Greg Cote: How a longtime Herald sports writer came to own a top contender in Saturday’s no-fans Florida Derby

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“This all started the day I got hit in the (crotch) my last day on the job.”

And thus begins the unlikely tale of a South Florida man who retired after a long career, bought a small share of a racehorse on a whim and on Saturday will watch his thoroughbred run in the prestigious Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park with a chance to qualify for the postponed Kentucky Derby and a shot at winning the Triple Crown.

Clark Spencer is the man who played the lottery for the first time and won. A gamble that almost always proves to be a losing proposition and major money drain — owning a racehorse — has a chance in this case to be profitable.

The name should be familiar to Miami Herald readers. Spencer, of Pembroke Pines, was a journalist 40 years and a Herald sportswriter for 30, first covering horse racing, and the past 20 as the Marlins baseball beat writer.

That ended last year during spring training in late February in Jupiter. Clark was standing outside foul line 150 feet away during batting practice, looking down at his phone. He heard someone yell, “Heads up1”

It was too late. The baseball hit him squarely in that most sensitive of anatomical regions, and he fell to the ground in agony. He was OK, but, “maybe it was a sign,” Clark says.

At that time the Herald was offering early retirement buyouts. He accepted and suddenly was a 60-year-old retired man looking for something to do.

How he came to invest in a racehorse, let alone this one — highly regarded 3-year-old Gouverneur Morris — is a bloom of happenstance and luck we will get to shortly.

First: the strangest of circumstances surrounding the biggest race of the gray colt’s career on Saturday.

The deadly, spreading coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic dominating all of our lives right now has of course changed everything. It is why Saturday’s race will be run with zero spectators at the track, and no media.

The purse for the 69th running of the Grade 1 Florida Derby was reduced from $1 million to $750,000 by the mandated absence of on-site betting. With the Kentucky Derby delayed until September this Florida Derby also loses the prestige of being one of the last prep races before Triple Crown season.

It will be eerie inside the track. A ghost race. No cheering. No women in colorful wide-brimmed hats. No long lines at betting windows. The only sound will be the pounding thud of 1,100-pound thoroughbreds racing across a dirt track. Not even horse owners such as Clark can attend.

“I was thinking of renting a hot air balloon and hovering over the racetrack,” Spencer joked. “Another option is to park at the top stretch and look through a chain-link fence. I’ll probably end up watching it at home.”

Only three persons per competing horse, its trainer and two handlers, will be allowed inside the Hallandale track. Necessary employees don face masks and gloves. Jockeys have their temperature and blood pressure taken every day. The starting gate is disinfected after every race.

Gulfstream is only still running at all, sans spectators, because the governor has not yet shut down the state completely. Racetracks in New York, Kentucky and elsewhere already have closed.

It is amid these bizarre circumstances that Spencer’s prize of a horse, Gouverneur Morris, will run only the fourth race of his catapulting career. In three starts he has won two and been second once. Saturday, from the No. 5 post position, he will be among favorites in the 12-horse field after Tiz the Law and Ete Indien.

How this all came about is astounding even to Spencer.

“I hadn’t really prepared myself (for retirement). ‘OK, what am I gonna do now?’” he said. “Your career becomes such a major part of your life. I loved working on deadline. ‘What am I gonna do to replace the adrenaline?’.”

Clark is a voracious reader who collects first-edition books. “But you can’t read 14 hours a day.”

He bought golf clubs. “But I suck.”

In the midst of that void sudden retirement can cause, he got a call from his brother Hank, a retired accountant outside Louisville. Hank put him on speaker phone with a neighbor, Anne Burkley, a host for the Kentucky Derby every year who was now looking to invest in a horse.

Hank figured Clark, who covered horse racing for years, might have some advice for her.

He did.

“If you invest in a horse, expect to lose every dime you put in,” he said. “Very few horses make a profit. It’s like joining a country club. You’re not gonna get your money back, but you will get enjoyment out of it.”

Spencer was a turf writer for years but at no time ever thought of owning a horse. “I was scared being around them” he admits of the half-ton animals that can be skittish.

That night his brother’s neighbor sent him background on the horse she was considering: Gouverneur Morris.

“I didn’t even know how to pronounce the name,” Spencer said. He assumed it was “governor’; it’s “goovener.’

Why the odd name? Gouverneur Morris, the horse, is the son of Constitution. Gouverneur Morris, the man, was an American statesman who wrote the preamble to the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

Clark became intrigued. His brother was, too. Clark happened to be in Lexington visiting his ill father. Gouverneur Morris happened to be a mile away.

“Go look at the horse,” Hank told his brother. “Make sure he’s got a head, a tail and four legs.”

He did.

They were in. Clark enlisted a childhood friend, Joel Storrow, in a four-person investment group.

The minimum buy-in was 2.5% of the $720,000 thoroughbred, or $18,000. That was $4,500 each. There would also be training bills, veterinary care and other costs. It ends up around $70 a month each.

“We got lucky. We bought into an unraced 2-year-old — a total crapshoot,” Spencer admitted. “I can’t tell you the number of million-dollar horses who couldn’t run.”

This one could. He had such potential the horse’s primary owner, Team Valor, was able to attract Todd Pletcher to train him, a two-time Kentucky Derby winner and seven-time trainer of the year.

“It’s like sending a football player to Bill Belichick,” Spencer said.

Pletcher recruited John Velazquez, a Hall of Fame jockey, for the ride.

From his writing days Spencer knew Pletcher well. As an owner now, he enjoys filling Pletcher’s ear with mock advice on how to train him.

“Don’t you think we need to put a set of blinkers on him?” was one. Another suggested The Gov’s forelegs be wrapped, barber-pole style, to make him easier for Spencer to spot during a race.

Gouverneur Morris already has $161,500 in career earnings in three races. If The Gov reaches his potential and wins a Triple Crown race (he’s a top-10 Kentucky Derby contender), what he commands in stud fees upon retirement could be enormous.

“It’s possible we could make huge money.”

As a coronavirus pandemic surrounds us, Clark Spencer can do something important these days. He can count his blessings.

What were the odds? His little four-person group — “We were total rookies, nobodies, know-nothings about buying a racehorse — hit big with a colt named after the man who wrote ‘We the people … ‘ and helped found America.

“You don’t really know how lucky we are,” he says. “Most people in this business wait a lifetime and never get a horse like this.”


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