As he watched Tapwrit catch and pass Irish War Cry in the stretch to capture the Belmont Stakes on June 10, Brian Spearman found himself in one of those rare can-you-believe-this moments in life. The mix of emotions he felt as a member of the winning team -
a year after losing the Belmont Stakes by a nose - included liberal doses of happiness and relief.
Spearman, who spent much of his youth in Saratoga Springs, where Thoroughbred racing is part of the culture, quickly discovered that a victory in an American classic, the oldest Triple Crown race, can be an exhilarating and numbing experience.
"When he made the last little surge and it was clear that he was going to win, it was sheer disbelief and unbelievable excitement," he said, his voice rising. "Even now, it's hard to describe."
In the 2016 Belmont Stakes, Spearman was part of the ownership group with Destin, who was edged at the wire by Creator.
Like so many people raised in the region surrounding Saratoga Race Course, Spearman, 55, learned to love the sport at the old track on Union Avenue, where he later had a summer job, working overnight in security. Following a very successful corporate career at PepsiCo, he is a principal in Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, one of the co-owners of Tapwrit. Fully appreciative of the significance of winning the Belmont Stakes, Spearman would love to see Tapwrit become the 30th horse to win the Belmont and Saratoga's signature race, the Travers Stakes.
"Growing up in Saratoga Springs, going to school in New York City and now living in Connecticut, being a New Yorker through and through, winning the Belmont Stakes is a boyhood dream," he says. "Winning the biggest race at Belmont Park and winning the biggest race at Saratoga in my eyes would probably be the two crowning achievements. Although other people may argue that other races are more prestigious, for a guy like me, those two are at the top of the list."
With a hearty devil-may-care laugh, Spearman acknowledged that while Eclipse Thoroughbreds Partners co-owner and President Aron Wellman cautions him not to look too far ahead, the thrill of winning the Travers is something he hopes to experience this summer. Last year, Destin finished ninth, which was far, far, far behind record-setting Arrogate.
"Aron would shudder about it, but as a Saratoga boy, no doubt," he said. "I would be disingenuous if I said to you that it wouldn't be a wonderful thing if the stars lined up, we were in it and God only knows from there."
As a longtime fan of racing and an owner for six years, Spearman knows that it is foolhardy to try to predict whether powerful but fragile Thoroughbreds will be sound and ready for a race two or three months away. Still, why be in the game if no wishing and hoping is permitted? The Travers will be run on Aug. 26 and, as usual, Spearman will be there.
Spearman's family moved upstate to Saratoga Springs in 1970 when he was 7 years old because his father was working on the construction of the new campus at the University at Albany. He attended St. Peter's schools and graduated from Saratoga Central Catholic High School in 1980. One month after earning a degree in economics from Fordham University in 1984, he started what turned into a 32-year career with PepsiCo that took him and his family to assignments around the United States and included international responsibilities. His final role was as a senior vice president of the supply chain.
With his 50th birthday approaching, Spearman decided to become more actively involved in racing. He describes it as a straightforward move: "I said, 'I'm at a point in my life, I'm blessed and maybe I could fulfill part of a childhood dream to own a piece of a racehorse and see what that's all about.'" His research led him to Dogwood Stable, the original partnership company formed nearly 50 years ago by the pioneering Cot Campbell.
"I called Cot and we absolutely hit it off from the beginning," Spearman said. "He was very generous with his time. This was a stage in Cot's career where he didn't need another partner or investor and he easily could have said, 'I'm winding down and you might want to consider over here,' but he didn't."
Through the years, Campbell and his wife, Anne, have become close friends with Spearman and his two children. "He's a very nice man, a very warm, uncomplicated guy with a spectacular business career behind him," Cot Campbell said. "He was very anxious to get into Dogwood partnerships and he bought some shares. He's been a wonderful partner, and he has evolved as I have to the Eclipse team."
Early in his time with Dogwood, Spearman asked Cot Campbell to meet him for breakfast to discuss a very personal request: allow him to purchase all the shares in a Dogwood horse that he would name after his late son Nolan, who had died suddenly at the age of 2½, nearly 20 years earlier, on Christmas morning. Though it completely went against the concept of a partnership, Campbell agreed.
"People have said to me, 'maybe I should buy two shares in this horse, or three shares,'" Campbell said. "I've said, 'you really shouldn't. You should buy one share in this horse and one share in horse B. It makes more sense and spreads your risk.' It's not a thing that has come up ever, but I understood the nature of this."
Spearman had waited until his two children, Laura and Aidan, were teens, old enough to be involved in the tribute to their older brother. They made a visit to Aiken, South Carolina, and picked out a yearling sired by Malibu Moon that Dogwood had purchased. Laura came up with the name: None Like Nolan. On July 31, 2014, in his fifth career start, None Like Nolan, picked up the first of his two career victories by a nose at - where else? - Saratoga Race Course.
"It was a little bit of a fairy tale that he could come to Saratoga and win," Spearman said. "That was just a bit surreal and just a wonderful way for the family to be back in racing, to be back in Saratoga and to do something to honor my son."
Although he and his six siblings all moved away from Saratoga Springs, Spearman stayed connected to the city by visiting his mother, Joan, who died in March 2016. He is a full-time resident of Ridgefield, Connecticut, but owns a home in Saratoga Springs and stays in touch with classmates at Saratoga Central Catholic.
"I had a lot of fun and made great friends who I still see all these years later and who root for Tapwrit and who text me," he said. "I see them more in the summer, but they are lifelong friends. It's such a small school. I think our graduating class is 35 or 37."
Spearman's work with Eclipse brings him back to Saratoga for the entire racing meet, and he visits every month now that he is the chairman of the board of the Saratoga WarHorse Foundation, the nonprofit that serves veterans. Saratoga WarHorse will hold its Blue Spangled Evening Gala on Aug. 14.
Through the merger of Dogwood Stable and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Spearman transitioned into investing in Eclipse horses. In 2015, he purchased the equity of the Eclipse co-founder, who was leaving the company, and became Wellman's partner, with the title of chairman. At the end of the first quarter of 2016, Spearman retired from PepsiCo. He is now completely involved in racing.
"Can you believe it?" he said. "It's a nice sort of 2.0 for my life. I tell people that I am ridiculously blessed, that I had a wonderful career at PepsiCo and for my second career I could take a passion and a hobby that I have and begin to have it also be a business. How many people get to do that? I'm ridiculously blessed. And I do know it."
In the week after Tapwrit won the Belmont Stakes, Eclipse had approximately 60 horses in training and 300 active investors. Wellman, who is based in Southern California, grew up in a family that owned racehorses, and formed his first partnership when he was a young lawyer. In 2008, he became a vice president of Team Valor International and went on to start Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. Spearman focuses on the business aspects of the company.
"We both are very active in partner relations, being at the races, meeting our partners, hearing what they like and don't like and how we could better the company," Spearman said. "I do go to the majority of the sales with Aron, more to learn. He makes the call on the horses. That's his lane, I respect it and he obviously does a fabulous job. I do go to the sales with him because I have a desire to learn, and it's been great spending time with him and the whole team."
In August 2015, at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale, Wellman and Spearman took a major gamble and purchased a yearling gray son of top sire Tapit. Certain that the bidding would go well beyond Eclipse's budget, they formed a partnership with Robert LaPenta and Bridlewood Farm, owned by John and Leslie Malone. The group prevailed and landed the colt for $1.2 million. They named him Tapwrit - Tap from the sire's name, and writ, which is a legal document, because the dam's sire is named Successful Appeal. He finished last of 10 in his first career start at Saratoga but won his next two starts. He lived up to expectations in the Belmont Stakes, running down Irish War Cry in the stretch following two disappointing finishes, fifth in the Blue Grass Stakes and sixth in the Kentucky Derby.
"It was clearly risky on our end, but I was there at the sale with Aron and he had such conviction that we had to try to do everything we could to be able to pull this off and purchase the horse," Spearman said. "I've seen him have conviction on a horse, but he had the real conviction on this one. I could just tell by his level of engagement, excitement and creativity on how we were going to pull this all together. Make no mistake, it was a big swing for us. Had it gone differently, who knows? But we'll never know that, thank God. So it's gone great." S
Mike Kane is a contributing editor and writer.