Pat Robertson has hit a bad stretch.
He saddled gays and lefties with blame for the Sept. 11 disasters. Then Washington Post columnist Colbert King rode Robertson again and again for covertly cozying up to African butchers such as Mobutu Sese Seko and Charles Taylor in the hope of getting their peoples’ gold. And last week, the Christian Coalition’s founder and president, apparently after much coaxing from below, put himself out to pasture.
Thank God that, during these tough times, Robertson has horse racing to fall back on.
Yes, horse racing.
When he’s off his high horse, Robertson has more than dabbled in a pastime that many in the 700 Club’s target market might consider a tad sinful. His stable, dubbed Tega Farm, has run horses at tracks in this region for the past several years, and, until recently, he kept a barn at the Fair Hill Training Center, a top-flight racing outpost in Elkton, Md. Breeder’s Cup winner Da Hoss, and the Weymouths, who make up a branch of the Du Pont family tree and have a colorful racing past, were also tenants at Fair Hill.
Racing is a realm where PTL stands for “Pay the Lady”which really is one of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s copyrighted slogansand hats with the licensed PTL logo go for $14. So it makes sense that Robertson has kept his involvement in the sport of kings quite hush-hush. For instance, his horse Tappat, the most successful horse to race under the Tega Farm colors, has won more than $235,000 and a couple of stakes races in his career. But Robertson never publicly celebrated Tappat’s victories.
For example, after Tappat bolted around a rival named Praise Heaven heading down the stretch at Laurel Park to win the Walter Haight Handicap in July 1999, the horse’s owner didn’t show up in the winner’s circle, as is customary in racing, to receive his trophy and get his picture taken. Winning trainer Thomas Greene, who did accept the honors on behalf of Tega Farm, identified the absentee owner to reporters only as “a Virginia Beach outfit.”
That’s the kind of secrecy the stable likes from its hands. Actually, that’s the kind of secrecy the Tega stable demands.
“I signed a disclosure form saying I wouldn’t talk about the owners of Tega,” says Earl “Abraham” Ola, a former trainer for Robertson.
Even the simplest information about Robertson’s racing operation is off the table. “I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” Tega Farms business manager Karon Locher says when asked how many horses the stable now runs.
There’s no mention of Robertson’s horse racing operation on his personal Web site, either.
But Robertson’s name has occasionally leaked out. And lately, Robertson appears to want to do more than dabble. The pastor has shown a desire to gallop with the big boys of the sport.
This spring, he dropped $520,000 on an unnamed, unraced Kentucky-bred colt at the Keeneland auction, an annual talent sale for major horse players. That was the fourth-highest bid accepted at the prestigious meat market: Supertrainer Bob Baffert laid down the most, $720,000 for a sire of Dixieland Band.
Robertson named the acquisition Mr. Pat, and then sent the horse to the very able stable of John Kimmel. Kimmel, a respected trainer on the high-dollar New York racing circuit, had advised Robertson to pay the big bucks at the Keeneland auction.
“I told Pat it was the best horse at the sale,” Kimmel says. “He’s big and strong, with good breeding for distance.”
Mr. Pat has yet to run his first race, but recent workouts at Belmont Park have done nothing to dim Kimmel’s enthusiasm. Mr. Pat covered five furlongs in 59 3/5 during a session on Saturday, the second-fastest workout at the track at that distance that day.
And although equine purists and lovers of wide open spaces and urban greenery might argue that there’s more to Belmont Park than wagering, it’s very hard to separate racing and gambling. Without gambling, the sport wouldn’t exist. The pennies that make up racing purses even at lush and lovely Belmont Park come not from heaven but from bettors. And the other tracks where Tega Farms runs its animals are nothing if not gambling enterprises: Penn National, where Tappat won the $100,000 Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup last year, is owned by Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns and operates slot-machine casinos; Delaware Park, where Ola ran Tega’s horses, has a slot-machine casino on the premises.
The Christian Coalition likes to portray itself as vehemently anti-gambling. On its Web site, it lists support for federal legislation such as the Student Athlete Protection Act and the Amatur [sic] Sports Integrity Act, which, according to the site, “would ban gambling on amateur athletic events, including high school and college sports,” and the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act.
“If Internet gambling is left unchecked, the privacy and easy-access that the Internet provides will result in an even greater temptation to our nation’s poor, our youth, and those who are gambling addicts,” reads the position statement on the site.
Although Robertson’s equine dabblings haven’t affected his preaching, one could make a case that his avocation has influenced his lobbying. For example, during the last session of Congress, the Christian right got behind the campaign of Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to ban Internet gambling. But many of the groups that originally supported Goodlatte’s bill pulled out when exemptions for several gambling endeavors, most notably horse racing, were inserted.
Robertson, however, stuck by the pro-racing version of the anti-gambling bill, a move that angered many of his brothers in the reactionary fringe. The Rev. Lou Sheldon, founder of the 43,000-member Traditional Values Coalition and normally a far-right compadre of Robertson’s, was among those critical of the watered-down version.
“We want an Internet-gambling prohibition act, but not this one,” said Sheldon.
When the bill died on the House floor, the religious lobby’s split was among the reasons cited for its demise by congressional observers. Goodlatte has reintroduced a similar measure this session.
Kimmel shipped Mr. Pat from New York to Florida for the winter this week. According to the trainer, the colt will make his racing debut in early January at Gulfstream Park, site of the sport’s premier winter meet. Dave McKenna