They call it the “Graveyard of Champions,” a deservedly grandiose title for a track where Onion upset Secretariat in the Whitney, and Keen Ice beat American Pharoah in the Travers.
With apologies to the Rage Against the Machine song, it’s not just another bombtrack.
Except when it is.
Late in the day on July 28, 2019, with the bulk of the Saratoga Race Course crowd long since departed for the downtown bars, a horse named Heartstrings won the last race on the card, beating a bunch of undistinguished horses at odds of 39-1 in a ho-hum maiden claiming race.
Dave Lyon was there that day, because he grew up there and goes to the track all the time, but also because he happened to be a majority owner in Heartstrings, who carried Blue Lion Thoroughbreds silks in the royal blue of Lyon’s alma mater, Saratoga Springs High School.
“Thirty-nine-to one,” the 48-year-old Lyon said on March 10. “Came from the clouds. And you would’ve thought the Breeders’ Cup Classic was just run. It [grandstand] was empty. It felt to us like we just won the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”
The scene wasn’t much different on March 5, at Aqueduct. Lyon, a big fan of Rage Against the Machine in general and lead guitarist Tom Morello in particular, had been saving “Morello” as a name for a horse who could turn into something special.
Morello the horse did so at Aqueduct, running away from the field to win the Grade III $300,000 Gotham. Now, Lyon and his partners are in position to take a shot at the Kentucky Derby on May 7, with the Aug. 27 Travers at Saratoga also high on the list of goals for Morello.
In fact, Lyon was quoted after the Gotham that he’d prefer to have his blue silks color painted on the Travers canoe than have the Derby trophy, a comment he has since pulled back.
“Yep. Wish I didn’t say that one,” he said with a laugh. “And then somebody isolated it on Twitter, but you know how this business works.
“So, yeah, we’re excited. We’re tempering our enthusiasm, based on what the horse is going to tell us. We are 3-for-3. We just won a graded stakes at Aqueduct with a bunch of New York owners. If it all ended today, we’d be in pretty good shape. But I can’t tell people not to Derby-dream, because I’m doing it myself.”
In Lyon’s case, that enthusiasm was bred in the backyard picnic table area at Saratoga Race Course.
He remembers watching Easy Goer win the 1989 Travers, then getting on his bike and imagining he was riding the future Hall of Famer.
Another ‘Dave,’ Fourstardave, a fan favorite who won at least one race at Saratoga for eight straight years from 1987 to 1994, also got Lyon hooked on the sport.
“That really captured my heart,” Lyon said.
He also worked summers at the Gideon Putnam hotel delivering room service to guests, including Elizabeth and Tom Valando, who owned Fly So Free, the 1990 Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male who won the Jim Dandy at Saratoga as a 3-year-old.
“I would bring Elizabeth breakfast every morning and sit and talk with her,” Lyon said. “I never met Tom, because he was always at the racetrack. And now I know why. Just salt-of-the-earth, sweet people. All of it kind of led me to make sure I worked hard enough to be in a position to do this one day.”
Lyon lives on Long Island with his young family and is executive vice president of a Manhattan-based real estate appraisal company.
Ten years ago, he got into Thoroughbred racehorse ownership through public stables like West Point Thoroughbreds and Little Red Feather Racing, which owns My Boy Tate, who broke his maiden at Saratoga in 2017 and is still racing, finishing fifth in the Haynesfield at Aqueduct on Sunday.
The dream for Lyon, though, was always to open his own operation, which took two years in the making before Blue Lion Thoroughbreds, with a white lion logo and the Saratoga High blue, finally got a horse to the races in 2018.
“The public syndicates are a great steppingstone,” Lyon said. “I have nothing but good things to say about every one of them that I’ve been involved with. But I was always the guy who was going to be on my own.
“In 2016, I was thinking about silks, doing my homework, going to owner conferences. Didn’t really get a horse for another two years. This sport is really difficult. The barrier to entry is big here.
“You’re buying a live animal. I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was going to do with that animal when it was done racing. I think the best owners in this sport and the smartest ones are the ones that are thinking about the after-career. We take care of our horses. I’d like to say that everybody does, but it clearly is not the truth. Aftercare was a big deal for me.”
Blue Lion Thoroughbreds, which owns Morello in partnership with Craig Taylor and Diamond T Racing, employs well-respected bloodstock agent David Ingordo to scout the talent among young horses headed to auction.
There are eight partners within the Blue Lion group that owns a package of five horses that include Morello, Fromanothamutha, who also ran in the Gotham, and Monshun, a filly who was second in the Cicada at Aqueduct on Saturday.
The $250,000 price on Morello at the 2021 Fasig-Tipton Mid-Atlantic sale is the most Blue Lion has spent on one horse, and he has been well worth the price. Trained by Steve Asmussen, the son of Classic Empire broke his maiden at Aqueduct in November, won the Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct and ran his undefeated record to 3-for-3 by romping in the Gotham by 4 ½ lengths under a hand ride from Jose Lezcano.
“When he breezed in Maryland, it was our favorite breeze,” Lyon said. “Just the way he moved, it’s the way he moves over the track right now. Just imagine him without a jockey and no one else on the racetrack, that’s how he was moving.
“We really wanted this horse. David’s popular at the sales. The guy bought Zenyatta, so … your strategy could be just watch David Ingordo, and if he’s on a horse, if you’ve got enough money, maybe that’s one you want to buy. So we were kind of hiding away from everybody. He was Hip 210, and the next one, 211, the Quality Road, went for a million-five, so the big boys were on him and maybe not paying too much attention to Morello.
“We were literally jumping like schoolkids. We thought we would have to go deeper. And we’ve been rewarded, and were right. It’s a sport where you’re not right a lot of the time, and we really nailed it with him.”
The next step for Morello will be the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 9.
With 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points from the Gotham, Morello is pretty much guaranteed a spot in the 20-horse Derby starting gate, so the mile-and-an-eighth Wood presents an opportunity to see how Morello will handle a longer distance than he’s raced so far. The Derby is a mile and a quarter.
“We’re going to listen to Steve,” Lyon said. “I think he’s done a perfect job, with [assistant trainer] Toby [Sheets] on this horse. We’re going to see what he’s got. To me, we’ve seen third gear, and that was just in the last race. And he still did it just kind of cruising by. If you watch the replay, they were all exerting, all out at the top of the stretch.
“If Steve and Toby decide – and he’s not gasping past the wire – we’ll take our shot in Kentucky. If the answer is ‘yes’ after the Wood, then everybody should look out. We’ve got one of the horses to beat.”
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