Originally published in New Haven Register
NORTH HAVEN — In 1998, when local businessman Ralph Durante and Attorney John Buckley came together to form a partnership as racehorse owners, they were living in the moment, hoping to land some claiming horses who would be competitive with the potential for a win or two.
They never envisioned the partnership and the Durante/Buckley Stable lasting two decades or the close friendship that would develop over the years.
Now, as Durante and Buckley celebrate their 20th anniversary together as race horse owners and close friends, the North Haven residents are on the verge of another special experience with another horse — Arklow — headed for the upcoming and prestigious Breeders’ Cup event on Nov. 2-3 at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.
“It is really hard to believe that Ralph and I have been together for 20 years in the horse business,” Buckley said. “At the time (1998), Ralph was interested in getting into the business. It was suggested through a mutual friend that he speak with me.
“The year before had been a great year for me with my 4-year-old colt, Maybe Jack, winning 13 races to make him the winningest horse in the country. I told Ralph when I met him that it was a tough and humbling business and that I would mentor him for a year to see if he could tolerate the disappointment and frustration that the business often brings. One year has ended up being 20 years and we continue to enjoy the ride.”
The first 15 years of the partnership, Buckley and Durante were focused and content on owning claiming-level horses. Their first horse was Brian’s Trust and he finished fourth in his first race at Calder Race Course. From there they owned 4-6 horses a year and averaged 10-12 wins a year. Some horses, like Rickman and Sonya’s Angel, would take a big step and be competitive in allowance and stakes races.
“It’s been a special partnership with us, actually more than a partnership, more of a special friendship with John and for both of our families,” Durante said. “It’s been a great friendship and it’s been a great ride with a lot of great memories.
“This is a tough business. But there is nothing that compares to being in that winner’s circle when your horse wins, especially at a place like Saratoga.”
Buckley said that the original intent was to claim and purchase horses with the hope that through the right kind of care and placement they could win some races.
“We spent nearly 15 years doing that with much success,” Buckley said. “We looked to win a dozen races each year at different tracks throughout the country at different levels with some horses going on to be stakes horses and others riding horses. Our plan has always been to work with the best people, manage the horses as a business and hope for some racing luck. Honestly, we have been blessed. The horses have provided us with a lot of great memories and family experiences.”
In 2014, Buckley and Durante decided to take their partnership to another level and became part owners of elite horses through the Donegal Racing syndicate. The highlight of the Donegal experience has been as part owner of Keen Ice who competed in the 2015 Triple Crown event. American Pharoah would go on to win the Triple Crown that year. Keen Ice competed in the Kentucky Derby (seventh) and Belmont Stakes (third). But the biggest thrill was beating American Pharoah and winning the 2015 Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
“In late 2014 we went in a slightly different direction,” Buckley said. “We were impressed with a horse by the name of Keen Ice that ran third in the Remsen Stakes for 2-year-old colts at Aqueduct. We connected with Jerry Crawford at Donegal Racing who owned the colt.
“We never knew at the time he would run in the 2015 Kentucky Derby and Belmont and go on to best American Pharaoh in the Travers that year. It was the thrill of a lifetime. I was joined by family and my father who had originally gotten me into the business for a day at Saratoga that will never be forgotten.”
While partnering with Donegal Racing, Buckley and Durante have been part owners of horses who have won many stakes races. Current horses on a roll are Arklow and Carrick. Arklow has won three stakes races in a row — the Calumet Stakes, Ellis Park Prep and Turf Club Stakes at Kentucky Downs. Carrick recently won the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park.
“Ralph and I have continued to partner with Donegal and have enjoyed multiple stakes wins including the recent Calumet Stakes at Kentucky Downs with Arklow and Carrick at the Secretariat Stakes,” Buckley said. “Arklow is headed to the Breeder’s Cup. Ralph and I continue to enjoy the horses and sport through our connection and families.
“While the business can be very disappointing with injury and loss, the ‘highs’ with victories and winner circle pictures are unsurpassed. Frankly, the sport is best enjoyed and the victories savored through friends and partners that understand the difficulties and challenges in getting there. We have continued to enjoy every minute of it.”
Durante said he and Buckley don’t plan to get out of the horseracing business any time soon.
“We still enjoy it,” Durante said. “We talk three or four times a day. When you own horses together it creates a special bond. Keen Ice was special for us. Competing in the two Triple Crown races and beating American Pharoah in the Travers is an experience that allowed John and I to check off on our bucket list.”