The chances of an Oregon horse winning the Kentucky Derby is the longest of long shots.
But if it were to happen, the horse would likely be born outside of Newberg, on Oakhurst Farm. It’s the largest thoroughbred horse breeding operation in the state, and winning the Kentucky Derby has been the owner’s dream since boyhood.
It’s tied to a deep connection with horses that’s shaped Jack Root’s life.
“I think there’s something great about the outside of the horse that is wonderful for the inside of the person,” Root said. “For a non-horse person, that might be hard to understand, but for a horse person, they know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Root, at 64, is still a practicing horse veterinarian, a job that funds the breeding operation. Although he’s perhaps Oregon’s best hope for landing a Kentucky Derby winner, it’s still a long uphill road to Churchill Downs.
Why Kentucky Dominates The Derby
The closest an Oregon horse likely ever came to winning the Kentucky Derby was with Mioland in 1940. He was raced by Seabiscuit’s legendary team and placed fourth in the big race.
What was true then is still true today. If you’re not from Kentucky — you’re a bad bet.
Kentucky is the center of the thoroughbred racing universe. The billion-dollar-a-year equine industry is home to the best racehorses in the world.
Only 34 horses from any other state outside of Kentucky have won the Derby in its 140-plus-year history. Only four were from outside the United States. Nationally, Oregon isn’t exactly an epicenter for breeding racehorses.
In 2016, the state bred only 58 thoroughbred foals. That’s less than 1 percent of the national crop of horses.
But in this small industry, Jack and his wife, Cookie Root, are vital.
“Jack and Cookie Root are huge. They are our rock,” said Lynnelle Fox Smith, executive director of Oregon Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. “This is Jack’s heart and soul, his passion, his love.”
Inside the barn where Root keeps his world class stallions, he explained that owning a racehorse is a far deeper relationship than just watching on race day.
“It’s not just about the race. It’s about planning the breedings,” he said. He then quickly listed off the steps he’s gone through many times over the years: “Studying the history … getting the baby, raising the baby, getting it trained, watching it train, watching it develop.”
And when it’s all done, the horse might not even be good enough to run at the track.
“Racing gives you your highest highs and highest lows,” he said.
Kentucky Derby Winners In Oregon
In 2009, Jack Root did something extraordinary.
He purchased Grindstone, the winner of the 1996 Kentucky Derby, and brought him to Oakhurst to stand — horse speak for breeding. Root believes Grindstone was the first Derby winner to stand in the Northwest.
People pay thousands to have their horses mate with a stallion with a pedigree like Grindstone’s.
A part of Root hoped he might see his own Derby winner come from Grindstone.
“We all have the dream of the big-time winner,” he said. “To win the Kentucky Derby, you make more than a million dollars.”
In 2015, Root’s odds increased.
Giacamo, the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner, was brought to his farm to stand on a loan. His arrival made Root’s farm the first outside of Kentucky to stand two Kentucky Derby winners at once.
“They brought him here to stimulate the local breeding industry. Being said, I don’t think you can stimulate the local breeding economy,” Root said.
The Odds Grow Longer
A row of volumes lining a bookshelf in Lynelle Fox Smith’s office trace horse racing in the United States back for nearly a century. It spans a time before Netflix and the Oregon Lottery, when racing at Portland Meadows was a dominant source of entertainment and the only way to legally gamble in the state.
But in recent history, Portland Meadows has struggled financially. As the epicenter of horse racing in the state, their fortunes affect every aspect of this small economy.
“Our organization is supported by a percentage of the wagering from Portland Meadows to then redistribute it to owners and breeders. If that wagering goes down —which it has consistently, for the last 10 years, gone down a little bit every year — it means we have less money to put into our programs,” Smith said.
At its peak, Oregon bred 358 thoroughbred foals in year. Today, it’s closer to 60.
With less money trickling down from Portland Meadows, that means there’s less money to help offset the expensive costs of horse racing.
“The cost of getting a foal to the track, you’re probably in it $20,000. And when you’re racing at Portland Meadows the bottom purses are $5,000,” she said.
The costs have added up for Jack Root over the years.
“I just look around me and think, ‘Oh God, what am I doing to myself?’ I have no hope of retiring right now. People drive down this driveway and think we’re filthy rich. I haven’t saved 25 cents. That’s the honest-to-God truth. I’ve spent it all right here,” Root said.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago I would have gotten out of racing, I would have told you you’re nuts. That would never happen.”
But Root is considering hanging up the saddle. When that day comes it could leave a hole that might never be filled again.
“If Jack retired?” asked Lynelle Fox Smith. “I think that would be a big hit to us. To all of us. I don’t know if we could fill the gap.”
Change is coming to Oakhurst Farm.
At 25, Grindstone is reaching the end of his breeding days. And Giacomo is set to leave this year, though Root is convinced his lease will be extended.
Even as hopes of breeding a true champion dwindle, Root still has the dream. I asked him if a horse born on his farm was good enough for the Kentucky Derby, would he sell it for a million dollars?
“Would I sell it for a million dollars? Probably not. Now would a million dollars change my life? You’re not kidding it would. But when you dreamed of it your whole life, would you give it a way for a million dollars?” Root said.
Nothing is impossible.
That long-shot Kentucky Derby-winning horse could already be on the farm. It’s just a few years away from changing Root’s fortunes and changing horse racing history.
Think Out Loud sat down with Jack Root to talk about his about his farm and his ambition, ahead of the 2018 Kentucky Derby.