Jake Ballis – Texas Thoroughbred Owner Sharing the Experience
Article courtesy of SureBet Racing Magazine
May 1, 2013 – Jake Ballis is a young Thoroughbred owner with an unbridled passion for the Sport of Kings.
It’s not really a surprise that he loves the game. His father, John, owned Thoroughbreds, most notably, Groovy, 1987 Eclipse Award-winning Champion Sprinter, and Ballis has fond memories of horses and the racetrack experience.
Growing up in Houston, he was involved in sports from a young age. Due to his 6-foot, 7-inch stature, basketball became his calling. He was on the Elsik High School basketball team and met a fellow athlete at a summer camp during his sophomore year. The athlete was Rashard Lewis, and he and Ballis became close friends. Following high school, Lewis was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics, and continues to be one of the most heralded forwards in the game, currently in the NBA playoffs for the indomitable Miami Heat.
Left to right: Bill Mott, John Velazquez, Jake Ballis, Rashard Lewis and son, Rashard, Jr. – Coglianese Photos/Courtney Heeney
Chronic shoulder injuries sent Ballis on a different path from Lewis. Ballis went on to attend the University of Houston and pursue a business career, but he and Lewis remained close friends. Ballis gave a toast at Lewis’ wedding and, four years ago, invited his buddy to go to Saratoga Race Course to get an inside look at some of the best Thoroughbred racing in the country.
That trip was a life-changer for both young men. Ballis knew the time had come to enter the world of Thoroughbred ownership. Lewis was blown away by the athleticism of jockeys, and particularly enjoyed meeting Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr. and current champion jockey John Velazquez.
While he stood over a foot and a half taller, the NBA star was riveted by the strength, balance and competitive spirit of the riders.
“Jockeys are the only athletes who compete year-round and don’t have an off season, so I admire the discipline they have to not only stay in shape physically but mentally as well,” said Lewis. “If I have a bad game, I have a day or two to get over it and correct my mistakes before the next game. But a jockey has a bad race and has 20 minutes to get over it before he rides again.”
The admiration was mutual from Cordero, who remembered their meeting at Saratoga.
“His father used to own good horses,” said Cordero. “I remember Jake when he was 7 or 8 years old. A few years ago, I was at Saratoga and this big, tall man comes looking for me. I was scared, seeing this big guy. It was Jake, and he wanted to learn more about horses.”
The lessons began and, with the support of Cordero and Hidden Brook Farm, Ballis has developed a method for purchasing racehorses.
“Hidden Brook helps us develop a short list,” explains Ballis. “Dad and I look at pedigree, then we’ll watch the breezes on video. I make notes, and we go to the barns and look the horses.”
Keeneland Sale Purchases Doing Well
For the past four years, Cordero has been influential in giving input and accompanying Ballis to the Keeneland Sale. One recent purchase was Cigar Street, a Kentucky-bred son of Street Sense out of the Deputy Minister mare Arcadiana.
“We were standing outside of the consigner area, and saw Cigar Street,” said Ballis. “He wasn’t on my short list, but Angel said ‘Man, that’s a gorgeous horse.’ However, he had big shins. Half the people told me not to buy him, but he had a look in his eye. My gut told me he was something special.”
Ballis signed a $130,000 sale ticket for the colt, who has won four of his six career starts. Trained by Bill Mott and ridden flawlessly by Velazquez, Cigar Street captured the Grade 3, $100,000 Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 30.
Ballis credits Mott and Bill Recio in Ocala, Fla., who played a pivotal role in the conditioning of Cigar Street.
“You can have all the money in the world and never have a stakes winner,” said Ballis. “Cigar Street’s win at Gulfstream was my first stakes win as an owner. I’ve had horses run second and third. Cigar Street is a special horse. He ran a 104 Beyer at Gulfstream. Johnny says he will run all day long.”
Cigar Street will have some time off with the goal of running in the Breeders’ Cup this November.
“He’s a very talented horse,” states Cordero. “I am very happy for Jake. He loves racing and has introduced other young people to the sport. We have become good friends. It’s great that he got Rashard involved; we need more athletes in the game.”
Ballis and Lewis co-own another potential rising star, a filly named White Rose, who broke her maiden on the Gulfstream Park turf on March 8. Lewis was able to see the race in person, sharing the experience with his family.
“Rashard hasn’t been able to go to many races at all,” said Ballis. “The Heat were playing in Miami, so he got to Gulfstream to see when White Rose. He had his kids with him, and they had a ball. His son went to the jocks room and rode the exerciser.”
Ballis paid $225,000 for White Rose, who will likely make her next start in New York.
“I think White Rose has just as big a future as Cigar Street,” said Ballis. “She’s by Tapit, one of the hottest sires. I looked at her in the sale, brought her out of the stall one time. She had that look in her eye, and I told Angel that we were going to buy her.
Kentucky Derby Experience with Join in the Dance
In 2009, Ballis, his brother, Reed, Lewis and Houston friends Reagan and William Swinbank, had a thrill of a lifetime when their Thoroughbred, Join in the Dance, ran in the Kentucky Derby. Trained at the time by Todd Pletcher, the Sky Mesa colt was installed at odds of 50-1. That did not deter Ballis and an entourage of 42 family members and close friends who headed to Kentucky. Under jockey Chris DeCarlo, Join in the Dance, sprinted to the lead and set the pace, leading through the first mile of the daunting mile and one-quarter race. In what will always be remembered in Kentucky Derby history as one of the most thrilling finishes, Mine That Bird, at 50-1, guided by Calvin Borel, wove his way through horses to win the 135th Run for the Roses. For Ballis, there was no disappointment, just tremendous pride that his colt finished seventh in the iconic racing event.
“Walking on the track with your immediate family and close friends in front of 150,000 fans is a feeling you cannot describe,” recalls Ballis. “At 50-1, did I think we were going to win? No, but he ran awfully well and beat some very good horses. My dad was there, and we brought 42 people to Kentucky. I think we were the only ones carrying beer. That’s not typical Derby walk behavior. We were in our late 20s and brought some fun to it.”
Join in the Dance made 19 career starts, earning $442,050 and was retired in 2011 following his third-place finish in the $150,000 Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston Race Park.
With Cigar Street, White Rose and another filly, Inny Minnie winning races for Ballis and his partners, Ballis acknowledges that the purchase of Beyond Our Reach (IRE), who competed in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly stakes, was the biggest mistake of his Thoroughbred ownership career.
The daughter of Danehill Dancer had showed promise in Europe, and Ballis purchased her in hopes she would run well in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup stakes.
“That was the biggest mistake we ever made,” admitted Ballis. “We paid a lot of money for her; we had a couple of new partners. She never broke her maiden. When you have new partners and things don’t work out, you’re not going to get them for the next one. She was beautifully bred, but it just didn’t work out. If I would have known then what I know now, we would have never done it. We relied too much on bloodstock agents, and Angel never saw her. She was third in a Group 1 in Europe. We knew she could run, but hated the hard turf at Santa Anita.”
That was an expensive, but valuable lesson, and Ballis has also resisted temptation to sell his winning horses.
“We got offered money for Inny Minnie when she ran second in the Delta Princess and a bunch of money for Cigar Street,” admitted Ballis. “We’ve had opportunities to sell. I have partners who enjoy these horses and don’t necessarily need the money right now.”
Ballis, 33, works with his father in commercial real estate in Houston. He remains fired up about his current horses and hungry to learn more as he searches for yet another star in his racing stable. He will always credit his high school basketball days for fueling his competitive fire and friendships with his buddies that continue to be part of his ownership group.
“I think my passion stems from my involvement in athletics my whole life,” states Ballis. “If you are a competitive person, you can’t help but to love racing. Playing college basketball you get an adrenaline rush every time you step on the court, and now, with my horses, I get an adrenaline rush that you can’t describe. There isn’t a feeling in the world like watching your horse turning for home.”
Martha Claussen has been prominent in the Texas racing industry since 1997 as a publicist, writer and handicapper.