WAGNER, S.D. — Wayne Scherr has always been a dreamer.
And while the 61-year-old former teacher, coach and bricklayer has accomplished a lot, he’s set to have a lifelong dream come true on Sept. 5.
That’s when Necker Island — a horse he knew almost nothing about three months ago — is slated to load into the starting gate and run for Scherr in the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky., in horse racing’s most famous race.
“It’s one of those things where you hate to go to bed at night because you’re afraid to wake up the next morning and find out it’s a dream,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling.”
Scherr’s ownership is making South Dakota history. Based on the family’s research, he’s the first South Dakotan to own a Kentucky Derby horse in at least 50 years. All of it has come together in a short period of time, just 12 weeks from when Scherr and a couple of other owners made a $100,000 claim to when the Derby takes place. The 1 1/4-mile race has a $3 million purse, with more than $1.8 million expected to go to the winner.
Scherr and his wife, Candy, plan to be at the post draw event on Tuesday at Churchill Downs, which is when the 20 horses in the field are drawn to their starting gate positions. Scherr plans to be in Louisville for the race as well, but considered watching from home in Wagner with friends and family because of the limit on tickets due to COVID-19. But he will have a party of 16 at Churchill Downs to enjoy the race in person, and many more watching from his "mancave" in Wagner.
He estimated he could have filled at least 100 ticket requests from friends and family, if conditions would have allowed it, but the racetrack announced earlier this month it won’t have public tickets for the race due to the pandemic.
This will be the fifth time Wayne Scherr has witnessed the Kentucky Derby in person, and his start in horse racing is a big reason why he’s going to be a part of the 146th annual race.
If not for his father, Alvin, Wayne Scherr never would have dreamed of the Kentucky Derby. Alvin Scherr, of Napoleon, N.D., was one of 14 children, and Alvin took to horses and racing at a young age. That was passed down to Wayne, who rode horses in races when he was just 5 or 6 years old. In the corner of Wayne’s mancave at his Wagner home, he has an original saddle that weighs about 12 ounces that he would ride as a kid.
“We went to some county fair and had this little stock saddle on this horse and they basically strapped me down on the saddle,” Wayne said. “And that was my first time ever coming out of starting gates or anything like that.”
When Wayne was old enough to drive, he was carting area boys around to ride horses Wayne was training.
“It was his passion and his joy,” Wayne said.
Alvin died in 2016 at age 87, three years following the death of his wife, Lois. When the Kentucky Derby is about to begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 5, Wayne said he will be thinking about his parents, and because of how the last three months have gone, he believes they’ve helped make this opportunity happen. He’s sold 5% of ownership in Necker Island to each of his three brothers, making the Kentucky Derby truly a family cause.
“I know it's something that my mom and dad would be proud of, and they'll be looking on and say, 'That's the way this is supposed to be,’” he said.
When Wayne Scherr moved to Wagner in the mid-1980s, it was to be a wrestling coach. And horse ownership was out of the picture.
An accomplished high school and college wrestler in North Dakota, he moved to the small town to teach and coach wrestling, and he coached the Red Raiders to a pair of state wrestling team championships in 1992 and 1994. He later served on the Wagner school board and ran his masonry business.
But thoroughbreds and horse racing never left his mind and about 10 years ago, one of his former jockeys encouraged him to get back into it. Scherr agreed that he would at the maximum cost of $25,000 for a horse.
“I never thought about the invoice or anything like that,” Scherr said. “So he calls me back and he goes, ‘OK, we got a nice horse here. We paid $37,000 for it. And I told him I couldn’t go any more than $25,000.”
Scherr said he came home a few days later to find his wife, Candy, holding the invoice envelope and shaking it at him.
“She doesn’t mind me telling the story now, but she was not happy at all,” he said. “We’ve been married for 37 years and that’s the only time we’ve gone three days without talking to each other. You know, what’s the old saying, ‘It's easier to ask forgiveness than to beg for permission.’ That’s how that went.”
Since then, Scherr estimates that he’s owned at least 100 horses. Almost all of them have had “Dream” somewhere in the name — Grandpa’s Dream, Cowboys Dream, Neverquitdreaming, Don’t Quit Dreaming — to varying levels of success and ups and downs.
In his words, he had owned good horses, but nothing ever close to Kentucky Derby quality.
The math isn’t in his favor. There’s about 20,000 thoroughbreds foaled every year in the U.S., and the Kentucky Derby takes only 20 3-year-old horses, making the odds of making the Derby field about 1 in 1,000. That doesn’t include horses qualifying from Japan and Europe, who are also normally eligible for one spot each in the race.
About five years ago, Scherr admitted that he didn’t know if he’d ever get to the Kentucky Derby.
“At that point, I told Candy, this is getting tough,” he recalled. “I don't know if we're ever going to make it in this thing.”
It was around this time that Scherr met horse trainer Chris Hartman and the owner made it clear that he was only looking for a trainer who could get him to the Kentucky Derby.
Hartman met the challenge, but only Scherr’s fortunes didn’t improve that much. More money was spent on various horses and Scherr reached a point where he had the following ideals: even if the Derby wasn’t going to happen, he was still going to have fun with it and never going to give it up.
That might be what makes what happened June 13 such a surprise, even for Scherr. Hartman called and said he was watching what he believed was a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender — Necker Island — prepare for a $100,000 allowance optional claim race at Churchill Downs. A claiming race is one in which the horses are all for sale for essentially the same price until the race starts.
Scherr made the moves to make the claim on the horse in the span of about a half hour, he said. In a career with nearly 1,400 wins, it is Hartman’s first Kentucky Derby horse, as well.
“I knew that it was a risk, but I’ve taken so many other risks in this business already,” Scherr said. “But I had to trust my trainer because he would never call me otherwise if he didn’t think it was worth it.”
Getting a good shake
Necker Island ran fourth in the race, which was won by another Kentucky Derby favorite Art Collector. The claim process went to a shake, which is a random process involving a numbered pill in a pill bottle being shaken out to determine who wins the claim, which ended up going to Scherr.
Scherr had $37,000 in his account at Churchill Downs for the claim, which included some last-second moving around of money on a Saturday. That led to other owners getting involved to cover the cost of the claim and then Scherr wiring the rest of his share on Monday. He said he initially owned 75% of the horse, but each of his three brothers have since bought 5% of the ownership, taking his share down to 60%.
Necker Island’s other connections carry significance into the Kentucky Derby, as well. Kentucky businessman Raymond Daniels and Greg Harbut, a Kentucky thoroughbred broker, are also minority owners of the horse. They are the first African Americans to have ownership in a Derby racehorse in 13 years.
And in many ways, Scherr can thank the coronavirus pandemic for its role in helping him reach Louisville. If the Derby would have been held on May 2 as originally planned, the opportunity to acquire Necker Island never would have arrived. This year, because of the pandemic, the Belmont Stakes — which traditionally runs as the final leg of the Triple Crown — ran first on June 20, with Tiz The Law winning. Following the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes will close the Triple Crown on Oct. 3, stretching horse racing’s most famous three races over 15 weeks instead of the usually grueling six weeks.
The Kentucky Derby uses a points qualifying system and Necker Island made a late surge to get into contention for the race, finishing third at the Indiana Derby on July 8 and third at the Ellis Park Derby on Aug. 9 to get just outside the top-20 on points. But a few possible contenders have opted for undercard races on Derby Day, allowing Necker Island the chance to run in the big race.
“Everything just went right on that one Saturday, with the claim and getting the money there and getting in, which could have fell through and then both races the way both races turned out,” he said. “We really tried it for almost 10 years and it just doesn't seem like it's reachable. And then just like that, it happens within three months. … You know after enough goes wrong, something will go right. And it did.”
'We're going there to compete'
As for his horse, Scherr said he’s been most impressed by how Necker Island has improved in the short time he’s owned him, calling him an intelligent horse that gets better every time out.
“I mean, if he runs as good as he looks, he'll compete,” Scherr said. “It's just whether he has it or not on that day.”
Necker Island also has strong bloodlines. He was sired by Hard Spun, who finished in the money in two of the three Triple Crown races in 2007, including second at the Kentucky Derby and third at the Preakness Stakes.
Scherr and Hartman have discussed a race strategy, with a plan to get to the inside rail of the track as soon as possible. Mena — who last rode in the Kentucky Derby in 2010 — was on Necker Island in a half-mile workout on Friday morning at Churchill Downs, which is expected to be the horse's final training session prior to the Derby.
“We want to be on the rail and we run both turns, we want to have run the shortest race on any horse to get there,” Scherr said. “And when we hit the stretch, we're hoping that we have the most gas left in the tank to do something.”
Being a dreamer in the world of big-time horse racing isn’t always a compliment, and Scherr said he’s heard the notion that he doesn’t belong in the Derby. It’s likely that Necker Island will have some of the longest odds in the race, but Scherr said he’s not paying much attention to those critics.
“It’s not like, ‘OK, we got there, now we’re done,’” he said. “That’s not what we’re doing. We’re going there to compete and run a good race.”
If Necker Island doesn’t win, Scherr said he doesn’t expect to be done with the Kentucky Derby.
“I know I’m not done,” he said. “I know making the Kentucky Derby was one of the last things I wanted in life, but we’ll see how he runs. It might be to win the Derby, some day. We’re not going to quit.”