WAGNER, S.D. (AP) - Wayne Scherr can credit COVID-19 for making a lifelong dream come true.
Because of the pandemic, the Kentucky Derby - one of horse racing’s most revered events - was postponed from May 2 to Sept. 5.
Scherr, a long-time horse owner from Wagner, took advantage of the scheduling delay to win a spot in the Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville. He believes he became the first South Dakotan to own a Derby horse in at least a half-century, the Yankton Press and Dakotan reports.
“With COVID, they ran an extended season so you had more races to qualify,” he said. “A lot of the seasons, the derby is the first Saturday in May. If the race had been run in May, I doubt we would have had the points and our horse would ever had made it. But by having the race moved from May to September, it was better for us.”
The 62-year-old Scherr has spent his life around horses dating back to his boyhood in Napoleon, North Dakota. He rode, raced and owned horses until the 1980s when he became a teacher and wrestling coach at Wagner. At that point, he decided he no longer had the time to devote to horse racing and got out of the pursuit.
But he never lost the passion.
Scherr got back into horse racing at the urging of others. And this year, the most unusual circumstances allowed him to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. In the span of just a few months, he purchased a horse that placed in races earning points toward the Derby. Scherr remained just outside qualifying for the 20-horse field at Churchill Downs, but he then saw other entrants drop out of the race and make his spot a reality.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to race in the Kentucky Derby, and now the dream came true,” he said.
About seven years ago, the race organizers changed the method of qualifying the 20-horse field. While still a long shot, Scherr and other horse owners could compete for the Derby against millionaires and even a billionaire sheik who spend incredible wealth on horses.
“It had gotten too political, so they used a group of individuals with a lot of knowledge of the horse racing industry (to set up a fairer system). Those persons set up a circuit of races and put points on first, second, third and fourth,” Scherr said. “You knew at the start of the season what you needed to qualify, and you earned your points during the racing season. Sometimes you had (qualifying) horses drop out, and the next ones would enter the Derby.”
In recent years, Scherr had retired from teaching/coaching and his masonry business. He had gotten back into racing and was buying and selling horses. While he still dreamed of the Kentucky Derby, he hadn’t entered the financial stratosphere it took for a serious shot at the field.
And then came the call earlier this year that set off a whirlwind 12 weeks leading to the Derby.
Scherr’s horse trainer, Chris Hartman, was watching a field of horses preparing for a race, and one of the entries caught his eye. The horse was listed with an allowance optional claim race, which meant the horses were up for sale for about the same price until the race started.
“Chris said, ‘Wayne, I’ve been watching this horse race three times and I think we can have some fun with him,’” Scherr said, recalling the conversation and the need for an immediate decision.
Scherr trusted his trainer’s judgment but received jarring news - the horse required a $100,000 claim for seeking ownership. If multiple people put down the amount, it would require a “shake” to determine the owner.
Most claim races are for $10,000 or $20,000, with few in the U.S. carrying a $100,000 price tag, Scherr said. However, he looked at the thoroughbred’s pedigree, history and previous ownership. The horse also stood larger at 1,200 pounds and 17 hands (with one hand equaling four inches).
“I told (my trainer) to put in the claim and I would get the money wired down there,” Scherr said. “I called down (to my banker) and said, ‘I need a wire out of my account to Churchill Downs.’ And he told me, ‘Wayne, there’s no wiring on a Saturday.’ Now, I had a predicament.”
With some quick work, Hartman located two Kentucky businessmen - Ray Daniels and Greg Harbut - who would cover the rest. Harbut’s great-grandfather, Will Harburt, was the groom of legendary stallion Man o’ War for 16 years.
Scherr owned 75% and the other two partners owned a combined 25%. As it turned out, the trio won the shake and the horse’s ownership.
Scherr named the horse Necker Island after the private island owned by Virgin Atlantic airlines owner Richard Branson. The horse won points in the Indiana Derby and Ellis Park Derby and needed to move in front of seven horses to get into the Kentucky Derby.
“A few others dropped out, and we got a phone call from the racing secretary that we were accepted into the Derby,” Scherr said. “I was working on my daughter’s home in Platte when I got the call. My body just went limp. It was my whole dream, my whole life, and it came down to everything falling into place. We won the claim, placed in races, and now we had the right amount of horses drop out.”
The pandemic raised questions on whether spectators would be allowed at the track, particularly when Kentucky became a hot spot with the virus. Scherr was prepared to watch the race at home.
Instead, race officials announced they would allow a limited number of spectators, and Scherr received 16 tickets. He took his family along with his three brothers and their families.
To make it a true family experience, Wayne sold 5% shares to each of his brothers - Kyle Scherr of Westminster, Colorado; Rick Scherr of Great Falls, Montana; and David Scherr of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I only charged them $5 each, but I wanted them to have a share in the ownership,” Wayne said with a laugh.
Scherr arrived early in the race week, attending the post drawing and watching Necker Island at the stable and during his workouts. The thoroughbred was listed as a distant favorite, but Scherr liked the horse’s look heading into race day. The financial stakes were high, as the Kentucky Derby carries a $3 million purse with $1.8 million for the winner.
Just qualifying for the race marked a major achievement. According to one report, about 20,000 thoroughbreds are foaled every year in the U.S., and the Kentucky Derby takes only 20 three-year-olds. Qualifying horses from Japan and Europe are normally eligible for one spot each in the race, creating even greater odds for a U.S. horse to make the field.
Scherr became one of the few South Dakotans to qualify for the derby, and with his North Dakota roots, reportedly the first one from that state. His two business partners also made history, as Daniels and Harbut became the first African-American owners of a Derby horse in 13 years.
The Scherrs arrived at Churchill Downs attired in the trademark suits for the men and the dresses and hats for the women. “There was no way you were wearing jeans at the Kentucky Derby. They wouldn’t even let you in,” Wayne said.
Churchill Downs provided every bit of the anticipated splendor and thrills, Scherr said. However, the sparse attendance and tight security felt surreal.
“The place holds about 155,000 to 160,000 people, and here we had 1,200 security guards for 800 people,” he said. “Normally, we would be packed shoulder to shoulder (at the race).”
As the race time neared, Scherr felt similar emotions to when he guided the Wagner wrestling teams to state championships in 1992 and 1994.
“Both times, you had no control,” he said. “A kid’s wrestling career and state championship comes down to six minutes on the mat. And with the Derby, it’s two minutes long with so much going on in those two minutes. It’s really hard to rate one (achievement) over the other.”
Scherr literally experienced a sick feeling as the horses lined up for the Derby. “For a minute before they went to post, I felt like I was going to throw up. My stomach was all churned up. It was so nerve racking,” he confessed.
The race started poorly for Necker Island, as he fell behind early.
“I said, ‘He’s gotta do something, he’s gotta make a move’ - and he did. He just took off and passed six horses in front of him during the last one-eighth of a mile,” Scherr said. “He kept going when a lot of others would have given up. Afterwards, the jockey said, ‘I think I see how much I should have pushed him some more. The way he finished, he had too much in him.’”
For Scherr, Necker Island achieved more than he had imagined. “I never dreamed I would finish in the top 10 to come across the finish line. It was my dream just to be here,” he said.
As part of the post-race congratulations, Scherr received an unexpected email from Richard Branson, who said he was honored the horse was named after his private island.
Scherr joked that his return to racing started out a bit rocky, as he purchased the first horse for $37,000 without telling his wife, Candy. He returned home to find her enraged with the invoice that came in the mail.
“I guess I forgot to tell her,” Wayne said sheepishly. “That was the one time in our marriage that she didn’t talk to me for three days. But she’s fine with it now.”
Wayne was glad to share the Kentucky Derby moment with other family members.
“It was a happy moment we all enjoyed together,” he said. “The only thing that would have been better was if my (late) mom and dad were with us, but I’m sure they were looking down and watching with us.”
Regardless of whether he races again, Necker Island holds a profitable future in front of him, Scherr said. The horse stands to make $60 million in stud fees, far more than any purse from winning a race.
Scherr wants to stay involved with horse racing, admitting it has gotten in his blood. “I’ve had a little bit of success, why quit now?” he asked.
As a show of his intent to remain in racing, he has purchased a yearling that he named “Pray For Peace.”
“I wanted that name before, but it was taken, so I named all my other horses with the word ‘dream’ in it,” he said. “Now, racing in the Kentucky Derby was like realizing a dream.”
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