Trenton, NJ — When Sam Bowie was a high-profile, 18-year-old freshman basketball player at the University of Kentucky, he was cruising around Lexington getting the lay of the land and decided to pull into the Red Mile. Long story short, the kid who knew nothing about horses was coerced to jog one and, 42 years later, is a popular owner in the harness racing business.
But what if he had gone to the University of Louisville instead, and his tour around that town led him to Churchill Downs? Would the Thoroughbreds have nabbed him?
“Well,” he said, “if I’d have been a Cardinal instead of a Wildcat, I wouldn’t have Hot Mess Express in 2021.”
And that would be a bummer for Bowie.
But he does, indeed, own Hot Mess Express and is excited about her chances in Saturday’s (July 17) $174,400 Mistletoe Shalee Stakes for 3-year-old female pacers at The Meadowlands. The filly will start from post five with Andy McCarthy driving for trainer Tony Alagna.
It will be Hot Mess Express’ second straight Grand Circuit event. She won her first-ever Grand Circuit start on July 4 in the Nadia Lobell Stakes at Harrah’s Hoosier Park. She is unbeaten in five starts this year, good for $183,750 in earnings.
She has won nine of 14 career starts to go along with three second-place finishes and $318,815 in purse money.
“I love the name,” Bowie said with a laugh, “but she’s anything but a mess.”
The 10-year NBA veteran has been an owner since age 23 and has become increasingly astute with age. Now 60, he was impressed after watching Hot Mess Express win in 1:54.2 in her debut at Hawthorne last year.
Bowie quickly contacted trainer/co-owner Jamaica Patton and was informed that the owner/trainer would sell her for $150,000. Sam countered by saying he would wire Patton $125,000 within 15 minutes and forego any pre-purchase exam and vet inspection. The deal was made on July 22.
“It was very risky,” Bowie said. “I just had a gut feeling.”
Even his gut couldn’t have anticipated 13 checks in 13 starts since obtaining her. Hot Mess Express’ first race for Bowie produced a victory in the first leg of the Indiana Sire Stakes. The 2-year-old went on to win the third leg and was second in the second and fourth legs in addition to the final.
This year has been nothing but perfection.
“Obviously when I bought her — her first start (at Hawthorne) she got home in :25.2 — I knew she had a lot of ability,” Bowie said. “Whenever you buy one, you start dreaming and imagining. To say that she’s surpassed my expectations would be an understatement.
“It’s been a beautiful ride and she’s very deserving of it. She’s a great looking individual conformation-wise. Before I bought her, I did a little homework on her and everyone I talked to, used the word ‘professional.’ She’s just a pro at everything she does.”
Hot Mess Express is a driver’s dream, possessing the ability to race any way necessary.
“You can put her on the point and ask her to go wire-to-wire, or you can sit her in a hole,” Bowie said. “Everyone who’s driven her said she’s two fingers, or you can come off the pace and if the fractions are hot, she’ll sit third, fourth over and throw :26-second quarters at you from the tail end of it.
“She’s just a dream filly to have. Obviously, you want to draw good post positions when you’re racing for the Grand Circuit type of money. But it’s really comfortable knowing if you’re unfortunate to draw outside she can help the situation out with her gate speed.”
A daughter of Panther Hanover out of My Heart Was True, Hot Mess Express could be the best horse Bowie has ever owned. She has the potential to surpass the $676,679 in earnings that Before He Cheats won from 2007-11. The male trotter was a world record-holder who won 31 of 67 races and was Illinois Horse of the Year at age 3.
“What a ride it was with him, and he was an off-breed as well,” Bowie said. “With her being a Panther Hanover, I’ve always been the underdog type of guy, as far as not having to go with the mainstream, if you will. A lot of people were kind of surprised I would purchase her for those type of dollars. I even had people joking with me saying ‘You could have bought the stud for that much.’
“But I’m a proud owner to say the least. I had the least amount to do with her. The people that I’ve hired to do the job, Tony Alagna and his personnel, have been amazing with what they’ve been able to do with her this year. I’ve thanked each and every one of them. But it all began with Jamaica Patton, who broke and trained her. I can’t speak about her without giving the ones before me their due.”
Another key to success has been driver McCarthy, who has driven Hot Mess Express to two victories this year (John DeLong has the other three). McCarthy is in the sulky Saturday, a week after guiding 81-1 longshot Hellabalou to victory in an elimination for the Meadowlands Pace.
“I was talking to him about that,” Bowie said. “I’m hoping some of that rubs off on me this week.”
Bowie has Hot Mess Express staked to numerous Grand Circuit races this year.
“I’m very optimistic,” Bowie said. “I’m elated to say that I own her and we’re looking forward to Saturday’s race. When you get to race on that level against the best of the best and to think you have a legitimate shot, it’s a beautiful feeling.”
Bowie and his wife will come up for the race from West Palm Beach, Fla., where he has established permanent residence after splitting time between Florida and Lexington. He is returning to one of his NBA haunts, having played for the New Jersey Nets from 1989-93.
Even back then, harness racing ran through his blood.
“We played a game against the Boston Celtics one night,” Bowie recalled. “After the game I’d run over to the Meadowlands and catch the last three or four races. When I came home my wife asked me how we did and I said, ‘I got beat right at the wire for the trifecta.’ She said, ‘No, against the Celtics!’ That’s a true story.”
It’s easy to believe when listening to the affable Bowie talk about his passion for the sport. He fell in love with it that first visit to the Red Mile. Coming from Lebanon, Pa., Bowie saw the Amish driving horse drawn buggies, and suddenly he was doing something similar.
“I knew about Thoroughbreds but never Standardbreds,” he said. “But this fellow stopped along the rail and said, ‘Aren’t you Sam Bowie the UK recruit?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘Would you like to jog this guy?’ and I said, ‘Sir I don’t know anything about animals.’ He just said, ‘Listen, this horse is 12 years old, he knows his way around this track.’ So he gave me the lines to the jog cart.
“I jogged him two miles and the stirrups weren’t nearly out as far as I needed them but what a joy and a pleasure to feel an 1,100-pound animal at 18 years old. I’m 60 today but I still remember the power that you feel in the lines. I handed the lines back to him and said, ‘If I’m ever blessed and fortunate enough to get an extra dollar, I’m gonna buy me a horse or two.’ So here we are, 40 years later.”
Bowie realizes that at 7-feet, 300 pounds he’s not cut out to be a driver. But he loved piling his kids in a jog cart and taking them around the Red Mile.
“It’s a beautiful thing that I can actually participate,” he said.
Bowie’s NBA participation these days is as a fan, and he’s keeping close watch on the league finals. Phoenix leads Milwaukee 2-1 after the Bucks won on Sunday.
“I’m not a Monday morning quarterback,” he said. “I’m real close to (Suns’ player) Devin Booker. I’m still a big UK guy and the year he went to Kentucky I got close to him and his father. But when Milwaukee was down two games to none, I still felt this was going to be a seven-game series. Both teams will protect their homecourt and it’s going to go the distance.”
Just as he’s hoping Hot Mess Express goes the distance in a winning time on Saturday at The Meadowlands.
And this time, he won’t have the Celtics getting in the way beforehand.
Post time on Meadowlands Pace Night will be earlier than usual as the first race will get underway at 6 p.m. (EDT). The Meadowlands Pace and several other stakes will be part of a live two-hour telecast on Fox Sports 2 beginning at 8 p.m. For entries to the card, click here.