LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Terry and Debbie Finley, classmates at Truman High in Levittown, often went on dates to Garden State Park, Philadelphia Park and Liberty Bell. Terry went off to West Point, where he graduated in 1986. Eventually, he and his by-now wife got back to the horses.
They owned a cheap claimer, but they always had bigger dreams. They started West Point Thoroughbreds, creating partnerships in horses that made ownership accessible for lesser investments, spreading the risk among multiple owners in the same horse.
Horse by horse, owner by owner, they built up the business. Since 2007, horses running in the black and gold of West Point have won nearly $19 million and several major Grade I stakes. Horses such as Awesome Gem, Dream Rush, Flashy Bull and Macho Again have won major races from coast to coast.
Until last Sunday, it looked like there was a good chance West Point was going to have 10 percent of the Kentucky Derby field, with Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend and Commanding Curve, third in the Louisiana Derby.
Ring Weekend was firmly in the field, but Commanding Curve was 21st on the points list with the top 20 getting to run. Still, there was time for something to happen, a horse to have an issue, an owner to change his mind, a spot to open. Well, a spot did open for Commanding Curve, only it was not exactly the imagined script.
The day after his final Derby workout last Saturday, Ring Weekend developed a fever. Trainer Graham Motion broke the bad news to Finley. Ring Weekend could not make the Derby, which opened a spot for Commanding Curve.
"That's horse racing," Finley said while standing outside Barn 48 at Churchill Downs, where Commanding Curve is stabled with trainer Dallas Stewart.
One horse or two, it is a long way from Truman High and Liberty Bell.
"It's really cool," Finley said of the whole Derby experience for his operation and the owners. "It really hit me to be in the position I'm in to have played a part in getting them there. Is it life-altering? No. But if we win, it will be life-altering."
West Point was based for years in Mount Laurel, N.J. The entire operation is now in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where the Finleys have their permanent residence. But they still have family and friends all over the Delaware Valley.
"The owners are all successful to a certain extent," Finley said. "They're all just like little kids. That, to me, is very gratifying . . . People are bringing all their family and friends to the Derby. It really helps the business exponentially over a single owner when you have a bunch of people out there beating that drum that they are going for the Kentucky Derby. It's a big deal, and anybody who tells you that it isn't is not telling you the truth."
Commanding Curve has 15 partners. They were going to be joined by the Ring Weekend group, which has nine owners, including one partner, Vincent Viola, who owns 50 percent. Viola, a 1977 West Point graduate, was involved in some West Point partnerships a decade ago when the business was just getting started.
Viola, who runs Virtu Financial on Wall Street, also owned a piece of the New Jersey Nets before the team was sold to Mikhail Prokhorov and eventually moved to Brooklyn. He recently bought the NHL's Florida Panthers and can afford any kind of horse.
His home at 12 E. 69th St., a block from Central Park, was described as "mini-Versailles" in the New York Daily News." It came on the market a few months ago for a cool $114 million.
Viola got out of the horse business for a while but jumped all the way back in two summers ago.
"He probably likes the breeding side more and his wife [Theresa] loves the racing side," Finley said.
Even though their horse is not running, Finley said some of the Ring Weekend partnership will be in town. And he hopes they will get to see their horse run in the May 17 Preakness in Baltimore.
In 2006, West Point's Flashy Bull was the last horse to make the Derby field. He finished 14th, 25 lengths behind Barbaro. This year, Commanding Curve was the last horse in the field. If the pace is too hot, the horse has the right kind of closing style to have a chance.
After a terrible start, nothing much went right for Commanding Curve in the Louisiana Derby. Still, the horse was able to weave through traffic and close for third.
"The horse that was on his outside just came over on him, and [jockey] Robby [Albarado] had to take him up, couldn't do anything, had to just get himself back together," Stewart said. "And then as he went around the turn and down the backside, he kind of geared him up. Geared him up on the turn and dropped him on the rail, then came back outside and the horse handled it great."
In the days leading up to the race, West Point has all these owners, their friends and families to entertain - hotel rooms, tickets, cars, parties.
"We've had a lot of practice at it, with the Breeders' Cup and other big races," Finley said. "We've built our institutional knowledge up. You under-promise and over-deliver. They all know we're trying hard to make sure their experience is great."
West Point has a staff of nine, including Debbie and the Finleys' daughter, Erin, a University of Kentucky graduate. Son Ryan, a Notre Dame graduate, has played for the Columbus Crew in the MLS and is presently on its minor league team in Dayton, Ohio.
It varies from time to time, but at the moment West Point has 71 horses and 475 partners. Nearly getting 25 of those partners with two of the 25,500 foals born in 2011 to the Derby is a feat.
Commanding Curve will be a significant longshot. Ring Weekend would have also gone off at long odds. But you can't win it if you are not in it. And West Point's partners are definitely in it.
This week, they get to dream the Derby dream, enjoy the scene, imagine what the walkover before the race might be like and maybe even consider the possibility that track announcer Larry Collmus could be calling their horse's name in front just before the wire.
And, if they don't get that, they will always get to say they had a horse in the Kentucky Derby.