(Trainer Bill Mott will saddle Nova Rags in Saturday’s G1 Florida Derby / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

From the Gulfstream Park Media Team:

His biggest success stories in parts of five decades owning and breeding Thoroughbreds have come on the grass, but Mike Shanley has a budding dirt star on his hands that just may well be the best horse he’s had in nearly 20 years. Maybe ever.

“I hope so,” Shanley said. “We’ll see more on Saturday.”

Shanley’s stakes-winning homebred Nova Rags, trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, will face the biggest test of his young career in the $750,000 Curlin Florida Derby (G1) presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa at Gulfstream Park.

The 1 1/8-mile Derby for 3-year-olds headlines a blockbuster program featuring 10 stakes, six graded, worth $1.85 million in purses. In its first 69 runnings, the Derby has produced a remarkable 60 Triple Crown race winners, the most recent being 2020 Belmont (G1) hero Tiz the Law.

Shanley would like to add Nova Rags’ name to that list but, in keeping with a career spent in law as a real estate attorney and judge as well as his long association with racing, he matches that optimism with an equal dose of reality. He has never run a horse in the Triple Crown.

“We’re obviously very excited with what he’s done so far and looking forward to the Florida Derby. It’s certainly a big step up, but Bill Mott feels comfortable with it and that’s how we’re going into it,” Shanley said. “Really all the credit goes to Bill and [son and assistant] Riley and the Mott team for bringing him along to this point.”

Nova Rags was a maiden special weight winner in his debut last October at Belmont Park, then ran fourth as the third choice in a field of seven in the Nashua (G3) at Aqueduct to cap his juvenile campaign.

By 2012 Belmont winner Union Rags out of the Smart Strike mare Wishful Splendor, Nova Rags has run twice at 3, both at Tampa Bay Downs, winning the seven-furlong Pasco Jan. 16 and finishing second by a length to stablemate Candy Man Rocket in the Sam F. Davis (G3) Feb. 6.

“Bill insists and I agree on proceeding a day at a time. I know it’s trite, but proceeding a race at a time,” Shanley said. “If Nova Rags does well on Saturday, then I expect he’ll be taking us to the Kentucky Derby. But to think about that now is just one step too far.”

Shanley is a native of upstate New York, growing up in the Binghamton suburb of Vestal in the Southern Tier region. He graduated from Albany Law School in 1972 and stayed in the area where he raised six children with wife, Lyn. “Pretty much retired” in recent years, the Shanleys now live primarily in Florida.

He got his first horse, a pony named Trigger, at the age of 4, but Shanley’s introduction to owning Thoroughbreds came as part of a partnership group that purchased Grade 1 winner Ends Well from Greentree Stable in 1985. He and best friend Leonard Leveen were among a triumvirate that owned Turk Passer, winner of the 1995 Turf Classic Invitational now named for late Hall of Fame writer Joe Hirsch.

“It was really just a result of my interest in horses. Initially I got into one of the early racing partnerships and it just developed from there,” Shanley said. “There were three partners in Turk Passer, and I was the managing partner. We had great fun with him. He was our first Grade 1 winner and, believe it or not, Johnny Velazquez’s first Grade 1 winner.”

Turk Passer also provided Shanley with his first of two trips to the Breeders’ Cup before being retired in 1997 with eight wins and $735,320 in purse earnings. Velazquez has gone on to a Hall of Fame riding career that includes nearly 6,300 wins and a record $431.4 million in purses earned.

Shanley won another Grade 1 in the 2003 Sword Dancer at Saratoga with Whitmore’s Conn, a horse he co-owned with his wife and named for both of their mothers. Whitmore’s Conn also won the Bowling Green (G3) in 2002 and 2003 and retired with seven wins from 28 starts and a bankroll of $740,426.

“Whitmore is my mother’s maiden name and Conn was Lyn’s mother’s maiden name, so Whitmore’s Conn was the choice,” Shanley said. “Lyn’s mom passed away a number of years ago at the age of 99 and my mother is still living by herself and taking care of herself in Bradenton at almost 97.”

Other top horses for Shanley have included Stormy Len, second in the Secretariat (G1) and third in the Northern Dancer (G1) in 2013 for he and Leveen; Grade 3-placed Freedom Rings, who ran in the inaugural 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf; 2006 New York-bred stakes winner Peg’s Prayer, named after Shanley’s late aunt and godmother; and fellow six-figure earners Dubliner and Aussie Prayer.

In 2002, when Leveen dispersed his bloodstock holdings and gave them the mare Dana’s Wedding, the Shanleys began making the transition into breeding. They continue to own Wishful Splendor, a Grade 3-placed mare who was retired after winning her final start, the then-ungraded Suwannee River Handicap in 2004 at Gulfstream.

“We really shifted from focusing on the yearling sales and 2-year-old sales to a breeding program. That’s what we’ve been focused on the last number of years. Nova Rags is a product of that program, which takes longer to develop than driving to Keeneland and buying a horse,” Shanley said. “We have a 2-year-old Nyquist filly with Niall Brennan in Ocala and a yearling More Than Ready colt who’s with Sarah Sutherland at Indian Creek Farm in Kentucky.

“To me, it’s more interesting because you get the opportunity to race or purchase a mare, hopefully with a pedigree that will carry on,” he added. “Then you have decisions every year on how you want to breed the mare. You get the most beautiful colt or filly in the world every spring, which is great fun. You watch them grow up and eventually, hopefully, get to the racetrack and do well.”

Nova Rags was consigned to Keeneland’s 2019 September yearling sale but did not meet his $275,000 reserve. The Shanleys plan to be at Gulfstream Saturday to cheer on their young star and continue a lifelong love affair.

“My mother and father bought a horse for me, a riding pony, when I was 4. Since then I’ve been in love with horses,” Shanley said. “It transitioned from a 4-year-old having a riding pony to the Florida Derby on Saturday. A small step of 70 years.”