By Jessica Martini
Some owners wait a lifetime to have a graded stakes winner on the Triple Crown trail, but for Mike Lombardi, success has come a little quicker with Lombo (Graydar), the first horse he wholly owns, earning a wire-to-wire to victory in the GIII Robert B. Lewis S. at Santa Anita last Saturday.
“It was unbelievable,” Lombardi, owner of the San Diego-based construction company Lombardi Contracting, said Thursday. “We couldn’t go to the race. It was one of the first times we couldn’t actually watch our horse run, but it was my youngest son’s 18th birthday and his winter formal, so we had to be home for that. We watched it on TV. I’m 51, and my wife Cori is 48 and we’re jumping around like we were in high school. It was crazy.”
Lombardi had plenty of early exposure to horse racing and traces his love of the sport to his childhood.
“I grew up in Ohio around two tracks; Scioto Downs, which was a harness track, and Beulah Downs, which was a Thoroughbred track,” Lombardi said. “They were just regular white collar tracks, so I was kind of around it when I was a kid. Then I started going to the Derby with some friends.
“Once I moved out to California, my wife and I joined the Turf Club for a few years,” he continued. “Then we realized we were too busy with the kids sports, so we stopped doing that. But we always loved the horses.”
After toying with the idea of ownership for several years without pulling the trigger, fate seemed to intervene two years ago.
“We were at a charity event and we purchased a ‘Trainer for a Day’ package that Mike Pender had sponsored,” Lombardi recalled. “We thought, ‘This sounds fun–behind the scenes, get to go to the barn, pet the horses, sit in the trainer’s box. It sounds like a great thing to do. We coordinated with Joel Fihn, Mike’s PR guy, and he said, ‘Absolutely, bring your friends. We’ll make a day of it. So we did that at Del Mar in the summer of 2016. It was so exciting and interesting. We thought at some point, it sure would be great to be an owner because this is kind of cool.”
That winter, in search of a Christmas gift for his wife, Lombardi contacted Pender again.
“I called Mike and I said, ‘I’m wracking my brain to get my wife something for Christmas, can I get her a piece of a horse?'” Lombardi explained. “He said, ‘Absolutely. I’ve got the perfect opportunity.’ So I bought this fractional share of her and I came up with a big Christmas video and surprised her with a Derby hat and I made up some silks. We just had a blast with it and we said, ‘Okay, now we’re owners.’ That horse still hasn’t run today, by the way, but we have a piece of her.”
While the filly, 3-year-old Grandma Gertrude (Lucky Pulpit), hasn’t made it to the races yet, the experience whet the Lombardis appetite for ownership and the couple was excited to find a horse who would be all their own.
“[Pender] went out to the OBS Sale in March,” Lombardi said. “I couldn’t go because I had other commitments, but we were talking on the phone and he was out there for a couple of days doing all of his research. He saw this Graydar colt, who is now Lombo, and he just kept talking and talking about him and I said, ‘If we can get him for under $100,000, let’s do it.’ I want to own my own horse. I had learned really quickly that when you have pieces of horses, especially if you don’t have the biggest piece, it’s not very fun.”
Out of graded stakes placed Burg Berg (Johannesburg) and from the first crop of Grade I winner Graydar (Unbridled’s Song), Lombo (hip 407) worked a furlong in :10 2/5 at last year’s OBS March Sale. Pender acquired the future graded stakes winner for $75,000.
Lombardi was able to experience the auction scene first hand later that month when he accompanied Pender to the Barretts March sale. The two came away with a colt by Violence (hip 90) purchased for $30,000. Now named For Him, the bay broke his maiden at Del Mar last August and was a distant fourth in the GI Las Alamitos Futurity in December.
“We bid on him and nobody really raised [our bid],” Lombardi said. “We got him on what I call the clearance rack. So I look for horses that Mike can do something with, maybe they’re not perfect and they’re not going to sell for half a million dollars, but there is something there. The breeding is there and if Mike sees what he likes, let’s do it.”
The Lombardis currently have five horses in training. In addition to the two juvenile purchases, the couple also claimed now 3-year-old Candyman Garret (Overanalyze) out of his maiden score at Del Mar last August and they own a recently turned 2-year-old colt by Boisterous.
“The Boisterous colt is up in Utah with Val Brinkerhoff,” Lombardi said. “He just turned two in January, so we are hoping to get that colt down here in the next couple of months. I figured if I was going to do this as a hobby, and maybe more than that down the road, I want to get the gist of it. I want to know what it’s all about. When they are yearlings and they’ve never been ridden, how do they get to be two?”
The juvenile sales season looms and Lombardi expects to be a part of it.
“I have the fever,” he said. “I admit it. I so have the fever. I love everything about it. I just like being at the auction. I’ve watched a lot of videos on my own about conformation. I know just barely enough to be dangerous, to at least communicate with Mike. So I do to expect to go to the sales and, knowing me, we’re probably going to end up with something. I’m not the guy that is going to go and spend $300,000 on a horse. I think there is a lot more gratification in finding the $75,000 Lombo that beat the $400,000 and the $850,000 horse. There is just something about it–I feel like we were smart that day. Mike saw something that somebody else didn’t see and I like that.”
With a 21-year-old son off at college in Chicago and an 18-year-old high school senior, Lombardi admitted the soon-to-be empty nesters have found a passion in racehorse ownership.
“Our screen savers on our phones, everything has always been about the kids,” Lombardi said. “And now, every picture is horses. My screen saver is Lombo and Flavien [Prat] crossing the finish line. My boys just look at me and say, ‘Yeh, I guess we’re not in little league anymore.’
“When you get total access to the paddock and the shedrow and everything, it’s like nothing else,” he continued. “It really makes you feel special. Our friends think we are super cool. It is fun to flash your owner badge and get in to everything. We just giggle all of the time–we’re like, ‘We are really nobody, but we seem like somebody.'”
Lombo, who broke his maiden sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita Jan. 20 (video) in his third career start, successfully stretched out to 1 1/16 miles to win the Bob Lewis (video). It was his third start in just over a month.
As for where the gray colt will start next, Lombardi is leaving that decision to Pender.
“At some point, we all understand, you’ve got to get the [Kentucky Derby] points,” Lombardi said. “That means you’re going to have to face better and better horses as you go. I trust that Mike will pick the right spot and the horse will tell us when he’s ready to go. We’ll give it a shot and keep dreaming.”