The date was Oct 4, 2008, and Dodger fans might remember it as the first time the team won a postseason series in 20 years. Hadn't swept one in 45 years, either, but a clean 3-0 whitewash of the Chicago Cubs tipped off the kind of celebration Torre had grown used to in his years with the Yankees. Only this one was wildly unique, because earlier in the afternoon Torre was part of a ridiculously astonishing parlay when Vineyard Haven, the thoroughbred he co-owned, won the Champagne Stakes just hours before the Dodgers clinched the NLDS.
"That was just unbelievable. We had a two-games-to-none lead and we were playing at home. I watched the race and said, 'Wow, luck might be with me,' and we popped a bottle and then not long after that we popped again," Torre says. "It was Champagne, champagne. I'll never forget it."
He leans back in the visitor's dugout and sighs. In about an hour, Torre's Dodgers will take on the Mets in a twin bill, and no offense to baseball in April, but the manager's second love keeps creeping into his thoughts. This Saturday another horse he partly owns will run in the crown jewel of all races, the Kentucky Derby, but this time the rail gods aren't inclined to be so kind.
When Homeboykris and 19 other beauties (including one filly) break from the starting gate at Churchill Downs, Torre and the Dodgers will be in Los Angeles preparing for a night game against Pittsburgh. Luckily, the flat screen TV in the clubhouse hasn't been gobbled up in the vicious divorce proceedings between Frank McCourt, owner of the Dodgers, and his wife, Jamie.
Torre owns a 10 percent stake in Homeboykris, a long shot who has as much a chance of winning the Derby as the Pirates have of capturing the National League pennant. No matter, it's the rush that lures Torre to the Sport of Kings, not the payoff. Homeboykris, a gelded son of Roman Ruler, had two wins in four starts as a 2-year-old, but nobody's certain how he'll negotiate two turns and the Derby's daunting mile-and-a-quarter distance.
"He's got some tactical speed but he hasn't run since February," says Torre, when I ask him to handicap the Derby. "He did win the Champagne Stakes earlier last year, so who knows? Maybe that bodes well for us."
Torre didn't become a partner in Homeboykris until after that October race, and since then not much has gone to form. Homeboykris has lost all three subsequent starts, hasn't raced since taking second in an allowance at Gulfstream on Feb. 27, and has threatened to not run hard out of the gate if he doesn't get a contract extension.
Wait, that last clause applies to certain two-legged studs. But at this time of year, with the Dodgers trying to find their stride amidst the McCourt divorce drama, with Manny Ramirez and a slew of pitchers on the disabled list, thoughts of the track must have a calming effect on Torre.
He slipped away from the team for a few hours last week, driving to Louisville when the Dodgers were in Cincinnati. Homeboykris breezed in six furlongs, but what Torre still can't shake is the majestic magnificence of the place. He played Triple-A ball in Louisville in 1961, but only saw Churchill Downs from a distance.
"Walking through the barn area last week, some of these horses you know they're special. They know they're special," he says. Kind of like ballplayers? He laughs. "I don't pretend to know what I'm doing just because I'm an owner. That doesn't mean I can read a horse," he says. "That's why your trainer is basically your manager. A manager tells the players how to play, a trainer tells the jockey how he thinks the race should be run."
And so when Homeboykris' trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. recapped Monday's jog through Blue Grass mud, Torre didn't play bench jockey. Dutrow saddled Big Brown for a victory in the Derby two years ago, and promises that even though Homeboykris has run only once around two turns (a fifth-place finish at Aqueduct in his 2-year-old finale), he will not be scratched even if the track is a sea of slop.
The draw is Wednesday, with Homeboykris (above) expected to be around 50-1 on the morning line. "If you look at the history of the Derby, it's not unusual for a long shot to win the race," Torre says, optimistically.
Just last year, 50-1 Mine That Bird trailed much of the race before rallying down the inside in the stretch for a stunning win. In 2005, Giacomo, also at 50-1, won with a late close on the far inside. The beauty of the Derby lies in its improbable impossibilities.
Torre's been a fan of the ponies since he was a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, tagging along with older brother Frank to watch the harness races at Yonkers, the thoroughbreds at Aqueduct. Don Zimmer, his bench coach and sidekick with the Yankees, got him hooked again in 1996, when a $300 "investment" at Baltimore's Pimlico doubled in size.
"My life ended right there," Torre jokes. But he's not stressed about not being there Saturday with all the folks wearing ascots and hats the size of umbrellas. "The whole event is wonderful but there are thousands and thousands of people out there, and that's not a whole lot of fun for me," he says. Kind of like the crush of a Yankees-Red Sox game? "That's exactly what it is," he says.
(Earlier Torre had been talking about the Yankees-Red Sox series -- even in an NL park, New York conversations often take this turn -- and the games' interminable lengths, their nerve-wracking tension. He shared a story about Don Mattingly, the former Yankee who's now a Dodger coach. When his son became eligible for the baseball draft, Mattingly "didn't want him drafted by the Red Sox," said Torre. He reckoned Mattingly wouldn't be thrilled with this tidbit becoming public, but figured "he'll get over it.")
The stress factor ought to be down a whole lot of notches Saturday, with Torre in Los Angeles and the race in Kentucky. He's hoping there might even be a serendipitous link between Vineyard Haven, the horse in the front of that sweet doubleheader, and Homeboykris, the horse that isn't expected to do much.
Vineyard Haven was a partnership between legendary trainer Bobby Frankel, who died last year, New York-based restaurateur Louis Lazzinnaro and Torre. The colt was likely Derby-bound after winning the Champagne Stakes, until Arab royalty offered an obscene amount for it. Sheikh Mohammed bought the horse for $12 million, dashing Torre's Derby hopes. (His 20 percent ownership meant a $2.4 million windfall for Torre, not a bad profit for a horse the threesome bought barely three months earlier for $250,000.)
The trio is back, this time with a horse even less fashionable. Still, for the rest of this week, just try to wipe the smile off Torre's face.
"To win the Derby, it's like winning the Academy Award," he says. Unlike every other sport known to man, it's also a one-shot deal. No matter how Homeboykris fares, he'll never again run America's most-storied race.
"Yeah, you're only a 3-year-old once," says the Dodger manager. "These aren't the kind of athletes that lie about their age."