Derby Week full plate for Midkiff

It’s a big week for Lee Midkiff. He’s been heavily involved in two different business operations – one for 6-year-olds, the other for 3-year-olds.

Right up through Thursday morning, Midkiff, the chairman of Springboro and California-based Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners — one of the more successful race-horse ownership syndicates in the nation — has been immersed in restaurant work.

He’s helped seat people, prepare food, bus tables, wash dishes, you name it — whatever the kindergarten kids at Miami Valley School told him to do.

His 6-year-old son Holden is one of them and this entire week the boy’s class has run the Kindergarten Restaurant at MVS.

“All this week the kindergarten kids run a restaurant where they learn about nutrition, about money and making change and other things along that line,” Midkiff said. “They have parents help and they invite the other classes — and even the grandparents — in to eat. Today I helped with the hosts and hostesses. It was pretty cute. They all wore little hats and aprons.”

By Thursday afternoon he was on his way to Churchill Downs and his other business operation. Regardless of the serving sizes at the kids’ cafe, Midkiff found himself with a full plate once he hit Louisville.

It’s Derby Week and that culminates with the Kentucky Oaks race for fillies today and Saturday’s 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, the most ballyhooed race for 3-year-olds in the world.

Eclipse has four horses running this weekend.

Three go today. On the Oaks undercard, Judy In Disguise, with Mike Smith aboard, is in the $150,000 Edgewood Stables Stakes and then Patrioticandproud with jock Joel Rosario runs in the $300,000 Grade II Alysheba.

In the main event, Eclipse filly Silsita — with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens — is a 20-1 pick in the $1 million Kentucky Oaks.

Saturday the filly Byrama, also piloted by Rosario, runs in the $300,000 Grade I Humana Distaff.

Thursday night, Midkiff was again playing host, this time as Eclipse held a gala cocktail party for its owners, jockeys and trainers.

Eclipse has nearly 25 thoroughbreds now competing on the track — with several other younger horses still down on the farm in Kentucky or in Florida — and has entrusted all that stock to some of the best trainers in the nation.

Four-time trainer of the year Todd Pletcher has their East Coast horses, Wayne Catalano has their Midwest stock, Simon Callaghan their West Coast horses and Hall of Famer Bill Mott has their superb turf marathon horse from Ireland, Amira’s Prince.

As for the Eclipse owners, they are a collection of people from all walks of life in North America — including local landscaper and Dayton Flyers backer Marty Grunder and Mason’s Russ Russell — who buy shares of certain horses.

Eclipse was formed by Midkiff and California horseman Aaron Wellman 22 months ago, but it’s already made a big splash.

“We’ve had some pretty significant days,” Midkiff said. “There was one in February (Feb. 16) where we had three big winners within three hours. Amira’s Prince won a Grade II race at Gulfstream and in the very next race Capo Bastone won his race there. About 90 minutes later, Judy In Disguise won the Sweet Life Stakes at Santa Anita. Not many high-profile stables pull off three wins, coast to coast, in just a couple of hours.”

In the first quarter of this year, Eclipse put up $575,000 in earnings and that included winning four stakes races and three graded stakes, which tied them nationally (with Calumet Farm and the prestigious Phipps Family) among all owners winning graded races.

Last November they had three horses running in Breeders Cup races at Santa Anita.

“That was a busy time, but Derby Week has a whole different dynamic to it,” Midkiff said. “With the Oaks, the Derby and all those people, there’s a lot of craziness that comes to Louisville. This is the one time of year when everyone is looking at horse racing.”

And today the nearly 120,000 people who cram into Churchill Downs for the Oaks will be looking in the direction of Midkiff and his two kids — Holden and daughter Chloe, an MVS fifth-grader — as they join the handlers and some of the connections for the “Walk Over” prior to the race.

That’s when the Oaks fillies are led from the backside barns, along one end of the track and into the paddock. Midkiff experienced the loud, electric, almost surreal moment once before when he was one of the partners in the Team Valor syndicate that owned Animal Kingdom, who would go on that day to win the Kentucky Derby.

Back then Midkiff was new to the horse business. He had been the CEO to Springboro-based CIN Legal Data Service and had just become involved in the Valor syndication, buying shares in several thoroughbreds.

In August 2011, he and Wellman, a Valor vice president, decided to form their own syndication company and since then have purchased a stable full of runners from sales rings, off tracks and from various places in Europe, especially England.

They are just finishing the paperwork on a new colt, Red Rocker, purchased from Newcastle, England and a couple of days ago they bought another impressive 3-year-old, Battier, from some Miami owners (and likely Miami Heat fans) and possibly will run him next week in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont.

“I’m probably the poster child for the new guy in the business,” Midkiff said. “But I think it helps that I had success in businesses completely unrelated to racing and have applied some of those concepts here and been able to think outside the box.”

As his business is growing, Midkiff is also returning to his technology roots and — with the help of various Dayton contractors — developing software for tablets and desktop applications that he said will help in the management end of the thoroughbred business.

People are taking notice of Eclipse. Not just folks in the thoroughbred industry, but even back in Springboro, where the company operates in a low-key setting from a pre-Civil War house on South Main Street. The only thing that gives hint of the business on the outside is a baby blue racing banner that hangs out front.

“We’re sitting here in a 180-year-old house in downtown Springboro — which is not the mecca of thoroughbred racing — but we own one of just 11 starters in the Oaks and we have four horses on the card of the biggest racing weekend in the world.

“I dropped something off at the UPS store here in town the other day and as I was leaving I heard the lady there comment, ‘They do that thoroughbred stuff.’ ”

And — as Derby Week now proves — they do it quite well.

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