HOUSTON – The Kentucky Derby is providing the perfect getaway for Bob McNair.
The Houston Texans owner has taken plenty of flak from fans and media since the team used the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to take defensive end Mario Williams instead of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.
McNair couldn't wait to retreat this week to Kentucky where his horse, Bob and John, will run in the 132nd Kentucky Derby on Saturday. He flew to Louisville on Wednesday and has spent most of the week at his 1,500-acre farm in Bourbon County, where Bob and John was born and raised.
"It's a very tranquil and pastoral-type scene and very relaxing," McNair said. "It's been hectic, not just last week but for the last several months. It's nice to get a little break and let things slow down a little bit."
But just like football, as the big game approaches, the tension builds.
"For the people on your farm that work with these horses every day, this is what they work for," McNair said. "This is their Super Bowl. It means everything to them, so you have that excitement."
A self-made billionaire, McNair plunged into the horse business in 1994, five years before he bought the Texans. It started as a whim, something to do with wife, Janice, who had a pony as a young girl and rode horses competitively as a teenager.
In his first meeting with farm manager John Adger — the "John" in his Derby horse's name — Bob McNair had no grandiose dreams in mind.
"I told him, 'John, I want you to understand something. I don't want you to get too ambitious about this thing,"' McNair said. "If I hire you as our racing manager and our bloodstock agent, No. 1, I'm never going to own more than 10 horses. No. 2, I'm never going to buy a farm."'
But the McNairs struck gold immediately. One of the stable's first purchases, Southern Truce, won a graded stakes in her first start after the McNairs bought her. A few weeks later, the McNairs entered into a partnership on Strodes Creek, and the colt finished second in the Derby and third in the Belmont Stakes.
In 2000, Stonerside-bred Fusaichi Pegasus won the Derby, but McNair wasn't the owner. McNair came close the following year, when homebred Congaree finished third.
Congaree's trainer, Bob Baffert, also trains Bob and John.
McNair is lucky to even have his Derby horse after twice trying to sell him in 2004.
Then a yearling, Bob and John was part of a package McNair was ready to sell in the spring, but the horse chipped a bone in his hoof and was yanked from the group. Bob and John was on the block again at the September yearling sale at Keeneland, but the top bid was only $325,000, short of the $500,000 reserve McNair had set.
"Sometimes the best deal you make is the deal you don't make," McNair said.
A victory by Bob and John would cap a remarkable run for the McNairs and Stonerside, which now owns more than 250 thoroughbreds. The stable has won more than 100 stakes races and earned more than $22 million.
McNair said he has a similar plan for turning the Texans into a winner. He likens draft picks like Williams to the wobbly legged yearlings on the farm.
"We all get excited about the draft, but we don't know how good our decisions were in this draft," he said. "It's only going to be after they go on the field for several years that we'll find out."
But different from his players, McNair feels a more personal connection to the horses born and raised on the farm.
"It makes a big difference for me whether you have a horse that you've bred and raised, and you've seen him race and sort of seen him mature as an athlete as opposed to going out and buying a horse," McNair said. "To me, there's that direct connection, because you can go out to the barn, watch him work, watch him grow."
But in racing, unlike football, there's only so much McNair can control. McNair, new Texans coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Charley Casserly pored over the draft pick for months before choosing Williams.
McNair knows that once the gate opens on Saturday, he'll be helpless to influence the outcome.
"We think we're in a good, competitive position and have a good chance to win," he said. "But a lot of it is going to depend on racing luck, and our horse and jockey are going to have to go out there and make it happen."