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April 30, 2010, 12:00 PM ET

Macalester Cashes a Ticket at the Derby

[Editor's note: This article, originally filed on 4/30, was updated on 5/2.]

Forty years ago Macalester College bet on a longshot named Jerry Crawford, giving the first-generation college student a full-ride scholarship and "a fighting chance" at achieving big things.

That wager paid off: Today Mr. Crawford is a successful lawyer in Des Moines, Iowa, with a stake in a horse-racing partnership that had a colt running in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. He had vowed that if that horse — Paddy O'Prado — won a share of the Derby's purse, he would give his 20-percent cut to Macalester's "Step Forward" capital campaign.

As it turned out, Paddy crossed the line in third place, a performance that was worth a total of $200,000. After deducting fees for the jockey and other expenses, the college will get about $30,000 from Saturday's race, although a precise figure is still unknown. In addition, Mr. Crawford will give his $20,000 purse share from the Bluegrass Stakes — the race that qualified the colt to run in the Derby.

Mr. Crawford said donating his winnings was a chance to marry his two passions: horse racing and Macalester College.

In a telephone interview Friday morning from Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Ky., where he had just finished watching his 3-year-old colt work out, Mr. Crawford described an institution that recognized his potential and took a chance.

"I came from a family circumstance that wasn't exactly what I would call well-heeled," he says. "I attribute most of what I'm blessed with to Macalester."

Mr. Crawford's commitment to the college goes beyond simply being an alum. He is vice chairman of the Board of Trustees and chairman of the five-year, $150-million capital campaign. Now in its fourth year, the campaign is closing in on $130-million, he said. Step Forward has financed a number of capital projects at Macalester, but the biggest share of the money goes to scholarships.

While Mr. Crawford has long been interested in horse racing, Paddy O'Prado was his first Derby entry. Two years ago he bought the horse, along with seven other promising yearlings, for $500,000. Paddy's price was $105,000 — a bargain for a colt that would go on to compete in "the most exciting two minutes in sports."

"We're the guys on the beer budget," Mr. Crawford said of Donegal Racing, the partnership that owns Paddy. The horse won the Palm Beach Stakes at Florida's Gulfstream Park in March, then placed second in the Blue Grass Stakes in April at Keeneland Race Course, in Kentucky.

The idea to give his share of any purse to the Step Forward campaign came the day after the Blue Grass, Mr. Crawford said, when he was talking to members of the broadcast team from NBC Sports. "One of them said, 'Paddy took a huge step forward yesterday,'" Mr. Crawford recalled. Catching the coincidental word choice, he said he thought, "Maybe this thing is meant to be."

Handicappers disagreed with him initially, but Paddy O'Prado's odds climbed as post time neared. The track was a sloppy mess on Saturday, and Mr. Crawford's horse had demonstrated a talent for running in the mud.

"I think we're very alive in this race," Mr. Crawford had said on Friday. "We're one of six or seven that have a chance to run a huge race."

Asked who else he liked in the Derby, Mr. Crawford had mentioned Super Saver — the horse that would ultimately win. 

Rooting for Paddy O'Prado alongside Mr. Crawford at Churchill Downs were Macalester's president, Brian C. Rosenberg, and his wife, Carol.

Back on the campus, about 50 students watched the race unfold on televisions in the campus center. They cheered as Paddy O'Prado charged across the line in third place, bringing cash and attention to Macalester and proving that big things can happen when someone gives you a chance.—Don Troop

(Image: Barbara K. Laskin, Macalester College)

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