Steven Brandt's road to owning a Triple Crown racehorse is built on relationships.
It is about his late mother, Shirley Brandt, who told her son shortly before she died that he finally had a horse who would qualify for a classic race.
It is about his business partnership with Linda Rice, the most successful female trainer in the sport's history.
And it is about his personal partnership with Ric Boylan, Brandt's husband and co-owner of Kid Cruz, a 20-1 shot in Saturday's 139th Preakness.
After talking recently with Rice about the possibility of her becoming the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown event, Brandt, a Frederick native and University of Maryland graduate, asked Boylan: "Would we be the first openly gay couple to win a classic race?"
Aware of the attention given to former Missouri football star Michael Sam's announcement that he was gay — as well as the reaction to Sam's kissing his partner after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams last week — Brandt joked with Boylan that "we might have a Michael Sam moment if we win this thing."
Brandt, who took classes at Maryland at night while working as a telephone repairman, eventually made his way into a management role at Verizon before retiring in 2003 to focus on racing full time. He knows that he wouldn't have come this far as a horse owner without Rice's expertise or the love and support he has received from his parents and Boylan.
"She's helped me learn more about the business. I can't name another person who's helped that much," Brandt, 56, said of Rice. "I love partnering with her. ... I think it's important to have a good relationship. You're trusting somebody with a lot of money to take care of a fragile animal. In order to do that, I have to like them. We need to have some sort of relationship. I think it's important."
While Brandt and Rice have been working together for only a few years, he and Boylan have been a couple for more than three decades. They met in the summer of 1982 through mutual friends in Rehoboth Beach shortly after Boylan moved to Washington from Montana to work for the Democratic National Committee.
When they were married three years ago at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in Washington, the tables at the reception were adorned with the names and pictures of the horses Brandt and Boylan owned. Brandt said the horse racing industry generally has been accepting of their relationship, believed to be the first between openly gay owners of a Triple Crown entry.
"It hasn't been a problem," Brandt said. "There's been some times when I've had to tell people to use different terms for things because they were offensive, but not many."
Trainer Tim Keefe, a board member of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association who has worked with Brandt at Laurel Park for a couple years, said Brandt's relationship with Boylan rarely is mentioned in the local racing community.
"I think, in today's world, people in general are more accepting of relationships like Steven and Ric have," Keefe said. "Certainly it's not an issue for me or anybody I really know. Quite frankly, if it is, I'd rather not be associated with people that it's a problem for."
Getting hooked early
Brandt was introduced to horse racing through a neighbor in Frederick who would take the teenager to nearby Charles Town Race Course in West Virginia.
"God knows how many times I was in the security office at Charles Town," said Brandt, who now lives on an island off St. Petersburg, Fla. "My neighbor was 70-something, and he wanted me to run his bets for him because his knees were bad and he couldn't go up and down. They'd haul me into the security thing and he'd have to get me out. My mom would say, 'You're never going again,' and the next Friday, I'd be back there."
Brandt recalled telling Boylan after they met that he wanted to own a racehorse someday. Brandt later was introduced to Fendall Claggett, president of the local chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. Claggett became his mentor.
"I said to him, 'I really want to learn more about horses,' so I asked if I could go work for his trainer," Brandt recalled.
Before going to work climbing telephone poles and, later, in a call center, Brandt would get up early every morning and head to Bowie Race Track, where he would work "mucking stalls, cleaning hooves, rubbing the horses down."
Boylan could tell how passionate Brandt was about horse racing. "I never saw him get out of bed so easy as when he went out to help [trainer] David Sipe," Boylan recalled.
Brandt said he has taken a similar path in horse racing as he did working in the telecommunications industry.
"I knew what I wanted to do, but in order to get there, I had to do a bunch of different jobs until I had a good picture of what they did in a phone company," Brandt said. "Gradually, I got to where I wanted to be. I didn't want to own a horse unless I knew how to pick its foot or know what happens all day long."
Though he grew up on a farm in Montana where his sister had a couple of quarter horses, Boylan had more interest in politics than the ponies. That has changed over the years.
"Steven has supported my passion in politics all this time, and now, if he's not watching horse racing, he's watching MSNBC," said Boylan, 57. "I started off being supportive seeing how much he loved [horse racing], and now I'm wrapped up in it."
Said Brandt: "As I'll watch the breeze videos [workouts of horses] for the sale, we sit down and watch them together and he'll say, 'I don't like that horse's gait.' I'm like, 'Seriously?' I'll go back and look at it and think: 'How did I miss that?' "
Keefe said Brandt continues to grow as an owner.
"He does his homework. He likes to learn as much as he can. ... He's got certain specifics, as a lot of people do when they're buying a horse on pedigree," Keefe said. "Steven has his own preferences. He likes to go look at them physically with Linda or with me. He comes up with what he sees and then he questions me and tries to understand it a little better."
Memories of Shirley
Despite her early protestations about her teenage son's betting on races, Shirley Brandt was supportive of his becoming a full-time horse owner nearly a decade ago, as well as his relationship with Boylan.
Even as her health began to fail, Brandt's mother was his biggest fan.
"I was visiting up there, and Linda called me and said she was thinking of nominating this horse [Kid Cruz] to the Triple Crown series," Brandt recalled. "I had not even told [my mother] about the horse because she wasn't totally lucid. I told her that we bought a horse back in November and we were nominating it for the Triple Crown, and that's when she perked up and said: 'You're going to win one.'"
Shirley Brandt died Jan. 30 from pulmonary fibrosis. She was 77.
"She would go to the race track when she was younger, before she got sick," Brandt said. "Even the August before she died, we had a horse run at Charles Town and he won, and she was there in her wheelchair. We told the jockey, if he won, to stall, because it was going to take a while for my mom to get out there."
Trainer Steve Spears had the winners'-circle picture blown up. It now hangs in the living room of Brandt's family home in Frederick, to go along with smaller photos from other winners' circles involving horses owned by Brandt and Boylan.
Not that Shirley Brandt understood the magnitude of some of her son's victories.
"If she ever knew how much it cost to do this, she would probably roll over," Brandt said. "I would have liked her to experience this."
Brandt's father, Robert, a retired Safeway meat cutter who now volunteers at Frederick Memorial Hospital, will be holding his first-ever Preakness party Saturday at the family's home in Frederick. The only one missing will be his late wife.
"This race is for her," Robert Brandt said.
For Steven Brandt, this week's buildup has been a bit surreal. He attended his first Preakness in the early 1980s, then took Boylan with him to a couple more. They started in the infield, then gradually made it up to a box as they got more involved in the business.
"I said to Ric, 'I wonder when I'm going to wake up,' " Brandt said. "I can't believe this is happening."