circle Saturday when Homeboykris breaks from the gates in the Kentucky Derby. Torre owns 10 percent of the 3-year-old gelding and enjoyed discussing the first time Zimmer took him to a track. They had little TVs in front of them and changed channels to watch simulcasts of different races, reading up on horses in the Daily Racing Forum and laying bets.
"By the time we were ready to go," Zimmer said, "he said, 'This is tougher than working.'"
Torre was hooked on the sport. He spent as much time talking about his 72-1 longshot than he did baseball at Citi Field before the Dodgers and Mets were rained out Monday. During Torre's years in New York, jockeys and owners were frequent visitors to Yankee Stadium. Torre watched races all over the country and eventually began investing in horses. By the time he took the job managing the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008, he was such a part of the culture he stayed at trainer Bobby Frankel's house.
Torre bought into Homeboykris after the horse won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park last fall. Last Wednesday he made his first trip to Churchill Downs and watched the 3-year-old gelding work out in person.
"It was great," Torre said. "Getting up at 5:30 in the morning wasn't a thrill, but getting down there and watching the horse work and walking around the barn area was something I really enjoyed."
The reality of the sport hit Torre on Sunday when one of the Derby favorites, Eskendereya, was scratched because of swelling in his left front leg. That misfortune led to Homeboykris slipping into the 20-horse field.
"These horses are so fragile," said Torre, who has gained an appreciation for how precarious the health of the four-legged athletes can be. "The favorite went down [Sunday], so you never know what's going to happen day-to-day. But I check in every day on him [Homeboykris]. So far, so good."
Homeboykris' trainer, Rick Dutrow, has worked with Torre on many other horses. He said when Torre visited Churchill Downs, he could see how horse racing has wrapped its tendrils around the baseball man. Because of his real job, Torre will not be at the Derby for the 6:24 p.m. post time. His wife, Ali, will host family and friends. But Torre will be watching from the Dodgers clubhouse before his team plays the Pittsburgh Pirates at 7:10 p.m.
"He likes it, man he likes it," Dutrow said. "He's very excited to have Homeboykris in the Derby."
Dutrow added the horse may not be a favorite, but he does have a winning performance in him. A few mediocre results have kept Homeboykris from being highly regarded, but Dutrow said horses, like all athletes, have off days. It's something the trainer said Torre completely gets. When a reporter asked Torre about the 50-1 odds against Homeboykris, "That's 72-1," Torre quickly interjected, making sure reporters knew not to short those in the betting public who back the gelding.
"I think Joe plays this game for the reason any owner should play this game, and that's strictly for fun," Dutrow said.
If you ask Zimmer, that's the part that gets lost. This is fun. He said the betting part gets a bad rap, admitting their hobby was frowned on by some people in baseball. But it is legal and it doesn't hurt anybody other than themselves if they lose. He said there is a camaraderie and level of respect among those who love the two sports: the horse people appreciate baseball, and vice versa.
"Jockeys, they're great athletes," Zimmer said. "They are so tough, I think they're the toughest athlete there is. To get on that horse, to know something could happen at any minute, get knocked off, run over, fall off, and then get back up right away."
Zimmer said he may have corrupted Torre with racing, but that they won four World Series together with the Yankees, so it probably evens out.
"I'm not sure Zimmer planned on my enjoying this as much as I have," Torre said.
5hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com