Since she was 5, when Carolyn Karlson first went to Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York with her father, she longed to become involved in horse racing.
Now 52, Karlson is fulfilling that dream — and approaching one of the sport's biggest stages.
The Homeland resident is one of 30 partners of Bourbon Lane Stable in Versailles, Ky., through which she owns 12 racehorses. One of those horses, Bourbon Courage, will be racing in the $1.5 million Xpressbet Sprint at the Breeders' Cup on Saturday at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
"Some partners are very active, and some are more passive," she said. "I am personally a very active member. I get on a plane and go to the races. When [Bourbon Lane Stable] buys the horses, I go to the sale. I love it, and I love Bourbon Courage."
Karlson recently retired from her 25-year career as a professor and university administrator, having spent the past four years as the director of the Hillman Entrepreneurs Program at the University of Maryland. She holds a Ph.D. from Michigan State and lives in the northern Baltimore City neighborhood with her husband, Bill; son, Adam; and two dogs.
In 2007, Karlson purchased her first horse, Ave Ravina. After the horse was no longer physically able to race, Karlson looked into buying other horses. She met Michael McMahon, who once worked for the best friend of Karlson's father in New York. McMahon was in the process of putting together the Bourbon Lane partnership, and after meeting with McMahon, Karlson became one of the stable's first partners.
Bourbon Courage was purchased in the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July sale of selected yearlings for $15,000 by McMahon and Jamie Hill, fellow managing member of Bourbon Lane Stable. According to Karlson, Bourbon Courage is the least expensive horse the stable has ever purchased. He also has made the most money, winning $975,877.
Now 5 years old, Bourbon Courage has endured ups and downs over his career. After winning the 2012 Louisiana Super Derby, the thoroughbred went into a slump, capped off by a sixth-place finish in the Pimlico Special on May 16.
After being given the summer off, Bourbon Courage returned to the track and won an allowance race Oct. 3 at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
"It was frustrating," Karlson said. "There were months where we were a little worried. When a horse doesn't win for a while, I think they get discouraged and they forget how to win. But when he walked into the winner's circle [at Keeneland], I looked at him, and he looked like the horse I remembered. He knew he had won, and he knew he had won strongly."
It wasn't until after Bourbon Courage's victory at Keeneland and a strong workout last week that Karlson and Kellyn Gorder, the horse's trainer, decided to enter him in the Breeders' Cup. He's a 30-1 long shot to win the Xpressbet Sprint.
Gorder has worked hard with Bourbon Courage to overcome the long odds.
"It's very much like being a coach for an athletic team," he said. "It's about getting [Bourbon Courage] in the right mental and physical condition. Hopefully, we can keep up with the leaders and make a late run."
Bourbon Courage initially was co-entered in the Sprint and the two-turn $1 million Dirt Mile, but the decision was made Oct. 23 to run him in only the Sprint.
Bourbon Courage "has told us that he wants to do one turn," Karlson said. "The Sprint is one turn, so we're going to go with that."
Karlson also serves as a vice president of the Retired Racehorse Project, an organization that aims to find second careers for thoroughbreds who no longer are able to race.
"Horses race when they're 2 through 5 [years old], but they live until they're 25," she said. "So it's important to me as the owner of a racehorse that we do something to make sure they have a great next chapter of life."
History suggests that the 5-year-old Bourbon Courage might be nearing the end of his racing career, but Karlson is thrilled to see him give it a go this weekend.
"Bourbon Courage just keeps going strong," she said. "For us to be able to run in the Breeders' Cup Sprint is a dream come true."