By the end of the day Saturday, Irvin Naylor hopes his little expenditure will prove well worth it.
It won’t take the steeplechase owner long to complete the 700-mile trip from his home in York, Pa., to Nashville. Just 90 minutes in fact.
For the first time in his life, the 76-year-old businessman will board a six-passenger Learjet and arrive in style for the 71st running of the Iroquois Steeplechase at Percy Warner Park.
“It’s very costly, but I’m really looking forward to it because it is a much quicker ride,” Naylor said enthusiastically over the phone last week. “It will get us down there in an hour and a half, whereas before, it used to take four hours in that little plane we used to use.
“We’re looking forward to getting everybody down there in a much more efficient style.”
And leaving with his name etched in the record books.
Naylor plans to enter three horses in the seven-race event that is expected to draw more than 25,000 spectators. His prized jewel, Tax Ruling, will attempt to make history and become the first to register three straight victories in the $150,000-purse Iroquois. The past two years, the 9-year-old gelding finished at the head of the field in the three-mile hurdle race and in front of Slip Away, who will not run this weekend.
“It is amazing, back through history, how it has been very difficult to do,” Iroquois chairman Dwight Hall said. “The horse that is trying to do it is getting older, and younger horses are coming along who seem to have a little bit of an edge as the older horse starts to lose some of his edge. As you look back through history that seems to be one of the things that happen. For whatever reason, it gets very difficult to do.”
For Naylor, winning, especially over the past two years, has looked easy.
After topping all owners in total earnings in 2010, he repeated last year and set a record by raking in $719,725. That broke the previous mark by more than $100,000. His other 9-year-old gelding, Irish-bred Black Jack Blues, edged Tax Ruling for the 2011 Eclipse Award, given to North America’s champion steeplechase horse.
Naylor has started off 2012 with three stakes wins, two of them graded.
“I love steeplechasing,” he said. “It’s not the money racing that flat racing is. You would make more money with the good flat horses, but to be quite frank with you, I don’t much care for flat racing. I think it is boring. I love steeplechasing, I always have.
“My accident was very unfortunate for me, but it had nothing to do with my enthusiasm for the sport.”
More than 13 years ago, during a steeplechase race, Naylor, then 63, was thrown off his horse, breaking his neck and causing quadriplegia. He is unable to move his hands and legs but regained 50 percent range of motion in his arms.
Since then, he has searched for a cure for paralysis. Over the past three years, he has invested in the stem-cell research of Dr. Jose Cibelli at Michigan State. In September in Seville, Spain, a new cell will be injected into his neck. The induced pluripotent stem cell has been tested only on rats.
“The rats have recovered 100 percent of the locomotion,” Naylor said. “We think it is going to bear an amount of fruit with me and therefore with other people who are paralyzed. If that’s the case, it will be a great contribution to all people who are paralyzed.”
Naylor hasn’t allowed his paralysis to slow him down in other aspects of his life.
He is the founder, president and owner of Snow Time Inc., which owns and operates ski resorts. He owns Still Water Farm in Maryland and has horses with several trainers. He is very involved with all things steeplechase, as was evident last year when he decided to fire jockey Darren Nagle.
“We didn’t part on very good terms,” Naylor said.
Nagle, a 24-year-old Irishman, rode Tax Ruling the past two years at the Iroquois. He is expected to ride against Tax Ruling this time. Nagle couldn’t be reached for comment.
Hall, also a former jockey who won the 1977 Iroquois, is good friends with Naylor and is amazed by not just his competitiveness but his determination.
“It is certainly hard to fathom,” Hall said. “Just the challenges he has, learning to be able to assemble the stable and the business he has and to keep going. I’m not sure many people in that position would be able to pull off what he’s pulled off.”
While Saturday might provide his first and only trip on a jet, Naylor hopes he has several more years of steeplechase racing in him.
“Only God knows that. I hope so,” Naylor said. “I’m 76, and I don’t usually buy young horses, and I don’t usually plant small trees.”