Wimbledon owner serves up success

Larger than life characters like Jim McIngvale are peculiarly American, so it seems inevitable that he'd aim instinctively for America's Race, the Kentucky Derby.

Updated: March 31, 2004, 4:48 PM ET
By Ed McNamara | Special to ESPN.com

He's a self-proclaimed huckster, a caricature of the hyper-aggressive merchant who will do anything to make a sale. For Jim McIngvale, that includes wearing a mattress with holes cut for his arms and head in a television commercial that's so bad it's good.

"I'm a shameless promoter," the Texas furniture tycoon said Tuesday. "I sell mattresses. So I became known as 'Mattress Mac'.

"Marketing students at the University of Houston have voted my commercials as the worst in at least the last 10 years," he added proudly.

When over the top stunts help make you rich, you're being crazy like a fox, and this world-class 53-year-old hustler is no fool. He gives the impression he could sell refrigerators in Antarctica, and if you bet him that he couldn't, he'd probably try.

His motto is "Think Big," the title of his book about how to succeed in business. That's how McIngvale plunged into the thoroughbred sport eight years ago, and many breakdowns, trainers and squandered millions later, Mattress Mac owns the favorite du jour for the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon. If the gray colt runs well Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby, McIngvale will be taking his act to Churchill Downs with his trainer, Bob Baffert.

Larger than life characters like McIngvale are peculiarly American, so it seems inevitable that he'd aim instinctively for America's Race. "I don't do things half-heartedly," he said. "I'm in this to be part of the big races, not the $5,000 claimers."

"Get out of the way and follow me" is the battle cry of self-made millionaires, and in 1996 McIngvale figured what worked in the furniture business would work with the thoroughbreds. Gallery Furniture reportedly has yearly sales of more than $100 million, and for a few years, Mattress Mac was blowing a good percentage of the profits on horses. He had a few minor stakes-winners in Lay Down and Ifitstobeitsuptome, but the bad far outweighed the good. His original investment of $13 million went down the drain.

As the failures, injuries and losses mounted, McIngvale went through four trainers -- two-time Derby winner Nick Zito; Steve Moyer, a former Zito assistant; Leonard Duncan, a former night watchman at the racetrack, and Laura Wohlers, McIngvale's sister-in-law and a former employee at Gallery Furniture. From Houston, McIngvale would call Wohlers in Lexington, Ky., and tell her which horses should work, and how far. Mattress Mac looked like a buffoon, and racing insiders were amused.

"I think if I had it to do over, what I would do differently, I probably wouldn't buy so many horses so fast," McIngvale said. "I think I overbought horses, and I bought a lot of bad ones. And I was tampering with the trainers, saying I want to do this, I want to do that. So, my reputation was probably pretty well deserved, because I tampered a lot and got involved with something I knew nothing about.

"I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. My horsemanship ideas are zero."

It takes a big man to admit he's wrong, even when all the evidence points that way. The former football player at North Texas University dropped back 15 yards and punted, deciding to let world-class horsemen carry the ball and try to score for him. "I was quite discouraged a lot," McIngvale said, "but I'm a very resilient person."

His equine karma turned around three years ago when he met bloodstock agents Kevin and J.B. McKathan at a 2-year-old sale at Calder Racecourse in Miami. The McKathan brothers are among the sharpest horse traders anywhere, having steered a string of champions to Baffert that included Kentucky Derby winners Silver Charm and Real Quiet plus Congaree, Captain Steve and Silverbulletday.

Mattress Mac wanted in, but the McKathans were wary.

"We kind of hit it off and they started buying horses for me," McIngvale said. "And they said, 'Where do you want to send the horses?' I said, 'I'd love to send them to Bob Baffert,' because I always wanted to team up with him after all of his success.

"So they were a little reluctant about me sending the horses to Bob because I had kind of a bad reputation in the horse racing business, but I told him I was a changed man . . . Whatever Bob wants to do is fine with me. Now Bob runs it and I know I'm in great hands with him."

There was a buzz last year about Wimbledon, a $425,000 yearling, but unlike so many Baffert 2-year-olds, he wasn't a quick study. After the leggy son of Wild Rush broke slowly and ran fifth Aug. 2 at Delmar, Baffert laid him off until late November. After recovering from bucked shins, Wimbledon burned tons of betting money by finishing second three straight times, all as the 7-5 favorite, before finally breaking his maiden in his fifth start Feb. 8 at Santa Anita. In his first race with Puerto Rican rider Javier Santiago, he won by eight lengths at a mile.

"Bob told me all of the time he was like a big, goofy kid, and that once he figured it out, it was going to be OK," McIngvale said. "Then he was telling me that he thought the light was coming on, and he won his maiden. And he told me he'd run well at the Louisiana Derby."

He did, drawing off by 2 lengths and making Baffert think he might have a shot at his fourth Derby win on May 1.

"I went down to that race -- I don't go to many races because I work a lot -- and that was a watershed event for me to win," McIngvale said. "That's the first big three-year-old race I've ever won.''

Wimbledon will try 1 1/8 miles for the first time in the Santa Anita Derby, where he's the 5-2 favorite in a much tougher field than the one he dominated in Louisiana. St Averil, the undefeated Rock Hard Ten and the late-running Imperialism will make him work.

"Bob said the light was coming on and the horse was progressing the right way at the right time," McIngvale said. "So all we can do is hope that he keeps moving forward."