The NBA forward with the Washington Wizards grew up shooting hoops with Ballis in high school, playing on an AAU team together.
With Inny Minnie running in Saturday’s $500,000 Fair Grounds Oaks and Cigar Street one of 13 contenders for Sunday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby, it looks like Ballis and Lewis have learned a thing or two since buying their first thoroughbred in 2008. And the inside help they obtained came from none other than retired Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., who worked with Mike Recio of Hidden Brook Farm to advise the 32-year-old friends along the way.
Although Ballis does not have a primary background in racing, the sports agent grew up watching horses owned by his father, John Ballis, compete on the game’s biggest stage. The elder Ballis most notably campaigned top sprinter Groovy, who ran in three editions of the Breeders’ Cup – he was 10th in the 1985 Juvenile, 4th in the 1986 Sprint, and second as the 1-5 favorite in the Sprint in 1987. Among other wins, Groovy took back-to-back editions of the Tom Fool Handicap in 1986 and 1987 and parlayed those scores into victories in Saratoga’s Grade I Forego Stakes.
“I was probably seven or eight years old when my dad had Groovy and I grew up watching races,” young Ballis said. “Then my Dad got out of the business for a while but I still followed racing, just not as an owner. When I graduated college in 2003, as part of my graduation present my Dad told me I could go to Saratoga for a couple of weeks and he would pay for it. I graduated in May, so I went to Saratoga for that meet.”
It was at the old-time oval in upstate New York that Ballis met Cordero, who was the regular rider for Groovy in 1987, the champion sprinter’s Eclipse Award-winning season.
“We formed our own friendship and he took me to the Kentucky Derby three years in a row before I even bought a horse,” Ballis recalled. “Finally, in 2008, he called me one day and said, ‘I found this horse for sale I think you would like,’ so I got a group of friends together and we bought our first in 2008.”
Join in the Dance was that contender, who finished seventh in the 2009 Kentucky Derby and put together runner-up efforts in the Tampa Bay Derby and Pennsylvania Derby the same year.
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad – we got spoiled by having that kind of contender and then we expected it,” Ballis remarked.
Ballis and his friends have owned six runners since 2008 and Lewis has been a part of every ownership (Ballis is also his manager). The NBA star and Ballis own Inny Minnie and Cigar Street together without any other partners.
Lewis said he finds himself connecting with the horses on an athletic level, understanding the rigors of training and the potential off days faced by competitors in every sport.
“They get tired, their bodies get sore, just like a regular athlete,” he remarked. “When Jake and I first got started in racing with Join in the Dance, we didn’t win right away and I guess I was more easy-going about it because I know the way competitive sport is. You can’t win all the games even if you’re the best team; you’re not going to win every game you go out to play. A horse is going to have great days and he’s going to have off days, kind of like a basketball player having a good or a bad shooting night.”
When Cigar Street made his debut at Fair Grounds on March 3, it was certainly a case of the latter. The Steve Margolis-trained son of Street Sense ran fifth in a six-furlong maiden special weight that was won by Bourbon Courage, who currently has the highest Beyer Speed Figure of any active 3-year-old (103) this year.
“We’ve been high on Cigar Street ever since we got him,” Ballis said. “From the first day he started training we thought he was our best horse and our trainer thought he was the best 2-year-old he’d ever had. He had bucked shins at the sale and breezed one of the slowest times, and we knew when we bought him we’d have to send him to the farm for a while. We did that, then got him back in training at Saratoga and he bucked his shins again. We sent him back to the farm again in Ocala – Bill Recio’s. He starts a lot of Lane’s End horses and he told me from day one that this is one of the most talented horses he’s ever had down there.”
An understanding that distance and seasoning would work in favor of the $130,000 2-year-old purchase kept Ballis and Lewis levelheaded after disappointment.
“I learned a valuable lesson not to talk big about horses that have never run before,” Ballis remarked. “I was touting him to my buddies and a couple other close friends and athletes, and I got a bunch of calls after the race saying, ‘Glad we didn’t invest in your horse.’ So the most exciting win was his following maiden win; that was the biggest relief to me.”
It was smiles all around for the Cigar Street connections after that March 10 score, when the bay colt blew away the competition in a 13 ¼-length romp going 1 1/16 miles. He earned a 99 Beyer Speed Figure for his performance and ran a 5 ½ Ragozin number.
“When he did that two-turn race I was still nervous because we’d been hearing so much good feedback about the way he was training, but we’d heard that before the first race and he finished fifth,” Lewis said. “I told Jake, ‘All this good news, maybe the trainer needs to lie to us one day and say he had a terrible workout just so we’ll come back down to Earth! When he came around that last turn and kicked into another gear, I was sitting with one of my teammates watching the race on TV, and he was just as shocked as me. We were like, ‘Where are the other horses?!’ It was like there was a pause before anyone else ran under the wire.”
Inny Minnie has proven to be equally talented, which is no surprise considering her $240,000 price tag. The Hard Spun filly was one of the last in the sale and Mike Recio convinced Ballis to make the purchase – just $60,000 over the limit he’d set in his head.
“I really told myself I’d only go to $180,000 for her, and wound up spending $240,000,” the young owner said. “Afterwards I was kind of mad at myself, but she went straight from the sale to Steve Margolis and started doing everything really professionally. Everything was going well and all the sudden she had one bad breeze and a throat issue; we thought her throat was paralyzed. One vet told us to retire her, but I wanted a second opinion and another vet helped us out with her and now she’s absolutely perfect. We went from thinking we just spent $240,000 on a broodmare to having a contender for the Fair Grounds Oaks.”
The chestnut filly has never been worse than third, which was the order of her recent finish in the Feb. 25 Rachel Alexandra Stakes. She is also well-traveled, with two runner-up finishes under her girth at Saratoga, a maiden score last fall at Keeneland, and a second in the $500,000 Delta Downs Princess Stakes before her Jan. 21 third here in the Silverbulletday.
“We think she has a big shot this weekend,” Ballis said.
Lewis had a chance to visit New Orleans a few weeks ago when the Wizards took on the New Orleans Hornets.
“I was able to go up to the barn and visit the horses,” he said. “I definitely was excited to see them after Cigar Street won the way he won the race, and I’m even more excited about him starting this weekend – and also Inny Minnie, because every time she goes out and races she’s always trying to compete and win races.
“These two have really sparked a whole different level of interest for me,” Lewis went on. “I find myself getting more and more into the sport. Especially with the year I’m going through, not playing as well as I should be playing and having the bone bruise on my knee, trying to get myself back on the court as soon as possible, the horse racing has been a good outlet for my competitive nature while I’m healing. Hopefully Cigar Street goes out and performs well on Sunday and we’ll be in the Kentucky Derby. After he won his last race I found myself really getting into it, talking about horse racing every day with my teammates during our downtime. They look at me like, ‘Have you gone crazy?’’
At least one of Lewis’s teammates knows what he’s talking about, however. John Wall, formerly of the University of Kentucky Wildcats, is now a Wizards point guard.
“John said he went to the track at Keeneland and he’ll kind of talk about racing as well,” Lewis remarked. “He told me if the horse makes the Kentucky Derby, he’ll try to make it out to watch him. ‘That’s what we’re shooting for,’ I said.”
John Ballis has also taken a renewed interest in the sport he followed 20-some years ago.
“He acts like they’re his horses, which is good,” Jake Ballis said. “The horses literally bring our family together. Christmas, Thanksgiving, the conversation is all about them. You know, this weekend is a huge deal for us. One, we want to run in big races, and our trainer doesn’t put our horses in spots where they can’t compete, so we know they have a shot. Two, I want to make our money back with them, and if we put them in over their heads we won’t do that. Three, Rashard’s involvement is really good for him. He calls me four or five times a day and all he wants to talk about is horses. For them to succeed when we’re partners is extra-special.”