Televangelist Pat Robertson called attention to himself just as the primary season was about to kick off by saying the presidential campaign is a one-man race. Turns out that Robertson’s tipster, God, told the minister at year’s end to put it all on the chalk: George W. Bush. “I really believe that I’ve been hearing from the Lord it’s going to be like a blowout election in 2004,” he said on Jan. 2.
But over at the stables of Maryland’s Laurel Park, there’s more than half a million dollars’ worth of proof that Robertson can’t pick a winner. He sure got a bum steer when God or whoever tipped him about Mr. Pat.
Mr. Pat is a racehorse. A very lousy racehorse, according to the charts of his past performances. Now 5 years old and with his racing career winding down, Mr. Pat has moved from the more prestigious New York tracks to live and run at Laurel. The change of scenery hasn’t changed his fortunes, however. Mr. Pat got the crap beat out of him—again—on Jan. 11’s card, finishing 20 lengths behind the winner and well out of the money in a middling allowance race. “Outrun” was the nutshell description the track’s official callers gave Mr. Pat’s trip.
Mr. Pat would be just another loser among the other Laurel barn-dwellers were it not for his link to Robertson. Mr. Pat was named for Robertson, by Robertson, after the well-monied and righteous preacher bought the then-unraced 2-year-old for $520,000 in 2001.
Just like fellow moralists Jimmy Swaggart, who had his prostitutes, and William Bennett, who closeted himself with slot machines, Robertson has long had a pastime at odds with his image: the ponies.
Robertson did his racetrack business not as Pat Robertson, but as Tega Farm. And because racing and the mainstream collide so infrequently in this day and age, Robertson’s stable of claimers and low-dollar allowance horses ran at lesser tracks along the Eastern Seaboard with little or no notice. (The confidentiality agreements he had Tega Farm employees sign also helped keep things mum.) But when Robertson decided to plunk down so much cash for a big brown son of Harlan at a sale at Kentucky’s Keeneland, bidding among Bob Baffert and the sport’s other heavyweights at the nation’s premiere horse-auctioning house, his involvement in the gambling game was in the public domain.
Robertson sent Mr. Pat to Belmont to work with trainer John Kimmel, and paid all the fees and signed the papers to get Mr. Pat nominated for the next year’s Triple Crown series. But despite the pastor’s prayers and the best efforts of the esteemed Kimmel, Mr. Pat never lived up to his price tag or pedigree. When the gates opened for the 2002 Kentucky Derby, Robertson’s well-bred namesake was nowhere to be seen. The oft-injured colt hadn’t even gotten his first start. (It had to chafe Robertson that the favorite for that year’s Derby was Harlan’s Holiday—a half-brother of Mr. Pat.)
But the publicity attracted by the purchase of Mr. Pat had started to cause big problems for his owner even before the Derby. Robertson’s followers were peeved by his parimutuel pursuits, and let him know about it through calls and letters to his Virginia Beach outpost, the Christian Broadcasting Network. The angst sparked Robertson to issue a statement on his Web site in May 2002 that contained both a theological defense of his horsing around and what looked like a pledge to get out of racing pronto.
“I am sorry that my fondness for the performance of equine athletes has caused you an offense,” he wrote in an open letter to his flock. “Therefore, for your sake and the sake of others like you, I have set in motion the necessary plans to dispose of all of my thoroughbred racing and breeding stock between now and the breeding sale in Kentucky in November.”
Robertson didn’t specify what year he intended to dispose of his horses, but he held onto Mr. Pat well beyond the Keeneland auction in November 2002. A few months after the sale, I asked Robertson’s spokesperson, Angell Watts, why the auction had come and gone without Mr. Pat’s being put up for bid. She answered, “That’s just common sense. You have to make the horse attractive.”
In other words, a horse with Mr. Pat’s track record wouldn’t bring in any bids, and Robertson, despite the Web-site posting, wasn’t going to just give away his $520,000 animal. So Mr. Pat, on those rare occasions when he was fit, continued running under the Tega Farm colors into 2003. And he kept losing.
“That horse just couldn’t breathe,” says Kimmel. “If they can’t breathe, they can’t run.”
Robertson had Mr. Pat undergo throat surgery last year to try to correct the breathing disorder, called recurrent laryngeal neuropathy (RLN). And he sent Mr. Pat to a different trainer, William Turner. That didn’t work, either. But it appears Robertson has found somebody willing to take Mr. Pat off his hands: On Dec. 26 at Laurel, Mr. Pat ran in an allowance race with house silks and with Houyhnhnm Stable listed as owner. The small, Pennsylvania-based racing operation is run by Jeff Seder, who is also president of a consulting firm, Equine Biomechanics, that had served as the buying agent for Robertson at Keeneland during his purchase of Mr. Pat. (“Houyhnhnm,” pronounced whin-hin-em, was a fictional breed of intelligent horses that appeared in Gulliver’s Travels.)
Seder declines to disclose how much he paid for Mr. Pat. “Usually a sale price we give out,” Seder says. “But, due to the nature of the political controversy about him and his former owner, we’d prefer not to talk about his price.”
For Mr. Pat’s post-Robertson debut, bettors seemed swayed more by his breeding and notoriety than his actual record, making him the second choice in the field of seven. But Mr. Pat used up a lot of energy during the post parade—Jockey J Z Santana jumped out of the saddle in the paddock to calm the horse—and dropped off the pace coming down the stretch. He finished third, earning $2,860, pushing Mr. Pat’s career total to $39,620. Not quite Triple Crown dollars.
Seder says he’s gotten a few questions lately about the Robertson connection, but doesn’t understand the fuss.
“The paradox is that there’s something a lot more interesting about Mr. Pat than who owns him.” says Seder. “He’s a great horse, a lot of people wanted him, and he went for a ton of money. He would have been a Derby horse if it weren’t for his throat problems. [Robertson] is just somebody who likes watching horses run. I really believe that. I don’t think he gives a damn if [Mr. Pat] ever made a dime or not.” —Dave McKenna