Tom McKenna was 12 years old when his beloved grandfather, a Texas judge with a passion for horse racing, helped fuel his own love of the sport by having him ride one of the quarter horses in a race at Cowboy Park in El Paso.
"I was scared to death," McKenna, now 81, recalled Tuesday. "I was riding with senior jockeys and they scared me more than the race did. I didn't do any good. I think we finished fourth or fifth, something like that."
Nearly seven decades later, McKenna is a novice again, a first-time owner of a classic racehorse that will be challenging Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming in the 142nd Preakness at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday.
McKenna and his wife, Sandy, who have been married for 36 years and have run Judge Lanier Racing in New Mexico for the past 14, purchased Conquest Mo Money for $8,500 at a dispersal sale last year. Their horse won his first three races and finished second twice, most recently in the Arkansas Derby on April 15.
"It's exciting, obviously, since we've never done this," McKenna said Tuesday before flying to Baltimore. "The Arkansas Derby was a lot of fun, they treated us real well there. The racehorse game is pretty much a racehorse game wherever you go, whether it's a classic or whatever it is.
"Of course, we never dreamed we'd be where we are today. This was God's gift to us, Conquest Mo Money. He brought us here. We're going to see what he can do. I think he'll present himself very well at Pimlico."
Said Sandy McKenna, "A lot of this has happened a lot faster than we thought it would and we've been on a real serious learning curve, but we think we've got that part tackled now."
After spending most of his adult life ranching and farming in Colorado and New Mexico, Tom McKenna said he and his wife were "looking for a new adventure" and decided to try to breed a few thoroughbreds. It proved to be a tough go.
"We come to find out we couldn't make a nickel at it," McKenna said. "In our part of the world, yearlings don't bring anything near what they do on the East Coast or West Coast. I figured I was going to abandon this thing pretty quick. I had a bunch of horses, and the next best thing to do was go to the track, which I did."
McKenna's stable of horses out of Judge Lanier Racing — named for his grandfather, who raised him — had its share of stakes winners, but nothing close to Conquest Mo Money. The McKennas are the horse's third owners.
Bred in upstate New York, the then-unnamed yearling was originally sold to Conquest Stables for $180,000 because its sire was Eclipse Award winner Uncle Mo. The price was more than double what Twin Creeks Racing had paid for his mother.
When Conquest Stables sold off more than 100 horses at Keeneland in November, the McKennas were there.
"Obviously there were going to be some opportunities there, that's why I was there," McKenna said. "Nonetheless, the funny thing is, everyone asks me, 'How did you get the horse for $8,500?' I turn right around and say, 'Why don't you ask all the agents and the other buyers how I got that horse? They had as good an opportunity as I did.' I don't have the deep pockets that some of these boys do. I've got to find the horses that fall through the cracks."
Initially, Conquest Mo Money was not on their list of horses to buy.
"I had no idea how I could buy an Uncle Mo [offspring]," McKenna said. "I did look at him and I liked him, but I figured they'd be way out of my price range."
Sandy McKenna said when Conquest Mo Money was put in the ring in front of the prospective buyers, "there just didn't seem to be much activity on him. We were just blessed to get him."
The McKennas wound up buying six horses that day for around $170,000, with Conquest Mo Money being the cheapest. Since the horse's impressive run this year, the McKennas say they have been offered in the "seven figures" range to sell it, including from Mark Casse, the trainer of Classic Empire, who went into the Kentucky Derby as the 4-1 favorite before finishing fourth at Churchill Downs.
"He a beautiful horse and they've done a great job with him," Casse said Tuesday.
Casse knows firsthand what kind of horse the McKennas have, training Classic Mo Money for a while when he was owned by Conquest Stables. Because of a string of injuries, Classic Mo Money never raced for Casse.
"When we had him, he had a lot of what we call 'baby' issues," Casse said. "Nothing of any great significance. We started and stopped him three times — for [injured] shins, ankles. We breezed him a few times. Did he ever show he was a superstar? No. But we were never able to get him to a point where we could get him in any type of pattern to get a true read on him."
Casse said that Sunland Park was the perfect setting for Conquest Mo Money to grow as a competitor.
"I was just thinking about him a little bit today," Casse said. "I'm a big believer in horses getting confidence. Maybe the best thing that happened to him was that he started at a smaller racetrack. If you look at his early races, they were good but they were against a much lesser quality of horse. As he keeps winning, he keeps getting better and better."
Said Tom McKenna, "The horse has a better mind than any horse I've ever had. You'd think he's 8 years old. Nothing excites him, nothing upsets him. He's quite a horse, easy to work with."
The inquiry from Casse, who has Classic Empire running in the Preakness, was one of many the McKennas said they have received.
"Believe me, I've got a whole page full of people who tried to buy that horse," McKenna said. "If I had been 20 years younger, I would never have looked back. I would have sold him without a doubt for some ridiculous amount of money I was offered. At my particular stage of the game, we love the sport, we like to race. That's what we do, so we're not in any hurry to get to the breeding barn."
Sandy McKenna said her husband might have been initially tempted, but she and trainer Miguel Hernandez would quickly quash any thoughts of cashing in.
"Finally, I said to Tom, 'What do you think you have, mo' time or Mo Money?'" she said. "It's kind of been a standard joke."
Sandy McKenna said that she and her husband have used the experience of another of their horses — a now-8-year-old filly named African Rose, who they bought as a 2-year-old and later won a number of stakes races — in the training of Conquest Mo Money.
"We feel like she had a lot more potential than we pushed her to. We feel like we did not manage her properly; I think that's the best way to say that," she said. "I think we used her as a lesson and realized that we are now blessed with this wonderful racehorse. It's in his best interest for sure to make sure he is properly managed and allowed to show his talent."
Sandy McKenna, who grew up in Dallas and never set foot in a racetrack before marrying her husband, has become well-versed in the business of thoroughbreds.
"We complement each other very nicely, I think," she said. "I'm more of the detail person and he's the genius. We spend all of our time together. We're not like most couples. We enjoy each other's company and the racing, and so we're kind of different in that. It's a nice way to live."
Whether or not this is the ultimate example of racing luck, Tom McKenna is appreciative of what's in store come Saturday.
"We've paid our dues, if that's what you're asking," he said with a laugh. "At my age, I find every day amazing. Life's an adventure. If you run out of adventure, you run out of life."