Pat Robertson came to town last week, just in time to read a Washington Post editorial accusing him of hypocrisy. Seems Robertson, who was here to sermonize before the Christian Coalition convention, is among the first big winners in the sweepstakes the White House is running for so-called faith-based charities. Though the minister warned religious groups against buddying up with the federal government when that plan was first announced, in March, the Bush administration recently handed half a million of the American people’s tax dollars to one of Robertson’s enterprises, Operation Blessing International. And he took it.
The money should help ease whatever pain the Post’s labeling caused Robertson. The cash could also help take his mind off the whupping he’s taken at the racetrack, another area of his portfolio that screams hypocrisy.
Track regulars joke that the only better way to lose money than betting on a horse is buying one. Well, at a Kentucky auction last year, Robertson threw a whole lot of money—just about $500,000, in fact—on a single nag. And that horse, which he named Mr. Pat, has been a complete bust.
Robertson, whose Christian Coalition has always presented itself as a vehemently anti-gambling confederation, for years did a wonderful job of keeping his ownership of a racing stable, named Tega Farm, a secret. Earl “Abraham” Ola, a former trainer there, told the Washington City Paper last year that he’s been required to sign a confidentiality agreement not to discuss Tega’s owners (Cheap Seats, 12/14/01). But when word got out about Robertson’s involvement, the preacher told those in his shocked flock that he was in the racing game—the existence of which most people attribute entirely to wagering—purely for the athleticism of the four-legged participants, which he referred to as “equine athletes.” Robertson even advised track patrons, via a New York Times interview in May, not to bet on his stable’s entries.
That tack, however, didn’t stem the hypocrisy accusations. So Robertson promised he’d stop mingling the business of the 700 Club with that of the Jockey Club.
“The Apostle Paul set the standard when he made clear that he was free to eat whatever was offered to him, but that ‘If meat causes my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the earth stands,’” Robertson declared on his Web site, while informing the neigh-sayers that he’d have all of his racing operation sold off by the annual fall breeding stock auction in Keeneland, Ky.
When he made that announcement, Robertson no doubt expected he’d have something of value to pawn off. And according to Equibase, the premier record keeper in the sport, Robertson still owns Mr. Pat, with the big auction scheduled mere weeks away. But in the months since Robertson made his promise to sell off, Mr. Pat hasn’t done anything on the track to ensure that he’ll end up anywhere but on some Frenchman’s plate.
Obviously, Robertson hoped things would turn out differently for Mr. Pat in April 2001, when he made the winning bid of $520,000 and acquired the then-unraced 2-year-old. Robertson revealed the high hopes he held for his acquisition by submitting the paperwork and paying the fee required to have Mr. Pat nominated for this year’s rendition of the Triple Crown series, a competition reserved for only the best 3-year-olds on the planet.
Yet Mr. Pat not only didn’t run in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, or in the sport’s other two jewels, he sat out the entire winter and spring racing seasons while struggling with various physical ailments. He didn’t make the first start of his career until June, when he got beat by 13 lengths in a middling maiden race at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park. Two weeks later at the same track, also against maiden competition, he ran sixth, finishing 23 and three-quarters lengths behind the winner, after which trainer John Kimmel pulled Mr. Pat out of training.
The horse hasn’t had a start since. And until a light workout at Monmouth two weeks ago, Mr. Pat hadn’t even been on the track for several months. That means that barring an unexpected turn, Mr. Pat will be put up on the block at Keeneland with a resume that shows two starts, no wins, and career earnings of $6,720. Not quite the numbers Robertson had in mind when he shelled out the half-million.
Further evidence of what a poor judge of horseflesh Robertson really is will be available in the Breeders’ Cup next week at Illinois’ Arlington Park. In the $4 million Breeders Cup Classic, the feature race on what horseplayers regard as the biggest day on the racing calendar, he’ll see Mr. Pat’s half-brother, Harlan’s Holiday, coming out of the gate. Harlan’s Holiday, also a 3-year-old son of the stud Harlan, has turned out to be everything Robertson wanted Mr. Pat to be. Going into the Classic, Harlan’s Holiday, who went off as the favorite in this year’s Kentucky Derby, boasts career earnings of more than $1.9 million. And his owners paid only $97,000 to get him.
Just before the Derby, I spoke with Kimmel about the troubled Mr. Pat. He said that even with the blood ties to a renowned horse like Harlan’s Holiday, Mr. Pat would have zero market value as a stud unless he could show some wins of his own. Kimmel hadn’t yet given up on Mr. Pat, but he hardly sounded like a man who expected a miraculous reversal of fortune. The veteran and much-esteemed trainer added that Robertson, like anyone who knows racing, shouldn’t be surprised that a horse failed to live up to potential.
“You don’t put your last $500,000 into this game,” Kimmel says. “People who spend this kind of money on racehorses understand that. Losing that kind of money isn’t going to make that much of a difference in his lifestyle.” —Dave McKenna