By Katie Petrunyak
It was a day Greg Foley will never forget when his stable got to the winner's circle for not just one, but two stakes wins last Saturday at Ellis Park. The barn's beloved Bango (Congrats) added to his already impressive resume when he took the Kelly's Landing S. Not long after, Stitched (Mizzen Mast) pulled a 46-1 upset in the GII Wise Dan S. to give Foley his second career Grade II victory.
“It was an exciting day for sure,” Foley said later the following week. “It was one of biggest days, if not the biggest day, of my career. The whole family was there–my wife Sheree, my sister Vickie, and my two sons.”
How did they celebrate?
“Well we went back to the barn to check the horses out. The crew had a couple of beers back at the barn. Sheree and I actually drove back to Louisville and I think we got a Big Mac on the way home.”
That last part was added with a grin and a wink as Foley sat in his office at Barn 11 at Churchill Downs, where the Greg Foley Racing Stable signage has been a constant presence for several decades. A second-generation horseman, Foley began training on his own in 1981. Since then, he has made his mark as one of the winningest trainers in the history of his home track at Churchill Downs, but now, as new members of the Foley family join the operation, it might be that their barn is just getting started.
Not only has his sister Vickie Foley, herself a Grade I-winning trainer, molded her barn in with her brother's and become his assistant, but now Greg's two sons Travis and Alex have joined the 60-horse stable as well.
Travis, 39, has an MBA and worked in the business world for a few years, but he soon found out that corporate life was not for him. When his father asked if he would be interested in setting up their stable for the winter at Fair Ground 11 years ago, he agreed and has stuck around ever since.
Alex, 31, earned a law degree but also found his way back to racing and now heads up the Foley base at Ellis Park.
With an impish laugh, Travis Foley describes working for his father as both awesome and terrible. He explained that while he and his brother have the utmost respect for their father's abilities as a trainer, their goal has been to use their business backgrounds to help grow the operation.
“Horsemanship-wise, Dad is as good as there is,” he explained. “My brother and I, we're just more social than he is. He's more of a barn guy and we're kind of the social guys. So it's a full-service operation and we've developed a pretty good team. It comes down to trying to do everything you can to win races and do right by the horses, but also make sure owners feel connected and have fun.”
While their father does just fine with his flip phone, the brothers are making sure owners receive updates through training and workout videos and they've also established an online presence for the stable with a website and social media channels.
Perhaps the greatest contribution the sibling pair is making is through their drive to go out and find the next generation of clientele.
Stitched is the first horse that the Foleys have trained for Nathan McCauley. When McCauley bought back his homebred as a yearling, he put together a partnership with friends and, having formed a relationship with Travis and Alex, sent the colt to the Foley barn.
A smart, good-moving 2-year-old, Stitched was a stable favorite from the start and the team had high hopes when he made his debut at Fair Grounds in December of 2021.
“He ran horrible,” Greg Foley recalled. “He was last, got beat like 25 lengths. You just sit there thinking, 'What the heck is this? No way this horse could have run that bad.' He's by Mizzen Mast and has a lot of turf breeding, so we put him on the grass next time and he wins at a big price. We actually ran him back in a one-other-than at Fair Grounds that same meet and he won again.”
Stitched went on to claim a pair of stakes wins as a 3-year-old, but got a knee chip later in his sophomore season that required surgery. He returned this spring at four, but was disappointing in his first three efforts. Even still, Foley believed that the bay's ability was much better than his recent performances indicated.
Foley debated between sending Stitched to the Wise Dan or the $100,000 Jonathan B. Schuster Memorial S. the following weekend at Horseshoe Indianapolis, but he decided to go with his gut and opt for the Grade II.
“Thank goodness we went in the race at Ellis,” Foley joked. “He ran huge. He was training great, like he would run a very good race, but we were jumping into the toughest race of his life. He's just a neat horse and is very smart. He's fun to be around.”
Foley said that their team is planning to head to the Kentucky Downs meet for Stitched to make his next start.
While the Foleys are enjoying early success with McCauley and his group, Bango's owners have been longtime supporters of the Foley stable.
Fred and Debbie Schwartz of Tamaroak Partners sent Bango's dam Josaka to Foley in 2009. The daughter of Smart Strike showed promise when she broke her maiden at three, but an injury forced her into an early retirement. Her first foal Eton Ridge (Stephen Got Even) launched his career with Foley and went on to become a stakes winner, but it was her fourth foal who would become a real star.
Now six years old, Bango is Foley's highest-earning trainee with eight stakes wins to his credit. The millionaire has won a stake every year since he was three, including the 2021 and 2023 editions of the Kelly's Landing.
“It takes a very special horse to just stay around that long,” said Foley. “I think he's as good right now as he's ever been. He looks amazing out of the race the other day. He's just dappled from head to toe and is a very sound horse to keep running up through a 6-year-old year.”
Optimistic that racing will return to Churchill Downs this fall, Foley said they are aiming Bango for a start in September in Louisville. Bango is one win away from tying the Churchill Downs all-time win mark, which is now held by Ready's Rocket (More Than Ready) from 2005 to 2012. While Bango came close to achieving the goal when he ran second to Gunite (Gun Runner) in the Aristides S. on June 3, Foley said their team has continued to eye the current record of 11 wins.
In the meantime, Bango's 2-year-old full-brother named Evan On Earth is approaching his debut.
Perhaps flying a bit under the radar amidst all the celebration last Saturday, Stitched's victory in the Wise Dan also provided Foley with his 1,500th career win.
Travis Foley has watched firsthand as his father has remained steadfast through the many ups and downs of the sport and he believes his father's achievements can be accredited to a love of the game, but first and foremost, a love of the horse.
“Being a horse trainer is about discipline and doing it win, lose or draw, every day,” he said. “His ability to persevere through the tough times is really impressive. The way he is here regardless of what happened in the races, he just loves being with his horses. Kudos to him to be able to grind it out for his whole life, but to him it's not even a grind. He loves it. He lights up when he goes into the barn.”
Foley has been, and probably always will be, more interested in tending to his pupils back at the barn rather than going out and recruiting clients. Now, he has the next generation of Foleys helping to shine a light on what makes their father's expertise such a rarity.
“It's very deserved for him,” Travis said. “We're getting more clients and more money behind us and you're seeing some of the results stem from that.”
As for the seasoned horseman himself, Foley said he is grateful for the work his sons have put in to advance their stable, but also for the opportunity he has to work with his family on a daily basis.
“I don't think any of us planned for them to be doing this,” Foley admitted. “Whatever happened, they found their way back over here to the racetrack and I love it. That's what they want to do and they're doing a great job. I'm really proud of both of them.”