By all accounts, it has been 124 years since Montana has been represented in the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby.
Billings oilmen Carter Stewart and Ken Schlenker are hoping to change that on Saturday afternoon with Frac Daddy, their gray Kentucky-bred colt.
“It’s time for Montana to get in the limelight again in the Kentucky Derby,” said Stewart, a petroleum geologist. "We're due."
Frac Daddy, a big, powerful 3-year-old, will be racing against 19 other thoroughbreds around the 1¼-mile track in the 139th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
The last time the race’s champion had a Montana connection was in 1889 when Montana-bred Spokane won it all for owner Noah Armstrong of Virginia City.
Frac Daddy, who will be making his seventh career start (with one win and three seconds), will begin from the outside No. 18 post position. This will be the strongest, fastest field he has ever faced.
He is one of the longest of long shots at 50-1 odds, but good luck telling Stewart and Schlenker, an independent petroleum land man, that their horse doesn’t have a chance to win.
Schlenker said the plan has always been to run Frac Daddy "a little bit wide" early so he doesn't have to contend with a lot of dirt in his face.
His draw certainly fits into their race strategy, which also is counting on a dramatic sprint at the finish.
“I think if he stays on pace — not too far back — then he’s going to have a chance to strike,” Stewart said. “With that extra 1/8th of a mile and that big, long homestretch run at Churchill Downs, it’s going to give him an advantage. I think he’s going to have a shot at it.
“Just like (trainer) Kenny McPeek said in his interviews, (jockey) Victor (Lebron) just needs to let him do his thing and he’ll give us a good show.”
Post time for the $2.19 million race is approximately 4:24 p.m. Mountain time. A crowd of 160,000 is expected.
The race will also be televised on NBC, and local horse players in Billings will have an opportunity to wager and watch the race at the two Won $800 Casinos, which are part of the Montana Simulcast Racing network.
Frac Daddy, representing the Magic City Thoroughbred Partners’ stable, hasn't been to Montana, but with his local owners he has helped create additional interest in Billings and across the state and looks to become a national star on Derby Day.
"It's a feeling you can't believe. It's like we're in a dream," Stewart said of the buildup for the Derby. “It’s not very often that somebody from Montana -- just regular guys — end up there, but a lot of times, it is people like that that win.
“The horses don’t know that we’re just ordinary schmucks,” he added with a laugh.
Frac Daddy’s unusual name has already gained him some extra attention. Stewart said it's a shout-out to the oil industry and its workers, especially those involved in fracking (a drilling technique) for oil and gas as part of the Bakken boom in the Williston (N.D.) Basin.
“They're some of the hardest-working people on the planet in adverse conditions,” he said.
Stewart's and Schlenker's grassroots campaign has included handing out specially-made Frac Daddy hats and polo shirts for friends and fans to wear on Derby Day.
Senior citizens at Grand Park Assisted Living in Billings have also rallied around Frac Daddy and are throwing a Derby party Saturday, complete with mint juleps.
Uberbrew, a downtown Billings brew pub in which Schlenker is an investor, is planning to serve a Frac Daddy beer.
“Tons of positive support,” said Stewart, a 1976 graduate of Billings West. “I’ve had people that I haven’t heard from for 30 to 40 years get in touch with me and wish us good luck. I’ve had letters from people. The support is overwhelming.”
Stewart and Schlenker, a 1970 Billings Senior grad, had another horse, Golden Ticket, overcome 33-1 odds and finish in a dead heat with favorite Alpha for the win at the $1 million Travers Stakes last August in New York.
"I'll tell you, after we saw what Golden Ticket did last year it just proved that these late bloomers can be in the game," Schlenker said.
While the Travers is the nation’s oldest race at 143 years, the Derby is billed as the “greatest two minutes in sports.”
“The hype leading up to it is a magnitude 100 times greater,” Stewart said. “It’s almost magical.”
Frac Daddy, purchased for $50,000 at the Keeneland, Ky., yearling sale in September 2011, wound up tied for 14th in the Road to the Kentucky Derby points race this season, including a runner-up finish in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 13.
He won a race at Churchill Downs in early November and finished a close second at the track a few weeks later before experiencing a long layoff earlier this year while dealing with a gash on a hoof and throat ulcers.
However, Frac Daddy is coming off a week of impressive pre-race gallops and workouts at Churchill Downs, which has become his favorite track surface.
“I have a friend in Kentucky that went out and watched him work,” Stewart said. “He was very impressed with him. He said he looked great, and was prancing all around just like a champion.
“And Kenny McPeek confirmed all that. He said (Frac Daddy) was peaking right now. He thinks our timing is very good.”
Stewart described Frac Daddy — whose dad, Scat Daddy was 18th in the 2007 Kentucky Derby — as having a “very nice” and “lovable” personality.
“Golden Ticket is a little more finicky, and he tends to bite people,” Stewart said. “He’ll take nips at you, while Frac Daddy will let you go up and pet him. He’s very mild-mannered. We just love him.”
Stewart and Schlenker first got involved with horse racing at MetraPark’s Yellowstone Downs in Billings.
With the Montana Board of Horse Racing experiencing financial challenges, there wasn’t any racing in Billings last summer — and none will be held this summer at Yellowstone Downs.
However, as the MBHR looks to mount a comeback, a percentage of the state’s simulcast handle from Derby Day will eventually go back to the Montana tracks to support purses and other expenses.
Having a connection with the Derby may provide the state with the needed financial boost and help to revitalize live racing here.
"That would be terrific," Stewart said. "If our success could help bring back Montana horse racing, it just adds to the dream."