Victory's afterglow

The Baltimore Sun

The secret bar is tucked behind a wall in the den of George Bolton's San Francisco home. Press a panel and a hidden door opens, revealing a private speakeasy that, in another time, might have fooled the law.

Bolton enters, pours a drink and settles in, to sip and savor the mood. Racing photographs dot the walls and tell the story of a champion thoroughbred who, in another time, might have been Seabiscuit.

But this isn't the Great Depression, and this is another race horse. Bolton's hideaway is a shrine to Curlin, the colt Bolton co-owned when he won the 2007 Preakness Stakes en route to Horse of the Year honors. That Bolton hails from Brooklandville, in Baltimore County, made Curlin's victory at Pimlico Race Course even sweeter.

"Just to be in the Preakness was way beyond my wildest dreams," said Bolton, 44. An investment banker in San Francisco, he grew up a continent away on the family farm 20 minutes from Pimlico.

"To win it in one's own backyard is a once-in-a-lifetime situation that you have to absolutely cherish," he said.

One year later, the magic lingers, even if Bolton's ownership of the horse does not. Bolton sold his share of the colt in the winter and won't have a horse in the Preakness this weekend. He is already searching for the next Curlin.

The walls of his wet bar immortalize Curlin, from the photos of his five big racing victories as a 3-year-old to the keepsakes from his run at Pimlico. Here is Bolton's yellow owner's pass, carefully saved from race day; over there is Curlin's leather halter, with his name engraved on a small brass plate.

Sometimes Bolton pauses, white wine in hand, to remember that he really did take part in the colt's success.

"The room is his secret oasis, a little jewel box where George nests and relives the sheer excitement of a year that seems incredibly surreal," said Lindsay Bolton, his wife.

Sometimes Bolton emerges from the bar to the den, slides his favorite disc into a DVD player and relives Curlin's string of pearls: the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, Preakness, Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic.

"At night, while I'm putting the children to sleep, I'll hear him in there watching the races," Lindsay said. "He knows the outcome, but there he sits, almost with parental pride and wearing a dimpled smile from ear to ear."

Long a horseman, Bolton has owned dozens of thoroughbreds over 19 years - his stock numbers 38 - but none has brought him such treats, emotionally and financially, as Curlin. Purchased in February 2007 after running one race, the chestnut colt blossomed, earning $5,102,800 in nine starts last year, tops in the business.

"It was a ride as exciting as anything I've ever done," Bolton said. "I adore that horse."

Nonetheless, in December, Bolton sold his 20 percent interest in Curlin for millions to Jess Jackson, a billionaire wine merchant with whom he had originally bought the horse.

Jackson's offer afforded Bolton a huge return on his original seven-figure investment and prompted his decision to sell. Simply put, head ruled heart.

"The offer was just so generous that my wife and I didn't agonize over this," Bolton said. "It's not like the horse was claimed for $50,000 and kept on winning while I threw my shoes at the TV. I was a happy seller, not a reluctant one."

He paused.

"There's a price for everything in this business," he said.

It's a business Bolton learned early and, quite literally, from the ground up. At 16, while home from boarding school in Massachusetts, he spent part of his summer mucking stalls and hotwalking horses at Timonium Race Course.

"I thought it would be exciting," he said. "You learn a lot about racing on the backside."

Bolton grew up on the family's 45-acre estate in steeplechase country. His father, Perry Bolton, a longtime horse owner, won the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1998. His great-great-uncle, George Brown Jr., was a racing steward at state tracks in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bolton himself rode ponies as a kid and accompanied his grandmother, Ida Perry Black Bullock, to the races at Pimlico.

"She was a good handicapper who knew how to 'skip' races while betting," Bolton said. "She was very savvy at the window."

By college, horses were such a part of his life that one matriculated with him to the University of Virginia. George, a grey foxhunter, lived in a barn behind the house Bolton rented near Charlottesville.

There, he met Bill Farish, a Zeta Psi fraternity brother whose family has deep racing ties. (His father, Will Farish, is past Chairman of the Board of Churchill Downs and owner of Lane's End, a leading stud farm in Kentucky.)

Together, Bolton and Farish entered the breeding business in 1989. Their first buy was a filly named Purse whom they raced for one year and sold for a tidy profit.

"George credits me with getting him into all of this," Farish said. "But with George, the light bulb was already on."

Through Farish, Bolton met John Moynihan, the bloodstock agent who bought Curlin for him. On Feb. 3, 2007, in his debut, the colt had raised eyebrows with an easy victory at Gulfstream Park.

Moynihan watched the race, then called Bolton and his two partners.

"Want in?" he asked.

The next day - Super Sunday - Moynihan raced to the Florida track, met Curlin's owners on the backstretch and closed the $3.5 million deal with a handshake. Eighty percent of the horse now belonged to a trio that included Bolton.

Writing the check made him "nervous as a cat," Bolton said. "I told my wife about it - after I did it. She said, 'OK, but that's enough.'

"I mean, we could have had some serious egg on our face if Curlin had gone out there and gotten dusted."

The horse won twice more, then took third in the Kentucky Derby. The Preakness beckoned. Pinch me, Bolton thought on his way back to Baltimore.

The night before the race, Curlin's connections, 70 strong, dined on lump crab meat at - where else? - the Bolton farm. Saturday, as he'd done so often as a child, Bolton rode to Pimlico, but not as a tagalong.

Sitting with the other owners, he watched as Curlin stumbled from the starting gate.

"He went to his knees. His head almost touched the ground," Bolton said. "I'm thinking, 'Great - we just lost 5 lengths.' "

But Curlin recovered and rejoined the pack, picking off horses one by one.

In the stands, Bolton swayed to and fro, as if on a rocking horse, murmuring, "Go Curlin, go Curlin, go Curlin."

Go, Curlin did. The race was his until Street Sense, the Derby champ, charged by on the final turn.

Bolton sagged. "Life goes on," he said to no one in particular.

But Curlin rallied again and appeared to win at the wire.

Bolton hushed the group.

"Nobody say a word until his number [4] goes up," he begged them.

Gripping his program, he stared straight at the tote board for almost a minute.

"We were parched, cotton-mouthed, exhausted," he recalled. "I thought, 'Please don't let us get this close and lose.' "

No. 4 it was, by a nose.

That, Bolton said, was "the highlight of my racing life, times 10."

Curlin lost the Belmont Stakes by a head, then won two more major races before Bolton decided to cut ties and sell.

"I'm still the colt's biggest fan," he said.

In February, Curlin won the Dubai World Cup. Bolton was in the Miami airport but phoned his father, Perry, and had him call the race for him.

"My cell kept cutting out, and I was yelling, 'Where is he? Where is he?' " Bolton said.

"Curlin won by 7 lengths," his father said.

Returning to San Francisco, Bolton climbed the steps to his den and touched the frame of a picture on the wall - a photo of jockey Robby Albarado aboard Curlin, his crop raised in Preakness triumph.

One year later, he said, seeing that picture "still gives me goosebumps."

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