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Trial and error put Derby-winning owner on top of his game

VERSAILLES — Barry Irwin grinned wryly as he recounted an incident 37 years ago — partially because it's still kind of amusing but mostly because it resonates as a prime example of how the 68-year-old CEO of Team Valor International got where he is today.

During a trip to Ireland in 1974, Irwin was supposed to buy a couple of yearlings for a client, but only on the condition he let a specific bloodstock agent check the horses over first.

"I said, 'No problem,' and then I never had the guy look at them," Irwin said. "I just picked them out myself, sold them to this guy, they both won and he was happy. Afterward is when I told him."

The Barry Irwin who sat on his couch telling that story last week isn't a lot different from the burgeoning bloodstock agent who pulled off that sale years ago.

He still listens to his gut over the words of others. He remains unafraid to take risks in the face of conventional wisdom. And even if his decisions might not be popular with everyone at the moment, it's hard to argue with the long-term results.

The racing community has long been familiar with Irwin and his so-called renegade way, but the 137th Kentucky Derby showcased the owner and breeder to millions when his homebred colt Animal Kingdom upset 18 others at Churchill Downs on May 7.

In Animal Kingdom, Irwin not only has his first classic winner but a kindred spirit of sorts as neither has followed the traditional path to reach their sport's promised land.

While Animal Kingdom shunned his turf pedigree and lack of dirt form to notch the biggest victory of his career, Irwin has eschewed some of the racing's establishment with his outspoken ways and, at times, unconventional methods.

A former turf writer for publications like Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Irwin decided in the late 1970s that instead of chronicling the drama that went along with the sport, he wanted to delve into it as a bloodstock agent.

Since then and since founding his first racing stable in 1987 with longtime friend Jeff Siegel, Irwin has grown the entity now known as Team Valor into one of the most successful syndicate operations in racing, having compiled 235 stakes wins while campaigning such top horses as Golden Ballet, Unbridled Belle, Star of Cozzene and Captain Bodgit.

It's admittedly not something Irwin ever dreamed of while growing up in California. But, like many things in Irwin's life, once he decided he was going to go down this road, whatever he achieved was going to be on his terms.

"I'm not saying I have the Midas touch," Irwin said, laughing. "But I'm a lucky son of a gun."

'You've got to try stuff'

How Irwin got into horse racing set the tone for much of his involvement in the sport — it largely happened on his own.

"Nobody in my family liked racing except I have an aunt who had a couple of boyfriends who liked racing," Irwin said. "But I always liked horses, and I started watching the races when I was 7. I used to get my grandparents to drive me out to this area that had farms, and I'd get out there and whinny trying to communicate with the horses."

Aside from sharing some paddock time with the local equines and studying the Form alongside a kindly teacher in high school, horse racing was more a fancy for Irwin at the time.

When his initial aspirations to become a) a high jumper and b) a fiction writer didn't pan out, Irwin moved to Kentucky and decided that if he couldn't be the next J.D. Salinger, he could make his mark as a turf writer.

Irwin's penchant for saying things others don't always want to hear came through in that line of work, whether he was peppering trainers with a line of questions or writing about such controversial topics as manipulating horses' legs through surgery or the abuse of performance-enhancing medication.

It didn't always make Irwin the most beloved of figures, but it did lay some important groundwork for when he become one of racing's subjects.

"What my journalistic experience did for me is, I was in a position where I could talk to anybody I wanted to, and I took advantage of that," Irwin said. "Also, this whole game is about trial and error. You've got to try stuff, you have to fail, learn from your failure and then make an adjustment.

"I saw a lot of people make a lot of mistakes, and that helped me. I think that helped and I attribute whatever talent and insight I have to having spent a lot of money making mistakes and learning."

A journalist's salary typically does not lend itself to becoming a Thoroughbred owner but, with press box buddy Siegel, Irwin was able to claim a couple of horses and enjoyed a handful of wins right off the bat.

Such quick success became a hallmark of the duo when they formed their first racing operation, Clover Racing Stables, in the winter of 1987. The first horse they purchased, Political Ambition, became a multiple Grade I winner, but that first incarnation of Team Valor would not have come to fruition if they didn't take a risk most people would have balked at.

"I was a bloodstock agent ,and some guys came into my office one day and they were the shadiest looking people I've ever seen," Irwin said. "They told me where they had been hired by a guy who was syndicating one racehorse per year where they'd buy a horse for $100,000 and syndicate it for $1 million. Even though they were shady themselves, they thought this guy was just ripping people off. But they thought the concept was good enough that if they found the right guy they could all make money.

"I brought them down to my accountant and invited Siegel over and ... they thought like I did. These guys are scary as hell, but the concept is good. That's how we formed our first racing partnership."

Siegel and Irwin broke off from their partners and formed Team Valor in 1992. Irwin bought out Siegel's interest in 2007.

While many owners per use the major U.S. yearling and 2-year-olds sale for bloodstock, Irwin branches out internationally to markets such as Germany and South Africa to find potential stars for his 250 partners.

Sometimes he will buy three horses in a week. Other times, it will be four months before Team Valor adds a new runner to the roster.

"I feel like I'm like a pirate, I just sit back and wait for something to happen, then I pounce," Irwin said.

Not only is he willing to get away from the typical American-type pedigrees that favor speed over stamina, Irwin is up to taking a chance on horses that might have a strike or two against them physically.

Captain Bodgit, runner-up in the 1997 Kentucky Derby, had a bowed tendon when Irwin bought him. The 1989 Breeders' Cup Turf winner Prized had spurs on his hocks when Irwin first came upon him.

"Barry's so knowledgeable and he's such a good horseman," said Craig Bandoroff of Denali Stud, which is a partner on Animal Kingdom and also boards Team Valor's broodmares. "He's not afraid to be a contrarian. He doesn't follow the pack, and that's a big key to his success."

It also can get him into trouble.

About those 'lying' trainers

Last season, frustrated at what he thought was a lack of communication from his stables, Irwin said he considered shutting down Team Valor.

Instead, he consolidated, culling what was about 65 horses in training to 40 and shifting all of his stock in November to highly regarded but lower-profile trainer Graham Motion at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.

If Irwin is considered polarizing in racing circles, he could not have found a less-polarizing partner in Motion. Since obtaining his trainer's license in 1993, the English-born Motion has not had so much as a minor medication positive turn up on his past performances.

Contrary to the notion he was dealing with a micro-managing owner, Motion say, the marriage between him and Irwin has been devoid of bumps — and winning a Kentucky Derby certainly helps.

"He's very knowledgeable and very fair, but he's all about letting the trainer get on with it," Motion said. "He certainly gives me advice, and I value his opinion because I think he's been extraordinarily successful. We do have a good relationship. We're a little in the honeymoon stage still."

Irwin's admiration for Motion's sparkling record spilled over in a not-so-sparkling way immediately after Animal Kingdom's stirring Kentucky Derby win. In an interview on NBC, Irwin said he "got tired of other trainers lying to me" as part of the reason for the move to one barn.

Needless to say, the comments didn't sit well with those who had trained for Irwin in the past.

"Here's the thing. I got really emotional after the Derby. I wasn't thinking," Irwin explained. "Why I gave that answer at that particular time, I will never know. I've been thinking about it ever since.

"Obviously, subconsciously it's there and it's real. But why I said it at that time, I don't know. It was stupid. That was not the time to be doing something like that."

Though Irwin's comments were seen by some to be a direct hit at his more recent former trainers, who have included Todd Pletcher and Wayne Catalano, others say that if you know the man, you would know it was the heat of the moment talking.

"That's just Barry being Barry. I don't think it came out exactly how he meant it," said trainer Dale Romans, who has conditioned horses for Irwin. "He's one of the best owners in the game to train for. All his ex-trainers and trainers know that, and I haven't talked to one that didn't like training for Barry."

Irwin's post-Derby comments aside, he doesn't apologize much if his point of view rubs some the wrong way. While some of his horses, including Animal Kingdom, run on the anti-bleeder medication Lasix, he still supports the idea of a ban on all race-day medication "for the sake of public perception."

He still writes daily, too, sending out a Team Valor newsletter twice a week to keep his partners abreast of all the goings-on in the barns and in his head.

He hopes to update it in about a week with news of a Preakness Stakes victory for Animal Kingdom. In the meantime, he has no shortage of material to work with.

"I'd like to slow down, I'd like to be able to kick back a little and be able to have a normal life," Irwin said. "But I'm going to be like (trainer) Charlie Whittingham in that they're going to have to come in there and wheel me out. I don't see myself retiring and playing golf any time soon."