LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The horse racing gene has been in the family's DNA for more than a century. Twenty years before he became a founding father of the National Football League, 18-year-old Tim Mara became a legal bookmaker in New York. The year was 1905, when the kid from the Lower East Side began building his fortune with other people's losing tickets.
There's a great picture of the mature Mara in Belmont Park's clubhouse, and his grandson has a copy in his office. That's where Chris Mara, the Giants' senior vice president of player personnel, works for the business his gambling grandfather started in 1925 for $500. Tim Mara figured he couldn't lose with that bet, because as he told his 9-year-old son, Wellington, "In New York, an empty store with two chairs is worth that much."
After being "sequestered in Jersey doing draft stuff" for five days, Chris Mara spent the weekend at Churchill Downs, rooting for horses owned by Starlight Racing, a Louisville-based syndicate he joined in 2012. Two of them, Intense Holiday and General a Rod, ran Saturday in the Kentucky Derby.
General a Rod finished 11th and Intense Holiday was 12th.
The run-up to Derby Day made Mara edgier than he was before the two Super Bowl wins over the Patriots. "I've been jumping out of my skin," he told me Thursday night. "I never experienced this kind of feeling before. In football, it's different. You play every week and pretty much know what you've got. In racing, there's so much uncertainty, and it's one and done."
Mara's wife, Kathleen, and their sons, Dan and Conor, were with him at Churchill. Their daughters, acclaimed actresses Rooney Mara and Kate Mara, were on location shooting movies. Rooney is playing Tiger Lily in "Peter Pan," and Kate is The Invisible Woman in "Fantastic Four.'" "The girls will be with us in spirit," he said, and most likely watching on TV.
Mara, 57, was only a toddler when his granddad died at age 72 in 1959. Heredity and environment assured that Chris would follow a similar path. "I think he and I have a lot in common when it comes to horse racing," Mara said. "I was attracted to it from the start. I've been going to racetracks for six decades.'"
Chris' father, Wellington, took him to Belmont when he was "about 10" in the '60s. When Chris was a teenager, he parked cars at Yonkers Raceway, owned by Art Rooney, Kathleen's grandfather and Tim's longtime pal. This was Chris' 10th Derby. "It's one of the top four events in sports," he said. "My parents went to 25 of them and they loved it."
Mara owned harness horses during the '80s and later was in on a few thoroughbred ventures, "but nothing really big." he said. In the winter of 2012, the vibes seemed right to "pull the trigger" and invest seriously in thoroughbreds, a lifelong dream. The Giants had won another Super Bowl, and Rooney Mara had been nominated for an Academy Award for the title role in a major hit, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."
Mara met Starlight's managing partner, Louisville native Jack Wolf, in August 2012 at a Saratoga golf tournament hosted by Rick Pitino, a longtime friend of Mara's. Wolf and Mara sat down "and asked each other a lot of questions. Jack asked me what I was going to bring to the table and I answered, 'Luck!' I told him, 'We just won a Super Bowl and my daughter is up for an Academy Award.' "
The odds against having two children make it big in show business are much bigger than winning two Super Bowls in five seasons. So why wouldn't Wolf have welcomed Mara to Starlight?
Mara owns shares of 13 horses, and some, including Intense Holiday, are trained by Todd Pletcher. He's a lock for the Hall of Fame, but to a son of Big Blue, the Dallas native has an awful character flaw: He roots for the hated Cowboys.
Mara spent Easter Sunday morning at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida, watching Intense Holiday's final workout before he was shipped to Churchill.
"Todd knows so much about racing and we talked horses for an hour," Mara said. "It was really a great time. But then he starts asking me about the Cowboys. I said, 'Why are you asking me about them?' ''