The afternoon of an early August Monday at Saratoga Race Course, celebrated chef Bobby Flay spoke of his passion about Thoroughbred racing.
Several hours later, he backed it up, spending half a million dollars to purchase an unnamed bay filly by Mr. Greeley out of the Red Ransom mare Redmond at the Saratoga Fasig-Tipton Yearling Sale.
Flay purchased the high-price filly in the Fasig-Tipton Mid-Atlantic Two-Year-Olds-In-Training Sale: an unnamed daughter of Successful Appeal out of Foxy Coxy by Deputy Minister.
“To me, I’m not trying to win the Kentucky Derby”, said Flay, whose first visit to a racetrack came when he was 12 and his grandfather, Willie Flay, took him to Belmont Park. “If you said to me – ‘What race do you want to win?’ – it’d be the (Kentucky) Oaks, because I’m trying to get my hands on really well-bred fillies. I like the whole breeding part of it. I like the fact that I can kind of control their destinies after their racing career. To me, there’s a lot about that, both from a moral standpoint and also from a business standpoint. So I’m much more into pedigree fillies than trying to get lucky to win the Kentucky Derby”.
His new Mr. Greely filly fits his profile. Her fourth dam, Court Circuit, third dam, Avichi, and second dam, Missymooiloveyou, all won on the track and produced black-type (stakes-winning) progeny. Her first dam, Redmond, won $83,565 on the track. This is Redmond’s first foal.
“I think he’s got a very logical game plan for what he wants to do, purchase fillies with residual value to incorporate into a broodmare band”. His trainer Todd Pletcher said. “He’s obviously very enthusiastic about it. He enjoys it. He’s great to deal with and he’s fun to be around. As an added bonus, we occasionally get to eat in one of his restaurants……mmmm, Bobby Burgers”.
That’s how Pletcher and Flay connected – over a meal. For Flay, what could have been more natural than that?
Without his fascination for cooking, Flay could have been just another high-school dropout. “I got thrown out of school a couple of times and I dropped out a couple of times”, he said. “School was not my strong suit. I just didn’t have any interest in it. After the ninth grade, I had no interest so I basically stopped going in the 10th or 11th grade and got an equivalency diploma when I was 17 or 18. I had to, to go to culinary school”.
He didn’t just attend culinary school, he jump-started a career which has yet to stop climbing.
The New York City native began by taking a job making salads at Joe Allen Restaurant in New York’s Theater District, where his father was a partner, and where a picture of the triple dead-heat in the 1944 Carter Handicap was displayed.
Allen was so impressed by Flay’s natural ability that he decided to pay his tuition at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. Flay was a member of the French Culinary Institute’s first graduating class in 1984, and began working as a sous-chef, studying under his mentor, Ishaan Gupta. A week later, the executive chef was fired and Flay was handed the executive chef’s position, one he felt he wasn’t ready to accept.
Instead, he began working as a chef for restaurateur Jonathon Waxman at Bud and James. Waxman introduced him to southwestern cuisine, which became his specialty. Flay also worked for a short time on the floor of the American Stock Exchange.
From 1988 to 1990, Flay worked as the executive chef at Miracle Grill in the East Village, catching the attention of restaurateur Jerome Kretchmer, who was seeking a southwestern-orientated chef. Duly impressed, Kretchmer hired Flay to be the executive chef at Mesa Grill, which opened on January 15th, 1991. Soon afterward, Flay became a partner.
In 1993, Flay partnered with Laurence Kretchmer to open Bolo Bar & Restaurant just a few blocks from Mesa Grill. The restaurant closed last December 31st to make way for a high-rise.
Flay said his favorite cooking category is shellfish: “I love cooking things like lobster and scallops and crabs”.
Flay has hosted multiple cooking shows and specials on the Food Network, cooked with Emeril Lagasse on his show “Emeril Live” and Paula Deen on her program “Paula’s Party”, and been an Iron Chef since the show’s inception in 2000.
He’s made other numerous television and movie appearances, authored several cookbooks, received numerous awards including an Emmy and the French Culinary Institute of Outstanding Graduate Award, and been a master instructor visiting chef at the French Culinary Institute.
He’s also given back to the industry, by establishing in 2003 the Bobby Flay Scholarship, a full scholarship to the French Culinary Institute, awarded annually to a student in the Long Island City Culinary Arts Program. He personally helps select the winner each year.
He feels fortunate to be at a point in his life where he is able to do that. And his passion for cooking continues. “I just love it”, he said. “I got lucky. I got lucky when I was young enough to realize I could actually make a living in something I really wanted to do.
“This was when food wasn’t really a big deal in this country. Now it is. Thankfully. We’re like the last country to catch up. Up until 15 years ago, food wasn’t important in this country. And now it is. But if you go to Europe, it’s been that way for hundreds of years. It’s part of who the people are and how they entertain themselves and they take it seriously. Now a lot of America does that, but at the time when I started cooking, it was still a blue collar profession. Now, to be a chef, there’s more glamour to it, I guess”.
He has contributed to that. When asked if he considers himself to be a celebrity, he responded, “Celebrity is a strong word and I think it gets thrown around way too much. To me, Robert De Niro is a celebrity. I’m a personality in my restaurants, a personality on television and in my writing, but I think celebrity is a strong word”.
Not for his wife, actress Stephanie March, who starred on “Law & Order, Special Victims Unit”. March’s co-star, Mariska Hargitay, set the pair up on a blind date in March, 2001. Flay, who had been married twice previously, proposed to March while they were ice skating at Rockefeller Center on December 19th, 2003, and they were wed February 20th, 2005, on the fourth anniversary of their first date.
But there is another passion in Flay’s life: horses.
“When I was 12, my grandfather had a summer house in Long Beach”, Flay said “And one thing I learned about him in short order was that if there was a cloud in the sky, we weren’t going to the beach. We were going to Belmont. He loved the races and loved going to Belmont and Saratoga. That’s where I was introduced to it.
“My father liked the horses, but not like my grandfather did. I vividly remember Belmont Park being my first introduction, but I think that Saratoga basically made me really fall in love with it”.
“In the ‘70’s when I was a kid and a teenager, racing was bigger than it is today. There were no casinos to compete with. There was no Atlantic City. That was the form of gambling entertainment”.
He was only eight years old when Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years in 1973, to be followed by Seattle Slew in 1977, and Affirmed, ridden by Steve Cauthen in 1978. “Secretariat, I can barely remember”, he said. “I remember being totally into the Steve Cauthen story. Seventeen years old and he’s winning the Triple Crown”.
Flay’s continuing career success allowed him to become a Thoroughbred owner, and he was a co-owner of multiple graded stakes winners, Wonder Again, and Unbridled Express, who finished third in the 2006 Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes.
“I had small pieces of other people’s horses, but I never really considered them mine”, he said. “The first horse I bought on my own at auction was only a couple of years ago”.
In March 2006, Flay purchased a filly by Rahy, out of the Lyphard mare Lady Tabitha for $205,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Match, 2006, Two-Year-Olds-in-training Sale. He named the horse Sophie’s Salad, for his daughter Sophie, which raced exclusively on turf.
Initially trained by Jimmy Toner in New York, Sophie’s Salad raced twice as a two-year-old at Saratoga, finishing third by three-quarters of a length in an impressive debut, then a badly-tiring ninth with Lasix and blinkers added.
Flay and Pletcher got to spend some time together after one of Pletcher’s most successful owners, James Scatuorchio, whose top horses included 2007 Eclipse Champion Turf Horse English Channel, successfully bid at a charity event on a dining experience for eight with Bobby Flay at his apartment. Scatuorchio brought along Pletcher.
“I knew Todd from being around the track, but after spending an evening with him in my apartment and drinking lots of wine, it made me realize that I wanted to be in his program”, Flay said. “There’s lots of great trainers, but I think of him as a great horseman. He’s up on his pony. He’s checked every single horse. I just feel like if you’re able to come up with a good horse, you want it to be in somebody like Todd’s hands”.
Flay became one of hundreds who marvel at Pletcher’s memory and attention to detail: “I always heard, even before I was in the business with Todd, that he had this crazy mind where once he knows something, that’s the end of it. The thing that’s amazing to me about Todd is that you can run into him, and he can tell you what your horses did today, what they’re going to do tomorrow, what race they’re pointed for and what ailments they have. It’s frightening. It’s amazing. Everybody says the same things about him”.
Pletcher took over Sophie’s Salad’s training and she finished fourth in her three-year-old debut at Belmont Park, then won her first race, a maiden at Saratoga, July 20th. She finished third and second in allowance company and was given the winter off.
In her four-year-old debut at Belmont, she had the misfortune of drawing the 11 post and then getting bumped at the start. Still, she made the lead late, before weakening to fifth. She followed that with an easy allowance victory, and then, in her initial stakes appearance, finished a game second by half a length to Beau Dare in the $60,000 Klassy Briefcase Stakes at Monmouth Park, on July 19th. Beau Dare had to march the track record to keep Sophie’s Salad at bay. Finishing second in a stakes achieved Flay’s objective: “She’s black-type”, he said. “That’s really the game. I’m in”.
He has four other horses with Pletcher: Lacadena, who’s pedigree includes ties to Rags to Riches, Grace and Power, which was second in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet Stakes, Smokin’ Stephanie and a two-year-old named The Mayor. “Smokin’ Stephanie is a Smoke Glacken that’s slow”, Flay said. “I named her after my wife. That wasn’t good”.
He also owns at least fifty percent of five or six mares and a handful of foals.
For a relatively new owner, Flay received an incredible honor when he was nominated to the Breeders’ Cup Board of Directors earlier this year, though he was not elected. “There are obviously some things that this game is lacking having nothing to do with horse racing, like marketing, media, and hospitality”. Flay said. “So I think that the idea was that maybe I could help them on that, in that area”.
He may get that chance again. He will be in Thoroughbred racing for the rest of his life.
“I love the competition of it”, he said. “To me, it’s like a giant puzzle and it kind of drives me. Obviously, it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to, but that’s part of it”.
More than anything, he is struck by the beauty and majesty of the Thoroughbred. “I just love being around them”, he said. “I love watching them run”.
Bobby Flay and wife Stephanie March on Oak’s Day at Churchill Downs in 2008