Buckhead’s West Paces Racing is the only ownership group to have two horses in the Kentucky Derby

Dornoch competes in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Huang Photography

When 20 thoroughbred horses fire out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby in Louisville on May 4, not one but two of them will be owned by West Paces Racing (WPR), a Buckhead-based equine ownership syndicate.

It is the only ownership group that has at least two horses in the famed Running for the Roses at Churchill Downs.

Dornoch (pronounced “Door-Nick”) is a 3-year-old bay colt and the first WPR horse to qualify for the Derby, the first leg of the famed Triple Crown of races. He was named after Royal Dornoch Golf Club in Dornoch, Scotland. Society Man, a 3-year-old gelding, is the second one to qualify. His name is a reference to Georgia Gov. Carl Sanders that was jokingly made by President Lyndon B. Johnson in a recorded phone conversation they had in 1968.

Of Dornoch, his trainer, Danny Gargan, said, “He’s the best horse I’ve ever trained.” Gargan, who is also training Society Man, called that horse “a trier.”

“He’s one of those horses that tries hard, and never has a bad day. Every day is a good day in his life,” he added.

Gargan estimated he has guided 400 to 500 horses since becoming a trainer in 2013. The Louisville native has spent his whole life around horses, and his father, also named Danny, was a jockey.

How WPR started

From left, Larry Connolly and Keith Mason, pictured at the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, are co-founders of West Paces Racing. Photo courtesy of West Paces Racing

Co-founded by Larry Connolly, Keith Mason and a handful of others in 2019, WPR gets its name from West Paces Ferry Road, the Buckhead street where both the Cherokee Town Club and its office are located.

“Most of the founding members were golf friends and affiliated with Cherokee,” said Connolly, who serves as WPR’s general partner.

Connolly and Mason, both longtime horse racing fans, started WPR after becoming part owners of other horses, beginning with the Donegal Racing syndicate around 2014.

Mason, a Sandy Springs resident and Gwinnett County native, served as Georgia Gov. Zell Miller’s chief of staff and in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He met Donegal Racing CEO and founder Jerry Crawford through his connections with the Democratic Governors Association.

Connolly, a Buckhead resident, is a native of Westchester County, New York. He grew up near two famed New York racetracks: Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown’s third leg, and Saratoga Race Course, host of the Travers Stakes.

Those tracks were “a fun place to go as a young person for both the races and the social scene. I confess I was more interested in the latter than the former in those days,” he said.

From left, West Paces Racing partner John Geary, Dornoch jockey Luis Saez and WPR co-founders Keith Mason and Larry Connolly gather at the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Dr. Michael Huang Photography

Connolly also became part owner of other horses through another syndicate, Starlight Racing. Dornoch is the fifth horse he has owned that will compete in the Derby, with the others being Keen Ice (2015, Donegal), Improbable (2019, Starlight) Authentic (2020, Starlight) and Mo Donegal (2022, Donegal). Mason was part owner of Keen Ice and Mo Donegal.

Authentic won the Derby and Mo Donegal won the Belmont. But Dornoch potentially could be the best of all of them. He was purchased as a yearling in 2022 for only $325,000 but has an impressive bloodline that could lead to millions in future race winnings.

The path to the Derby

With 33% ownership, WPR is the majority owner of Dornoch, who is partly owned by four other businesses. WPR also has 33% ownership in Society Man, which is owned by two other entities, including Gargan. To qualify for the Derby, which is considered a Grade 1 race, horses must win points by placing in the top five at Grade 2 events leading up to it.

Dornoch, ridden by jockey Luis Saez, did so by winning two recent races – the Remsen Stakes Dec. 2 at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York, and the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park March 2 in Hallandale Beach, Florida – collecting 10 and 50 points, respectively, and by finishing fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes April 6 at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, where he picked up 15 points.

Society Man, ridden by jockey Luis Rivera, qualified by placing second in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack April 6, earning 50 points. Each horse may have a different jockey in the Derby, WPR’s co-founders said.

Society Man competes in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York. Photo courtesy of West Paces Racing

Racing is in their blood

Dornoch’s father, or sire, is Good Magic, who finished second in the 2018 Derby, and his mother, or dam, is Puca, who won four of the 17 races she entered. Good Magic’s sire is Curlin, who was the American Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008 and winner of the Preakness Stakes, the Triple Crown’s second leg, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2007. Puca’s sire is Big Brown, who won the Derby and Preakness in 2008. Dornoch’s full brother is Mage, who won the Derby and placed third in the Preakness last year.

“A good set of genes,” Mason said of Dornoch’s pedigree.

Society Man, who was purchased as a yearling in 2022 for $85,000, was sired by Good Magic, so he also has a strong bloodline.

“Part of what Oracle Bloodstock tries to achieve is to find a young sire that becomes very successful,” Connolly said, referring to the yearling selection services company WPR has partnered with. “It takes several years before you sire a foal, and it takes a couple of years before they start running, and it takes three years before they’re eligible for the Triple Crown. … The trick is to find a prolific sire before it’s widely known the offspring will be above average in terms of performance.”

Mason added that next year WPR won’t be able to afford to buy any offspring of Good Magic because now the secret’s out.

Dornoch, a 3-year-old bay colt, has qualified for the Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy of West Paces Racing

Last year, another 3-year-old owned by WPR, Dubyuhnell, failed to qualify for the Derby. Mason said having two WPR-owned horses in the Derby this year is “awesome,” and Connolly called it “a proud moment for our young syndicate.”

“A lot of people with deeper pockets who have been doing this for longer than we have even struggle with [having] one runner [qualify],” Connolly added. “We knocked on the door with Dubyuhnell, and to have two this year, we couldn’t be more proud. In particular, Oracle Bloodstock, led by Conor Foley and Jim Hatchett, they’ve done an outstanding job in identifying horse talent that others with deeper pockets might have overlooked.”

‘Enjoying every moment’

Using a football analogy to compare Dornoch to Mage, Connolly said Dornoch looks more like a running back and Mage resembles a wide receiver, with Mason adding that Dornoch resembles a fullback.

“He also has great athletic ability, and, finally and most importantly, he has the heart for racing and natural desire to be in front and win,” Connolly said of Dornoch. He pointed to the Remsen race, where Dornoch outran two frontrunners, or rabbits (Billal and Private Desire), and then defeated Sierra Leone, who took a nearly one-horse-length lead late in the race before Dornoch roared back to win by a nose.

Sierra Leone, who was purchased for $2.3 million, is considered the Derby favorite.

“Holding off one, then two [horses] and then holding off a third, that’s a tall ask for any horse,” Connolly said. “Dornoch had to deal with two rivals. In that race, he was green, inexperienced. He made a rookie mistake by banging against the rail, which slowed him down and allowed Sierra Leone to catch up to him.”

WPR is a ‘Moneyball outfit’

Society Man warms up at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of West Paces Racing

WPR currently has more than 20 members/investors and owns 24 horses, Connolly said. Though he did not disclose its membership fee, he said new members under age 40 can join at 25% of a full member price, and those under 50 can join at 50%. He calls WPR a “moneyball outfit,” meaning “there’s a limited number of horses we can buy each year.”

“If we want to get a portfolio of eight to 12 horses, there’s a limit of how much you can spend per horse,” Connolly said. “ A lot of times we get outbid on horses we desire by more established outfits. So, as a result, our average ownership [percentage] per horse will vary from the low 30s to 50% depending on the amount of the horse.”

By winning the Derby, which brings a $3.1 million prize, and other races, Dornoch and Society Man could increase WPR’s purchasing budget substantially.

“It’s super exciting,” Connolly said. “I’m enjoying every moment of the journey, knowing someday soon this will all come to an end. I’m delighted for the West Paces partnership, that we have something like this to collectively look forward to as a group.”

Mason added, “It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and, more importantly, good luck to be where we are right now. We hope everything goes well and we’re entering the gates there on the first Saturday in May healthy and ready to run.”

What are the odds?

When asked to compare Dornoch to Society Man, Gargan said, “They would be opposites. Dornoch’s a big, imposing horse, and Society Man is more of a short and stocky type.”

Between the two, Dornoch is more likely to win the Derby.

“He’s one of the top picks in the nation,” Gargan said. “When you have one of the top Derby picks, it’s an exciting time. It’s like catching lightning in a bottle. … He’s a big talented horse. Every day’s special that you walk into your barn and see a horse like this. We’ve got as good a shot as any horse in the race.”

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