Melnyk will be in New York Saturday for the Belmont Stakes.
His horse, Flower Alley, sired I’ll Have Another, who will be looking to complete the Triple Crown triumph — coming off wins in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
To put the importance of the race to I’ll Have Another in perspective, there have been just 11 Triple Crown winners, none since 1978.
“If you can win the Triple Crown, you are truly a superhorse,” said Melnyk, who has a stable of 500 horses, down from 650 at one point.
“It’s a combination Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux: Big body, strength, distance, fast, sleek and ultra sharp. This guy can move around.
“If (I’ll Have Another) didn’t get intimidated in the Kentucky Derby, he won’t get intimidated at the Belmont. It’s like a hockey player in a Game 7 Stanley Cup final shootout, where you have the last shot.
“If you can block everything out, that’s half the battle. It would be amazing if he did. The kid’s a superstar.”
Melnyk’s passion for horses dates back to his childhood. The atmosphere at the track and the majesty of the animals pulled him along for the ride.
“When I was a kid, we lived close to Woodbine (in Toronto) ... my dad never gambled ... but my Uncle Leo, my father’s brother, would say, ‘Oh, you really want to go to the racetrack with me,’ really loudly. It was his way out the door, away from the house. And I would say, ‘I guess so.’ Meanwhile, he was the one that really wanted to go.
“He was horrible at it. He would pick the horse by the jockey, that kind of stuff. Eventually, when I was able to go by myself, I fell in love with the game.
“I would spend every Saturday and Sunday at the racetrack. I just hung around. My friends were there. A lot of friendships remain.
“When I was 22, I bought a partnership in a horse, Rocket Man. Everybody threw in three to four grand. He could only go five furlongs at Greenwood, early in the season. Then he’d hit a brick wall. Three weeks into the racing season, the races would go to six furlongs. So he’d race two races a year, he’d win every time.
“But the rest of the time we had to feed the guy.”
Melnyk was mesmerized by the sport, driven by the adrenaline rush.
“Seeing your horse coming down the stretch, you just can’t describe the feeling, especially if it’s a big race, how your heart pumps,” Melnyk said.
“I dreamed of one day owning a horse that would win the Kentucky Derby or the Queen’s Plate.”
Melnyk cherishes the friendships he’s made through horse racing.
“Why do people go to sports bars to watch football? Most of them have never played football. But they’ll go watch Green Bay play San Diego,” said Melnyk.
“What’s the connection? It’s the chicken wings and the beer and the camaraderie. With horse racing, I enjoyed the handicapping and I enjoyed the friendships and it was the thought that we could come up with the magic wand that was going to make us money at the racetrack.”
A call has been put in. If I’ll Have Another gets to the winner’s circle, Melnyk is hoping to get his picture taken with the horse.
“It’s not my horse, but I’ll be cheering,” he said.
After the race, if there is a Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, Melnyk plans to hop in a helicopter and fly to Manhattan where he will watch the Kings and Devils on a giant TV screen in his favourite sports bar.
Just one of the peeps.
“It’s really a bit pathetic,” said Melnyk, with a laugh.
In 2003, the same year he purchased the Senators out of bankruptcy, Melnyk bought Flower Alley for $165,000.
It was on a whim, a hunch, or perhaps out of boredom after sitting around for much of the day in a small room at a yearling sale in Kentucky.
The purchase seemed to make sense. The colt came from Distorted Humor, who had sired Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, and a mare, Princess Olivia.
The lightbulb went off.
“It was a hunch, our girl (Olivia) had just had her first birthday,” said Melynk, who plays a game where throroughbreds have sold for as much as $16 million.
But then he had to answer to his then-four-year-old daughter, Anna.
“She was bawling her eyes out, ‘Daddy, you don’t love me anymore,’ ” said Melnyk.
“So I said she could name it whatever she wanted. She called it Flower Alley. She might as well have called it Daisy,” he added.
In horse racing, image is important. Flower Alley wasn’t a powerful, muscular name, but it kept a young girl happy.
Flower Alley “didn’t do that bad” as a two-year-old racer, but really blossomed as a three-year-old.
“If you’re not 100% ready to play in the NHL, you go to Bingo or you go back to Sweden,” said Melnyk.
“You don’t try to push the kid against guys who have been in the league for 10 years. Or they get pummelled and are afraid to go into the corners. It’s the same with horses.
“If you run them too early, they get pummelled. They know if they’ve lost and the same as if they know if they’ve won. And they know if they’ve finished eighth.”
Flower Alley just missed winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, losing by a length to Saint Liam in 2005, earning $935,000.
It was a great day for Melnyk. His limo got him to his favourite New York sports bar in time to watch the Senators crush the Toronto Maple Leafs 8-0.
Flower Alley was retired after winning $2.5 million.
He had become, “almost like a teenager. He was more interested in girls, so we sent him to stud.”
Melnyk now has half ownership in Flower Alley, whose stud feeds started at $30,000, then in tough times dropped to $7,500. I’ll Have Another’s success has driven it to $15,000 ... and it’s steadily rising.
Horse owner. Hockey-team owner. And multi-millionaire.
But the 53-year-old Melnyk came from humble roots — pumping gas and working at a styrofoam cup company on his way up the ladder to turning Biovail into a billion-dollar enterprise.
His numerous philanthropic endeavours along the way include a $1-million donation toward construction of a child-care centre at Belmont Park.
TWO SPORTING LOVES
But he still savours great pleasures ... and it comes back to horses and hockey.
“In horse racing, your mind is just blank, so I never have a chance to think too much,” he said. “In hockey, my feelings are just like any fan. The thrill starts the day before the big game.
“I often lose sleep over it. Any time I’m watching the Senators, I’m so proud of the guys and everyone around the team, including the fans. Just happy that I can add a little bit of pleasure to so many people’s lives.
“You have to run both like a business. You can’t take it on as an expensive hobby or you’ll very quickly remove the rich part. You need to be able to withstand the good times and bad. You see that in both horse racing and hockey.
“I went to the Stanley Cup finals. If you love the game as much as I do, it taxes you, it drains you as far as emotions go. Even when we went down to the Rangers in the first round, it was painful, but it was a fun painful.
“The same with horse racing, the way I look at it. If you lose one, they think I’m going to cry.
“In horse racing, if you’re a 20% winner, you’re considered a success. The highs of winning outweigh the lows of losing.”
While Melnyk has one eye on the playoffs and the other on the Belmont Stakes and I’ll Have Another’s date with history, he’s still got the Senators on his mind.
In his heart, he believes their day in the spotlight will come soon.
“We will win the Stanley Cup in my lifetime, you can take that to the bank,” Melnyk said.
And you get the feeling it’s more than just his passion speaking.
- Won Sovereign award for outstanding owner in Canadian racing in 2007, 2009.
- Won Sovereign award for outstanding breeder in 2009; in total has won 10 Sovereign awards.
- Owns Melnyk Racing Stables Inc., and Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., a 1,000-acre property.
- Colt Archers Bay won the Queen’s Plate in 1998
- Sealy Hill became the first filly to win the Canadian Triple Tiara – Woodbine Oaks, Bison City Stakes and Wonder Where Stakes
- His other racehorses include Speightstown, Marchfield, Flower Alley, Pool Land, Marley Vale, Tweedside, Bishop Court Hill, Harmony Lodge, Bridgetown, Graeme Hall, Roxy Gap and Sterwins.