By Perry Lefko
The Thoroughbred racing world was saddened to hear that entertainer David Cassidy, a successful owner/breeder, is currently in a Florida hospital in critical condition following a reported organ failure.
Though known to the world as Keith Partridge in the ’70s television show The Partridge Family, the 67-year-old maintained a connection to racing, including donating his time to equine charitable causes, even after he had to exit the business as a Thoroughbred breeder/owner a few years ago due to financial reasons.
“He spent every summer in Saratoga whether he had a horse or not,” said New York trainer Gary Contessa, who has known Cassidy as a client and a friend for 20 years. “He’s a big part of our game and there’s a lot of people pulling for him. Everybody has had that big celebrity owner, but none of them were students of the game like David Cassidy. I guarantee you if he had the opportunity to trade places with me and train horses, he would have given up music to be a horse trainer. He just loved [the sport]. He is just one of those really amazing guys who dedicated so much of his day and his life to racing.”
Cassidy won many stakes races as an owner/breeder. He campaigned In Neon (Ack Ack) to 1998 Broodmare of the Year honors.
“We’d go to the races in Saratoga and spend time together, it was fantastic being around him,” said Arthur Silvera, who also trained horses for Cassidy. “It shocked me how much he knew about the sport of horse racing. At first, I thought he was this movie-star actor that was testing the horse racing game, but he knew so much about the sport.”
Waldorf Farm operator Dr. Jerry Bilinski, who also owns the Chatham Small Animal Hospital in Chatham, New York, also knows Cassidy. The entertainer donated his time to the Chatham Hospital’s annual fundraiser.
“He loved the farm, he loved horses and he and I would go riding on occasion,” Bilinski said. “I think it was a point in time where he could get away from the hustle and bustle of being a rock star. He had a number of broodmares here. My wife Darlene and I and Gary Contessa and his wife Jenn are good friends of his. I met him through Kenny Noe, the former Chairman at the New York Racing Association. I would go to Florida and meet with him and have dinner with him. He loved the track.”
Growing up in New York, Cassidy became introduced to Thoroughbred horse racing by one of his grandfathers.
“From the time I was five until I was 11, I grew up with him,” he told me in an interview in 2009. “He took me to the races when I eight or nine years old and he would follow it. I remember watching television with him when the Kentucky Derby was on. It was a really interesting environment. He was a fantastic person, not a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination. He would give me a couple of dollars to bet and I did pretty well. I liked handicapping. He taught me how to read the Racing Form. I think a lot of it is when you take your son or your grandson to a baseball game, you have those memories.”
Cassidy began in Thoroughbred racing as an owner in 1974 when he bought his first horse–a yearling–while part of the Partridge Family.
From a broodmare band of only six, he sold the mare in foal to Storm Cat. The mare produced Sharp Cat, a winner of seven Grade 1 races.
In 2008, Cassidy won the GII Black-Eyed Susan S. with homebred, Sweet Vendetta, trained by Contessa. Cassidy won the River Memories Stakes in 2006 with homebred Half Heaven. Cassidy had tremendous success with Jenny So Great, whom he bred and raced.
“You need to have to some luck in life, particularly in this game,” Cassidy said in a interview I did with him. “It’s not a game for boys in short pants. If you have six mares, the chances of you having broodmare of the year are a little more than 50,000-1. I’ve been a passionate fan in thoroughbred racing since I was five years old, and I’ve spent countless days, weeks, hours, months and years doing a lot of pedigree research, which is what I love to do. I don’t have a lot of mares. I have a pretty small broodmare band, but they’re high quality. It’s been a love affair that I’ve had with horses and channeled my whole life.
“You have to do a lot of research,” he added. “I don’t abide by a lot of the formulas in which they go by. I like my own. I think it’s much more challenging, more interesting.”
Cassidy impressed Bilinski with his knowledge and passion for the sport, in particular breeding.
“He did know his pedigrees and he did have his opinions when it came to breeding mares,” Bilinski said. “When I first met him, we’d spend hours on the phone talking about horse racing. He loved the mares and he loved the foals and the racehorses. He was a student of the pedigrees. It was a total package. He would get excited about a grandson of Bold Ruler bred to a Northern Dancer line and the chances of success. That was more of his talking points.”
Contessa became good friends with Cassidy after he bought a horse the entertainer bred. Contessa said Cassidy had a brilliant knowledge of pedigrees and remembered everything about every horse.
“When you hung out with David Cassidy, you never talked about music,” Contessa said. “You never talked about rock and roll. You never about albums. You never talked about the Partridge Family. He never talked about any of that stuff. The conversation would be hours and hours and hours of pedigrees and mares. He was a walking pedigree textbook and racing encyclopedia who was incredibly educated. We hit it off and became really tight friends.
“We’re both musicians,” Contessa continued. ” I play guitar and we became friends in music as well. We bred mares together. We picked stallions to breed to. We raised and sold babies and we’ve raced together. We have a long history together.”
Cassidy sold weanlings, yearlings and mares, but evolved into selling 2-year-olds because the market made it financially worthwhile and he had success. He had a strategy for the ones he kept and the ones he sold.
“You look at the individuals and if they’re going in the right direction you hold on to them for awhile,” he said. “It varies depending on the pedigrees and their confirmation…It depends on the individual horse themselves.”
He had a mare Sand Pirate, the dam of Sweet Vendetta, with whom he did extremely well. Sweet Vendetta became the dam’s fifth New York-bred winner, fourth top-three stakes performer and third stakes winner. Sand Pirate had been a Canadian-bred that won at distances ranging from six furlongs to a mile and a sixteenth before heading to Southern California, where Cassidy claimed her for $9,000 at Hollywood Park in November, 1999. She won her final race for him for a $12,500 claiming tag at Turf Paradise in Arizona.
“I’ve let a few of them go that I wish I can have back, Sand Pirate being one of them, but you have to move on in life,” he said.
Cassidy had a horse, Mayan King (Stephen Got Even), on the 2005 Kentucky Derby trail. Cassidy bought the colt as a 2-year-old for $210,000, by far the most Cassidy had invested buying a horse of racing age, and later had a partner in the ownership. The horse suffered an ankle injury in the GII Lane’s End S. at Turfway Park six weeks before the Derby and never was the same in his return because of physical problems.
“To get to the Kentucky Derby is the hardest thing,” Cassidy said. “One in 50,000, there’s your odds. It’s probably greater than that when you think about people who have multi-multi million-dollar mares and have access to the best stallions in the world. It’s a difficult proposition when you consider.”
Cassidy called Contessa about a week ago to talk about the pedigree of a 2-year-old filly of his that ran second in a graded stakes race at Belmont Park.
“He called me and said ‘that filly’s got a really good pedigree and will really get better going two turns,” Contessa recalled.