Remembering Paul Hornung’s Kentucky Derby hope: Titletown Five

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January 14th, 2021

Today’s news about Brett Favre and calls to mind another Green Bay Packers legend – Paul Hornung.

Football fans remember Hornung for his Hall of Fame career in the Vince Lombardi era, and as a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame, but did you know that his lifelong dream was to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby (G1)? It almost happened in 2013, with a colt aptly named Titletown Five.

“This would be the greatest thrill of my life,” Hornung said at the thought of winning the Derby.   

A Louisville native, Hornung loved Churchill Downs from childhood. He’d recount tales of how he wrangled a job as an usher at the track in his youth. He never missed a Derby for decades, with one glaring exception. Hornung was suspended for the entire 1963 NFL season for gambling on games, and Lombardi told him point-blank not to go to the racetrack, in order to help his case for reinstatement. Hornung was back on the gridiron in 1964, but injury took its toll on the “Golden Boy,” and the 1966 season ended up his last.

In retirement, Hornung could often be found at Churchill Downs’ “Gold Room” for big bettors. Whether Churchill was running or not, there was always simulcast action from tracks around the country.

Hornung also got involved in the sport as an owner. His silks fondly expressed his identity as a Packer. Not just green and gold, his colors featured the Green Bay logo, an encircled “GB,” in the center.

In 2011, Hornung spent $250,000 for a well-bred yearling at the Keeneland September Sale. The colt was sired by a Hall of Famer in Tiznow, who had an NFL connection himself of sorts. Bill Belichick famously used Tiznow as a motivational tool for his New England Patriots in the fall of 2001, citing the horse’s courage in battling back to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) – the championship, as it were – for the second straight year. It worked to galvanize the Patriots all the way through the 2002 Super Bowl.

Hornung brought partners on board. Fellow Packer Hall of Famer Willie Davis came in for a smaller share, while Ed Martin, on the Packers’ Board of Directors, had the joint-largest stake (30%) with Hornung.

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Titletown Five (Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer)

“I brought Willie Davis into the fold,” Hornung would later say during an NTRA teleconference in March 2013. “He doesn’t know a horse from a billy goat, but he’s a competitor.”

Notwithstanding Hornung’s playful teasing, Davis was acquainted with horses as a racegoer in Southern California.

The colt was given the appropriate name of Titletown Five. Titletown was an allusion to Green Bay’s nickname. The “five” principally referred to the number on Hornung’s jersey, although it’s also the number of times the Packers won NFL Championships under Lombardi.

His co-owners would include David Miller, son of Hornung’s coach from Flaget High School in Louisville; Hornung’s goddaughter Margaret Shade; and the colt’s trainer, Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, a longtime friend.

Lukas started out as a basketball coach in his native Wisconsin, where he first came to know Hornung in his glory days. Applying his coaching skills to Quarter Horses, Lukas rose to stardom and later continued his success after switching to Thoroughbreds.

Hornung was asked to compare Lukas to Lombardi, and he did not hesitate: they had the “same m.o.,” a relentless focus on winning.

According to Hornung, Lukas quipped that the deal he made for 25% ownership in Titletown Five was the worst in his career. He paid nothing up front, but in exchange, the other partners didn’t pay for training expenses.

Titletown Five fueled hopes of living up to his name during a promising 2-year-old campaign. At the boutique Saratoga meet in the summer of 2012, he nearly went wire to wire in a key maiden race. Titletown Five was just edged by Violence, a future Grade 1 winner, and he held second from a poor-starting, but fast-finishing Orb – the eventual hero of the 2013 Kentucky Derby.

Next seen at Churchill Downs in October, Titletown Five romped by nine lengths from another notable rival, Bradester, who would go on to become a Grade 1-winning millionaire. That breakout performance stamped Titletown Five as a potential Derby horse.

Unfortunately, his progress was halted by injury. A bone chip in a knee had to be removed, putting him on a tight timetable to join the 2013 Triple Crown trail.

Once Titletown Five gathered steam toward comeback, his profile and connections warranted his inclusion as an individual betting interest in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (closing at 61-1). But Hornung had already gotten down long before.

“I’m going to break Las Vegas,” Hornung said of his future book bet on Titletown Five to win the Derby, at odds of 220-1.

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Hornung was planning to make it a Packers party on Derby Day at Churchill, with Bart Starr and Aaron Rodgers among those he hoped would come. He was also inviting Chicago Bears legends Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers. Now he just needed the horse to take them there.

Titletown Five made his eagerly awaited comeback in the Gazebo at Oaklawn on March 2, 2013. The 6-furlong stakes was not the spot Lukas ideally wanted, but it was the one available at the time, and he needed to get back in action. Titletown Five did well in a hard-trying second, outfinished by a race-fit rival in King Henny.

But Titletown Five still had work to do to qualify for the Derby, by scoring points in a designated prep, in a narrowing window of opportunity. Lukas decided that the Louisiana Derby (G2) at Fair Grounds was the best option.

Hornung was delighted by that plan, not only as a frequent visitor to Fair Grounds, but because of his onetime affiliation with the New Orleans Saints. At the franchise’s creation in 1967, the Saints picked up Hornung in the expansion draft, but he retired without sporting the black and gold.

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Titletown Five was set an enormous task to stretch out from one sprint race to 1 1/8 miles, in a major Derby prep, and an early pace duel with a 109-1 longshot turned it into mission impossible. He tired to ninth in a 14-horse field.

Up against it to make the cut for the Derby with still no points, Titletown Five entered the last-chance saloon in the Derby Trial (G3) at Churchill Downs.

“He is really a talented horse,” Lukas said ahead of the Derby Trial. “We got behind the eight-ball, we took a chip out of his knee, so we were playing catch-up earlier this year. We didn’t start galloping him until the first week in January, he’s been two or three months behind the others (stablemates and confirmed Kentucky Derby starters Oxbow and Will Take Charge). But I do look for a great effort in the Derby Trial.”

But the Derby Trial didn’t go as hoped, and Titletown Five reported home fourth. On Monday of Derby Week, defections from the field held out a brief possibility of his getting in after all, but it didn’t materialize. Lukas said that he was no longer under consideration off the Derby Trial effort. And as it turned out, once the final entries were declared, he wouldn’t have had the points to make it into the starting gate anyway.

Titletown Five was on the sidelines for the 139th Kentucky Derby as his old rival from Saratoga, Orb, splashed to victory in the Churchill slop. The second and third in the Derby, Golden Soul and Revolutionary, were both coming off the Louisiana Derby.

Lukas regrouped to point for the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness (G1), at Pimlico. Hornung’s scoring feats in Baltimore didn’t transfer to Titletown Five. There was no fairy tale ending for the 22-1 outsider who wound up last behind fellow Lukas trainee Oxbow. He received class relief in allowance races in his four remaining starts, but failed to build on his early promise.

Retired with $105,078 in earnings from a 12-1-3-1 record, Titletown Five at least gave Hornung the priceless experience of having a 3-year-old on the Derby trail.

“Win or lose, this has been the greatest year of my life as far as enjoying myself watching the horses,” Hornung said.

Titletown Five joins a long list of horses who didn’t live up to their monikers, including those named after Favre, Hornung, and Lombardi. But Titletown Five’s younger half-sister, out of the same mare D’Wildcat Speed, turned out much better. Lady Aurelia, born the year after his Preakness run, was an American star for two straight summers at Royal Ascot.

Hornung passed away this past November, just seven months after Davis.

If the Derby eluded him, his football legacy remains forever. Lombardi deserves the last word:

“When the game is on the line, Paul Hornung is the greatest player I ever saw.”