Ken Ramsey was born way out in the Kentucky boondocks during the Great Depression. He grew up in Artemus, a coal mining town of about 500, just down the road a piece from Bimble and Flat Lick. Running water and indoor plumbing were luxuries.
“Where I was raised, instead of having four rooms and a bath,’’ Ramsey said, “we had four rooms and a path.’’
This self-made multimillionaire went from the outhouse to the penthouse with shrewd investments in trucking companies, real estate and cellphone franchises. From very little to the one percent. He and his wife, Sarah, swept the Eclipse Awards for breeder and owner in 2013 and 2014. “I’m good,’’ he said in his country drawl. “I know I’m good, and I’m dangerous.’’
The Ramseys have dozens of stakes trophies at their 1,200-acre farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky, but not the solid gold one everybody covets most.
“Since I’m an entrepreneur,’’ he said, “the epitaph on my tombstone will be ‘I made a lot of good deals, but I went in the hole on this one.’ So I hope to change that and put on there that I won the Kentucky Derby in a certain year.’’
If that happens May 7 at Churchill Downs, the saga of Oscar Nominated will take its place in Derby lore alongside 50-1 shockers Giacomo and Mine That Bird. Oscar Nominated was a moderately successful grass horse on no one’s Derby list until April 2, when the 23-1 shot rallied to take Turfway Park’s Spiral Stakes. That pushed the son of Ramsey’s world-class stallion, Kitten’s Joy, into the big picture and handed his owner $280,000.
That’s a nice rags-to-riches tale for a horse claimed for $75,000 last October after his maiden victory at Belmont Park. Then it gets complicated. Not only has Oscar Nominated never run on dirt — Turfway’s surface is synthetic — but Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker also didn’t think enough of him to nominate Oscar for the Triple Crown by the March 21 deadline. So instead of putting up $6,000, Ramsey must supplement him for $200,000.
Creative financing will cut that in half. Ramsey found a silent partner to kick in $100,000 and split any Triple Crown earnings 50-50. “He’s still on board, and I have two backups,’’ Ramsey told Newsday.
“We got a chance to make a little history here. Hirsch Jacobs claimed Stymie, and they say that was the greatest claim in history. So if Oscar Nominated wins the Derby, I guess that puts me right in the history books with Stymie.’’
Stymie earned $918,485 but skipped the Derby, so Oscar would be one up on him. Stymie cost $1,500 in 1943, so Ramsey’s gamble is exponentially greater. Half of the Derby winner’s share is about $700,000, so by anteing “only” $100,000, he’s taking 6-1 odds on a horse who’ll be 25-1, maybe higher. Derby Fever ignores equations and probability.
“Every time this horse runs, he gets a little better,’’ Ramsey said. “His speed figure needs to improve 10 points, but I’m willing to bet he’ll be in the top 10. If things work out, maybe even the top four.’’
A longtime serious handicapper, Ramsey loves to bet big and cackle when he hits. None of his Pick 6 scores can match one he made off track. Back in the 1980s, he figured a newfangled contraption might have a future, so in 1989 he invested heavily in cellular telephone network franchises. Not a bad move, considering many now would rather starve than be without their cell.
“A friend gave me a magazine article about cellular phones,’’ Ramsey said. “I had no idea what a cellular phone was, but I realized ‘Hey, this is a better mousetrap.’ A man could be fishing in the middle of a lake and buy stocks. And it’s amazing what you can do with all these apps.’’
In 1994, Ramsey sold his cellular stake for “30-something million’’ and soon went whole hog into racing. “It was life-changing for sure,’’ he said. “But I’m an optimist and always believed you should follow your dreams.’’
He started his Derby quest late, debuting at 67 with Ten Cents A Shine, who ran eighth in 2003. His other five runners also were nowhere — Dean’s Kitten (14th, 2010); Derby Kitten (13th, 2011); Charming Kitten (ninth, 2013) and We Miss Artie and Vicar’s in Trouble (10th, 19th, 2014). The all-time low came last year on Derby morning, when Louisiana Derby winner International Star was scratched with a foot injury.
“That was just devastating,’’ Ramsey said, “because I really thought he had a shot.’’
He has millions to spare and he’s chasing his ultimate bucket list item. Why not go for it?
“To me, it’s not a stellar field like it was last year,’’ he said. “So it’s wide open, and we’ve got the stamina. He’s a one-run horse, and there’s going to be plenty of speed in there. I feel like I’m playing with house money. Anyway, I think it could be my turn this year.’’
Few would agree, but one of folksy Ken’s favorite sayings is “The turtle doesn’t get anywhere until he sticks his neck out.’’ If Ramsey had been afraid to do that, his life would have been infinitely poorer.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,’’ he said. “I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. I’m 80, so I may have only 15 or 20 Derbys left.’’
The Ramsey file
Children: Kelly, Jeffrey, Jill, Scott
Breeding Farm: Ramsey Farm, Nicholasville, Kentucky
Eclipse Awards for owners: 2004, 2011, 2013, 2014
Eclipse Awards for breeders: 2013, 2014
National champions: Kitten’s Joy (2004, turf male); Slip Away (2010, steeplechaser)
Breeders’ Cup wins: Stephanie’s Kitten (2015, Filly & Mare Turf); Bobby’s Kitten (2014, Turf Sprint); Stephanie’s Kitten (2011, Juvenile Fillies Turf); Furthest Land (2009, Dirt Mile)
Meet titles for owners: Churchill Downs, 24; Keeneland, 17 (both records)
Saratoga owners’ titles: 2008, 2009, 2013