By Claire Novak, Special Contributor
When Jake Ballis told his friend
Rashard Lewis they should purchase a few horses together, Lewis had a lot of questions.
The NBA forward with the Washington Wizards grew up shooting hoops with Ballis in high school, playing on an AAU team together.
“I knew Jake didn’t know anything about horse racing; he just
played basketball with me!” Lewis laughed. “I started calling him every
day with about a million questions
– how are you gonna pick these horses, do you have inside help, is
there someone experienced to tell you what to do – I just kept
With Inny Minnie running in Saturday’s $500,000 Fair Grounds
Oaks and Cigar Street one of 13 contenders for Sunday’s $1 million
Louisiana Derby, it looks like Ballis
and Lewis have learned a thing or two since buying their first
thoroughbred in 2008. And the inside help they obtained came from none
other than retired Hall of Fame jockey
Angel Cordero Jr., who worked with
Mike Recio of Hidden Brook Farm to advise the 32-year-old friends along the way.
Although Ballis does not have a primary background in racing, the sports agent grew up watching horses owned by his father,
John Ballis, compete on the game’s biggest stage. The elder Ballis most notably campaigned top sprinter
Groovy, who ran in three
editions of the Breeders’ Cup – he was 10th in the 1985 Juvenile, 4th in
the 1986 Sprint, and second as the 1-5 favorite in the Sprint in 1987.
Among other wins, Groovy took back-to-back
editions of the Tom Fool Handicap in 1986 and 1987 and parlayed those
scores into victories in
Saratoga’s Grade I Forego Stakes.
“I was probably seven or eight years old when my dad had Groovy
and I grew up watching races,” young Ballis said. “Then my Dad got out
of the business for a while but
I still followed racing, just not as an owner. When I graduated college
in 2003, as part of my graduation present my Dad told me I could go to
Saratoga for a couple of weeks and he would pay for it. I graduated in May, so I went to
Saratoga for that meet.”
It was at the old-time oval in upstate
New York that Ballis met Cordero, who was the regular rider for Groovy in 1987, the champion sprinter’s Eclipse Award-winning season.
“We formed our own friendship and he took me to the Kentucky
Derby three years in a row before I even bought a horse,” Ballis
recalled. “Finally, in 2008, he called
me one day and said, ‘I found this horse for sale I think you would
like,’ so I got a group of friends together and we bought our first in
Join in the Dance was that contender, who finished seventh in
the 2009 Kentucky Derby and put together runner-up efforts in the Tampa
Bay Derby and Pennsylvania Derby
the same year.
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad – we got spoiled by having that kind of contender and then we expected it,” Ballis remarked.
Ballis and his friends have owned six runners since 2008 and
Lewis has been a part of every ownership (Ballis is also his manager).
The NBA star and Ballis own Inny
Minnie and Cigar Street together without any other partners.
Lewis said he finds himself connecting with the horses on an
athletic level, understanding the rigors of training and the potential
off days faced by competitors in
“They get tired, their bodies get sore, just like a regular
athlete,” he remarked. “When Jake and I first got started in racing with
Join in the Dance, we didn’t win
right away and I guess I was more easy-going about it because I know
the way competitive sport is. You can’t win all the games even if you’re
the best team; you’re not going to win every game you go out to play. A
horse is going to have great days and he’s
going to have off days, kind of like a basketball player having a good
or a bad shooting night.”
Cigar Street made his debut at Fair Grounds on March 3, it was certainly a case of the latter. The
Steve Margolis-trained son of Street Sense ran fifth in a six-furlong maiden special weight that was won by
Bourbon Courage, who currently has the highest Beyer Speed Figure of any active 3-year-old (103) this year.
“We’ve been high on
ever since we got him,” Ballis said. “From the first day he started
training we thought he was our best horse and our trainer thought he was
the best 2-year-old he’d ever had.
He had bucked shins at the sale and breezed one of the slowest times,
and we knew when we bought him we’d have to send him to the farm for a
while. We did that, then got him back in training at
Saratoga and he bucked his shins again. We sent him back to the farm again in
Ocala – Bill Recio’s. He starts a lot of Lane’s End horses and he told me from day one that this is one of the most talented horses he’s ever had
An understanding that distance and seasoning would work in favor
of the $130,000 2-year-old purchase kept Ballis and Lewis levelheaded
“I learned a valuable lesson not to talk big about horses that
have never run before,” Ballis remarked. “I was touting him to my
buddies and a couple other close friends
and athletes, and I got a bunch of calls after the race saying, ‘Glad
we didn’t invest in your horse.’ So the most exciting win was his
following maiden win; that was the biggest relief to me.”
It was smiles all around for the
connections after that March 10 score, when the bay colt blew away the
competition in a 13 ¼-length romp going 1 1/16 miles. He earned a 99
Beyer Speed Figure for his performance
and ran a 5 ½ Ragozin number.
“When he did that two-turn race I was still nervous because we’d
been hearing so much good feedback about the way he was training, but
we’d heard that before the first
race and he finished fifth,” Lewis said. “I told Jake, ‘All this good
news, maybe the trainer needs to lie to us one day and say he had a
terrible workout just so we’ll come back down to Earth! When he came
around that last turn and kicked into another gear,
I was sitting with one of my teammates watching the race on TV, and he
was just as shocked as me. We were like, ‘Where are the other horses?!’
It was like there was a pause before anyone else ran under the wire.”
Inny Minnie has proven to be equally talented, which is no
surprise considering her $240,000 price tag. The Hard Spun filly was one
of the last in the sale and Mike
Recio convinced Ballis to make the purchase – just $60,000 over the
limit he’d set in his head.
“I really told myself I’d only go to $180,000 for her, and wound
up spending $240,000,” the young owner said. “Afterwards I was kind of
mad at myself, but she went straight
from the sale to Steve Margolis and started doing everything really
professionally. Everything was going well and all the sudden she had one
bad breeze and a throat issue; we thought her throat was paralyzed. One
vet told us to retire her, but I wanted a second
opinion and another vet helped us out with her and now she’s absolutely
perfect. We went from thinking we just spent $240,000 on a broodmare to
having a contender for the Fair Grounds Oaks.”
The chestnut filly has never been worse than third, which was
the order of her recent finish in the Feb. 25 Rachel Alexandra Stakes.
She is also well-traveled, with
two runner-up finishes under her girth at Saratoga,
a maiden score last fall at Keeneland, and a second in the $500,000
Delta Downs Princess Stakes before her Jan. 21 third here in the
“We think she has a big shot this weekend,” Ballis said.
Lewis had a chance to visit
New Orleans a few weeks ago when the Wizards took on the New Orleans Hornets.
“I was able to go up to the barn and visit the horses,” he said.
“I definitely was excited to see them after Cigar Street won the way he
won the race, and I’m even more
excited about him starting this weekend – and also Inny Minnie, because
every time she goes out and races she’s always trying to compete and
“These two have really sparked a whole different level of
interest for me,” Lewis went on. “I find myself getting more and more
into the sport. Especially with the year
I’m going through, not playing as well as I should be playing and
having the bone bruise on my knee, trying to get myself back on the
court as soon as possible, the horse racing has been a good outlet for
my competitive nature while I’m healing. Hopefully
goes out and performs well on Sunday and we’ll be in the Kentucky
Derby. After he won his last race I found myself really getting into it,
talking about horse racing every
day with my teammates during our downtime. They look at me like, ‘Have
you gone crazy?’’
At least one of Lewis’s teammates knows what he’s talking about, however.
John Wall, formerly of the
University of Kentucky Wildcats, is now a Wizards point guard.
“John said he went to the track at Keeneland and he’ll kind of
talk about racing as well,” Lewis remarked. “He told me if the horse
makes the Kentucky Derby, he’ll try
to make it out to watch him. ‘That’s what we’re shooting for,’ I said.”
John Ballis has also taken a renewed interest in the sport he followed 20-some years ago.
“He acts like they’re his horses, which is good,” Jake Ballis
said. “The horses literally bring our family together. Christmas,
Thanksgiving, the conversation is all
about them. You know, this weekend is a huge deal for us. One, we want
to run in big races, and our trainer doesn’t put our horses in spots
where they can’t compete, so we know they have a shot. Two, I want to
make our money back with them, and if we put them
in over their heads we won’t do that. Three, Rashard’s involvement is
really good for him. He calls me four or five times a day and all he
wants to talk about is horses. For them to succeed when we’re partners