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Column: Run of Kentucky Derby owner Bill Strauss of Del Mar ‘gravy on a great life’

Kentucky Derby contender Hot Rod Charlie, owned by Del Mar's Bill Strauss entered the weekend as the fourth favorite.
Del Mar’s Bill Strauss, co-owner of Hot Rod Charlie, is shown with the horse shortly after winning the Louisiana Derby on March 20.
(Courtesy photo)

Co-founder of ProFlowers riding exhilarating wave with Hot Rod Charlie

Bill Strauss helped co-found the multimillion-dollar company ProFlowers … with the current governor of Colorado. He owned two-time Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Mizdirection … with national sports radio voice Jim Rome. He partnered on horses … with NHL player Erik Johnson.

The Del Mar resident calls Hall of Fame-bound NFL quarterback Drew Brees a friend. He’s spent time in a dressing room with Bruce Springsteen. He’s stood near as Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger ate at Pamplemousse Grille, the Solana Beach restaurant he co-owns with his brother and chef, Jeff.

So why, walking around Barn 41 on Thursday at venerable Churchill Downs, did the 62-year-old in an untucked shirt, hiking shoes and water-wicking pants seem more like a guy buying potting soil at Home Depot?

“You would never know his wealth or what his accomplishments are,” said Gary Applebaum, Strauss’ former roommate at Syracuse University. “You go into a restaurant, the bus boy, the waiter, he treats everybody the same. I know people who have money and look down on people. Not Bill.

“I’ve known him 45 years and he’s been the same way the whole time. He always has time for people. He’s a much better person than a businessman, I’ll tell you that much.”

Strauss owns the single biggest individual share of Hot Rot Charlie, one of the favorites in Saturday’s 147th Kentucky Derby.

The universe around Strauss staggers. The person navigating it injects the normalcy. He could boast. His nose could point skyward. He could wall himself off from the world.

Instead, he brokers in smiles and handshakes that melt the pretense.

“You wouldn’t know if Bill was a plumber or owned the whole plumbing business,” Doug O’Neill, Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer, said. “He’s very down to earth and businesslike. There’s nothing gaudy about him. If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t have a clue about the amazing life he’s had.”

The power of flowers

Strauss displayed a knack for making money early on, starting with the kitchen of his fraternity at Syracuse.

As sophomores, Applebaum and Strauss split the annual role of maintaining the space, ensuring groceries were handled and whatever else required the unsteady hands of 19- or 20-year-olds. The pair asked if they could have the $700-or-so stipend that came with the gig in advance.

Then they bet every nickel of it on 1979 Derby winner Spectacular Bid.

“We doubled the money,” Applebaum said.

As a successful businessman, Strauss was told by a mutual friend about a young Princeton graduate with an idea to powerfully reshape global flower distribution via the internet. An introduction was brokered for Strauss to meet Jared Polis.

The more Strauss heard, the more he liked.

“At the time, the U.S. was like 15th or 16th in the world in per-capita consumption of flowers,” Strauss said. “I’m thinking, why is the wealthiest country in the world so bad at flowers? The reason was the supply chain. It was the root cause of the prices being too high.

“Jared used the internet to cut out all the middlemen. Before, flowers would go from a grower in South America to an importer in Miami to a wholesaler where you live, then to a local florist. By the time you get those flowers, they’ve been marked up every step of the way and they’ve aged every step of the way.”

Polis leveraged the reach of the web to go directly to growers and pay more, ensuring the fragile product could be shipped directly in bulk. Buying in volume came with an critical caveat: Growers would cater to the new company, offering the best quality and priority access.

The business mushroomed from two or three employees to 250.

“This way, the flowers are three to four days old by the time they get to the consumer, instead of 12 to 15 days old,” Strauss said. “So it’s a fresher product by 10 days, plus all that markup is gone. That was a better mousetrap.”

The company eventually sold as part of a $477 million deal.

Now, Polis serves as the governor of Colorado.

“(Strauss) impressed me right from the start, just his strategic sense,” Polis, a La Jolla Country Day alumnus, recently told the Union-Tribune. “His operational ability to grow and scale a company was exactly what we needed.”

More than two decades later, Hot Rod Charlie gained a new, well-connected fan.

“I don’t usually follow the Kentucky Derby, but I’ll absolutely be looking for the results,” said Polis, punctuating his next thought with a chuckle. “I’ll be watching for where Hot Rod Charlie is in the Kentucky Derby with more anticipation than I’ve ever had for the Kentucky Derby in my entire life.”

Attention to those types of details drove Strauss’ business success.

“Growing up, if my parents bought us the exact same model airplane, I would take the glue out, glue the biggest pieces together and in a matter of 10 minutes, I’d have an airplane flying in front of him in my hand,” Jeff Strauss said.

“My brother would be reading the instructions. An hour or two later, his plane had parts that moved. His plane lit up. I had a piece of junk in my hand.”

An uncommon mix of ability and humility draws others to the horse owner’s remarkable life.

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, a friend for about 25 years, served as the uniquely qualified tour guide this week as the group toured renowned farms like Coolmore to catch a glimpse of the most recent Triple Crown winners, Justify and American Pharoah.

“He’s accomplished a lot in life, that’s for sure,” McCarron said. “But he’s really down to earth, a really nice guy and a class act. I’m thrilled to death that they have a really big (Derby) chance.”

Del Mar President and COO Josh Rubinstein said racing jolts Strauss’ dynamic mind.

“How do I explain Bill?” Rubinstein parroted. “Bill is an extremely savvy guy. I chat with Bill a lot and bounce a lot of things off him. He’s a data-driven guy. Most owners, their involvement is pretty passive. They talk to the trainer, ‘Maybe I’ll come out for a workout.’

“Bill takes a CEO approach. He talks to his trainer every day. He talks to the assistant trainer, the grooms. He’s very hands on. To him, the more information the better.”

That hyper-engaged approach blossoms around the barns.

“My brother can make an investment and make $2 million or $10 million and he won’t celebrate and you’ll never hear about it,” Jeff Strauss said. “He doesn’t talk about how his company is doing, how his stocks and investments are doing. He doesn’t care about fame, at all.

“When it comes to horses, you’ll see his passion.”

There’s a TVG interview after winning the Derby-ticket-punching Louisiana Derby to prove it.

“I’m like, ‘I’m going to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby,’ ” Bill Strauss said of the joyful, breathless on-camera moment. “That’s an amazing feeling. Whether you put $5,000 or $5 million into this sport, everybody wants to have a Derby horse.

“I still can’t believe it.”

His brother defined the big picture.

“This is gravy on a great life,” Jeff said.

Confidence in colt builds

Another reason for Strauss to shake his head about the euphoric moment: Hot Rod Charlie was purchased for the racing-modest price of $110,000. Another reason: It took Charlie four races to cross the finish line first.

Then came the absolutely-everything-changed day of Nov. 6, when the horse ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. Strauss said the group ponied up a $60,000 roll of the very big dice to place Charlie in the starting gate.

The odds swelled to 94-1. It felt like an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament woke up in a Dayton hotel for the play-in game.

“I was more confident than the odds, until I saw the odds,” Strauss quipped. “It was like, what do I not know?”

Charlie roared to the lead and nearly won, until a late pass allowed Derby favorite Essential Quality to edge the massive underdog by a mere three-quarters of a length.

At the Louisiana Derby, Charlie toppled three others sharing the starting gate Saturday: Midnight Bourbon, O Besos and Mandaloun.

Signs the horse was maturing rapidly began to sharpen the edges of Charlie’s story. He’s the son of Oxbow, the 2013 Preakness Stakes winner at the same distance — a mile and three-sixteenths — as the Louisiana Derby. He ran second in the 2013 Belmont at a rugged mile and half, a quarter-mile longer than the Derby, to ease concerns about race length.

Meanwhile, shipping east not once but twice (Breeders’ Cup, Louisiana Derby), delivered none of the ill effects that can shatter daily rhythms and erode performance.

At lightning speed, Derby prospects brightened.

“At that age, they change so much from week to week,” Strauss said. “They’re like young teenagers.”

Confidence already began to spike in Strauss after the Breeders’ Cup. In December, he snapped up a $750 win ticket on the Derby at 40-1 odds.

“It’s been crazy,” he said.

In his world, that’s saying something.

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The ‘other’ finish line

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At the Kentucky Derby, there’s the competitive finish line on the track and the business finish line involving lawyers, contracts and plenty of zeroes.

For the best of the best, reaching the starting gate on the first Saturday of May means they’ve likely won a headline-grabbing prep race like the Santa Anita, Florida or Louisiana derbies. That’s the case with both horses sporting San Diego-area connections.

Rock Your World (Santa Anita) is co-owned by Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board member Kosta Hronis. Hot Rod Charlie (Louisiana) is co-owned by Del Mar’s Bill Strauss.

Each, it appears, has landed lucrative breeding rights deals capable of generating millions upon millions for a decade or more.

Spendthrift Farm has finalized a deal with the Hronis family and other owners for Rock Your World. Strauss confirmed Gainesway Farm had bought into Hot Rod Charlie this week, but declined additional comment. Clearly, however, that translates to the first step in a breeding contract.

When owner and trainer Mick Ruis came to the Derby with Bolt d’Oro in 2018, the man who built a scaffolding empire in San Diego acknowledged he offered jockey Javier Castellano a smaller portion of breeding profits in hopes of stymying a jockey change.

The value of the offer at the time was estimated to be at least $3 million.

Stephanie Hronis, an owner of Hronis Racing and Kosta’s wife, said the post-Santa Anita sprint did not solely involve the horse.

“This is new territory for us,” she said.

Co-owner Mike Talla outlined the immediate interest.

“It all started the week after the Santa Anita Derby, the conversations, the offers started coming in,” he said. “I would say probably four or five showed interest.”

— Bryce Miller

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Late, grape Derby arrival

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rock Your World co-owner and Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board member Kosta Hronis has perhaps the most unique excuse for showing up the afternoon before his horse runs in the Kentucky Derby.

Bloom season.

Hronis Inc. is a table grape and citrus-growing company north of Bakersfield.

“With our grape farming in particular, it’s the worst time because it’s what is called ‘bloom season,’ ” said Stephanie Hronis, Kosta’s wife. “The little blooms are showing up, so the next two weeks are make-or-break for our harvest.”

Instead of soaking up a week’s worth of Kentucky Derby buildup, Hronis is minding other matters.

“It was same sort of thing when we had Stellar Wind in the (2015 Kentucky) Oaks,” Stephanie said. “You’re wishing you could be in two places at once.”

— Bryce Miller

— Bryce Miller is a sports columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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