NEW ORLEANS — His old coach may have said winning is “the only thing.” But for Paul Hornung, coming close Saturday will be just as good.
The Pro Football Hall of Famer is one of the owners of Titletown Five — references to Green Bay and Hornung’s old number. The horse is one of the top contenders in Saturday’s 100th running of the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds.
While a victory Saturday would guarantee Titletown Five a spot in the Kentucky Derby, fulfilling a dream of Hornung’s while growing up in Louisville, Ky., placing would accomplish the same thing, and a third- or even a fourth-place finish would keep the dream alive thanks to the new points system used to qualify for the Run for the Roses.
“Second is almost as good as a win,” Hornung said. “Having a shot to win the Kentucky Derby — I can’t sleep at night thinking about it. It would be the biggest thrill of my life — no question.”
This is coming from someone who, among other things, won the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame and played on four of Vince Lombardi’s NFL championship teams in Green Bay.
But Hornung also has had a longtime love of horse racing, albeit with an emphasis on the wagering side. The only Kentucky Derby he has missed since childhood was 1963, when he was suspended by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for betting on NFL games and Lombardi advised Hornung to skip the event.
“Coach Lombardi suggested that if I didn’t go to the Derby that year, we could have a clean slate and get reinstated, which we did,” Hornung said. “But I learned how to make a wager when I was a kid. And believe me, if my horse would win the Derby, I’m going to break Las Vegas.”
As he had in Green Bay with Lombardi, Hornung has a Hall of Famer on his side. Two, in fact.
D. Wayne Lukas is Titletown Five’s trainer and also has an ownership stake. Willie Davis, Hornung’s teammate with the Packers and another Hall of Famer, is a co-owner, too.
“Willie doesn’t know a horse from a billy goat, but he’s a competitor,” Hornung said. “And Wayne’s the greatest trainer in the history of this game. He runs the whole show, and he’s got a piece of the horse. He says he’s never made a worse deal in the history of horse racing, but I think it’s a pretty good situation with Wayne myself.”
Actually, Lukas seems happy with the partnership.
“Paul’s been known to put down some money,” he said. “So he’s really caught up in this. He told me the other day he considers me another Coach Lombardi, and I told him as long as he lets me call the plays, we’ll get along pretty good. I’ll tell you, there would be nobody more enthusiastic about just having a horse in the Kentucky Derby than Paul Hornung.”
And Titletown Five has a shot — at least in the Louisiana Derby. The co-fourth morning-line choice at 8-1, Titletown Five is the son of two-time Breeders Cup Classic winner Tiznow. He was purchased, on Lukas’ advice, for $250,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling auction by Hornung’s partnership.
Titletown Five’s maiden victory came in October at Churchill Downs, where he won by nine lengths over 12 foes in his fourth start. But the horse was diagnosed with bone chips in his left knee and, after surgery, didn’t race again until March 2 at Oaklawn Park, where he finished second in the $60,000 Gazebo Stakes after going off as an 11-10 favorite.
“The horse has been hurt, but he’s trained well,” Lukas said. “We’re just a little bit behind in his conditioning. In a perfect world, we’d like to work him more, but we don’t have that luxury.”
That’s because under the new points system to qualify for the Derby, a horse will probably need to be in the mid-30s to make the cut, and Titletown Five has none. Winning the Louisiana Derby is worth 100 points and a guaranteed ticket to Churchill Downs, second is worth 50, third 20 and fourth 10.
The original plan for Titletown Five was to run in last Sunday’s Sunland Derby in New Mexico, but because the Louisiana Derby offered more point potential, the decision was made to bring him to New Orleans.
“If he’s one or two, that’s obviously great,” said Lukas, who also trains Derby contenders Oxbow and Will Take Charge. “And if he’s three or four, then we can run him once more in the Lexington or the Derby Trial. It’s not ideal but, because of Paul, I would do that.”
At the end of Hornung’s career, he was traded to the then-expansion Saints in 1967, but he was forced to retire because of a neck injury and never suited up for the team. Still, he developed an affinity for New Orleans — and in particular the Fair Grounds, where he has been a regular visitor since, most recently during Super Bowl XLVII week.
“It would be ironic (that) winning the Louisiana Derby would propel Titletown to a shot in the Kentucky Derby because I’ve been going to the Fair Grounds for 40 years,” he said. “And if we get to Churchill Downs, we’d have an edge because our horse loves that track. The chance to walk out in that winner’s circle and thank the people of my hometown, I imagine it would be the greatest day of my life.”