There is no greater feeling in pro football than winning a Super Bowl, and nothing better in horse racing than winning a Triple Crown race.
Chris Mara is one of the rare people in position to know what both feel like.
A part-owner of the Giants who has been the team’s longtime senior vice president of player personnel, Mara is also a part-owner of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify. With another win in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, Mara will have experienced the greatest heights in both sports.
“Excited, nervous, all of the above,” Mara said of how he’s feeling in the run-up to Saturday’s race, where Justify is the heavy favorite to win. Justify would become only the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown and would join Seattle Slew (1977) as only other undefeated horse to win the crown jewel of horse racing.
“There’s a lot of luck involved, and these horses can be pretty fragile, so there’s a lot of disappointment in this sport,” Mara said. “But when you get to this stage right now, it makes up for it all.”
Mara is part of the ownership syndicate Starlight Racing that has a share of the racing rights of Justify and Audible, a third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby who has been scratched from the Belmont to better prepare for races later in the summer. Until this year, Mara had never been part of an ownership group of any Triple Crown race winner.
“I’ve had three horses in the Derby, two in the Preakness, and one in the Belmont,” he said. “Best finish was fourth in the Belmont. We have not been very successful in those big races.”
Justify became the first Kentucky Derby winner since 1882 who didn’t race as a 2-year-old, and he held off Bravazo and Tenfold to win the Preakness at fog-shrouded Pimlico Raceway. Justify is the 4-5 favorite in the Belmont and will start from the rail, a position trainer Bob Baffert isn’t crazy about. No horse has won the Belmont starting from the rail since Empire Maker in 2003.
“I never do like to draw the rail,” Baffert said earlier this week. “I think the most important thing is the horse is doing well. We have it, we can’t change it, so we’ll deal with it.”
Mara will watch the race from the Belmont Room and will be joined by his wife, Kathleen (the daughter of Tim Rooney, a son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.), his two sons and Giants coach Pat Shurmur and his wife. Shurmur will make the “riders up” call before the Belmont. Mara’s two daughters — actresses Kate and Rooney Mara — have previous acting commitments and are unable to attend.
“I’ll leave by 9:30 a.m. and I’m kind of miserable to be around, like I am before a Giants game, so I’ll get my little space and have the family meet me later,” Mara said.
Mara remains close to former Giants coach Bill Parcells, who also owns horses but doesn’t have one in the Belmont.
“He’s legit happy,” Mara said of Parcells. “He’s in the business himself. He just wants to know whether I leave the track with a wheelbarrow of money, or enough to buy a bunch of baloney sandwiches for the year.”
It is the chance of a lifetime, and another shot at a feeling like the one he has experienced four previous times with the Giants. Mara has worked in the personnel department for the team’s four Super Bowl victories after the 1986, 1990, 2007 and 2011 seasons.
“It’s a similar excitement,” Mara said of comparing the Derby and Preakness wins to the Super Bowl. “I probably jumped a little higher when we won the Super Bowl, but it’s close. Obviously with the Giants, being an owner and an employee, there’s a lot more satisfaction because you put a lot of work into it. You’re there for the disappointment, too, when you take the blame when there’s a [lousy] year like last year. But the high is the same. The exhilaration of winning is the same.”
Mara is already the only person to have an ownership stake in a Super Bowl and Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins.
“But it would sound better,” he said, “if it was a Super Bowl and a Triple Crown.”
He’s one win away.