Rooting for "Charly"


Josh Kamis is neither rich nor famous. He's a civil servant employed by Middlesex County, in New Jersey, who works hard, seems like a good guy and has dreams. He's no different than most of us, with one big exception. He might just have turned a $1,250 investment into a Kentucky Derby winner.

You might want to start rooting for a horse named Uptowncharlybrown as he continues down the Kentucky Derby trail because he might just turn out be the best feel-good story this game has produced in a long time.

He's owned by Fantasy Lane Stable, one of the hundreds of racing partnerships out there. But what sets Fantasy Lane apart from many of the others is that they think small. It's not for the wealthy. It's for people like Kamis and the 58 others who own small shares of the colt. They're all pretty much the same: modest, normal people who love horse racing and thought it might be worth taking a flyer on a thoroughbred. With none spending more than $5,000 to get involved with this particular partnership, it's not like they had that much to lose.

There's John Popovich, a corrections officer. Jen Weigand is a computer technician. John Kelsey teaches fifth grade. Every one of them put up a small amount of money, hoped they might just get a horse who could run a little bit and might just have purchased the winning lottery ticket.

Bob Hutt, who runs the New Jersey-based Fantasy Lane partnership, bought Uptowncharlybrown, a son of Limehouse, for $57,000 at a 2-year-old sale in Ocala, Fla., and then sold these tiny shares to investors. For that kind of money, you're not supposed to get anything extraordinary. But it didn't take Hutt, trainer Alan Seewald and the rest of the Fantasy Lane team long to figure out that "Charly" was not a normal horse.

"He was at Monmouth and had his first workout and there were flames coming off the track," Kamis said. "Right then, you started thinking there could be something really special about this horse."

But Charly had some growing pains that are typical with 2-year-olds and the stable decided to take its time. The colt finally made his debut in a Dec. 26 maiden race at Tampa Bay Downs and he drew off to win by nine lengths. They wheeled him back three weeks later and he demolished six others to win the Pasco Stakes at Tampa by six lengths. Suddenly, he was an undefeated stakes winner, exactly the type of stuff that makes horseracing people start thinking about the Kentucky Derby.

"I try to be realistic about this and I know we have a long journey ahead of us to get him to the Kentucky Derby, but I really believe he has the ability," said Weigand, whose $1,250 investment means she owns three-quarters of 1 percent of the colt. "He's got the mindset. It's how he acts in the paddock, his stall. He's just a classy horse. I believe it can happen. I think he can take on the big boys."

Weigand is downright giddy. Ask her about Charly and she gets so enthusiastic she literally has a hard time speaking. She's not alone. These are people in the midst of something so special they all feel like they are walking on air.

"Wherever Charly takes us from here will be the stuff dreams are made of," Popovich said.

"If he doesn't make the Kentucky Derby and run for the roses the first Saturday in May, I won't think anything different of him. This colt has the heart the size of a small car, and I can't wait for the world to see it.

"This doesn't happen to people like us. We are all blue-collar folks. I am a corrections officer in my professional life. I have had my share of highlights and low points like anyone else in my life and career. I was on loan to the Port Authority of New York, New Jersey for recovery help at the World Trade Center and have seen things that I would not wish on my worst enemy. I am desensitized to most things in this world, but Charly makes me tear up every time I watch him run."

They all seem to be thinking the same thing: How did we get so unbelievably lucky?

"I still can't believe this is real," Kelsey said.

There are a lot of chapters left to this story and they include races that will be much tougher than the Pasco Stakes. The only knock on Charly is that he has so far beaten only modest competition. He will take a step up in class with his next start, in Tampa's Sam F. Davis Stakes, a prep for the Tampa Bay Derby.

Should he win the Davis, the offers to buy the colt will no doubt come pouring in. There are a lot of rich people out there who want to get to the Kentucky Derby in the worst way and they are always shopping around for prospects. They're already calling Hutt, who might have a tough decision to make. Suppose someone offers seven figures for a horse that cost $57,000. Can he possibly turn that down?

"I hope they don't sell," said partner Kevin Powers, a 28-year-old from Orlando who works in flooring and construction. "I'm in it for the ride, not the money. With what I invested, you expect that if you lost it all it's not like you can't make the mortgage payment. Just to be at the Kentucky Derby and say that I own part of that horse, as small a percentage as that may be, would be just unbelievable."

No one did this for the money. The owners -- 59 normal, everyday people -- put up their small amount of money because it gave them a glimmer of hope that they could achieve the impossible. They haven't done it yet, but Charly has them on the ride of a lifetime. And the best may be yet to come.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.