Thoroughbred owner Maggi Moss beats the odds
Story by Jim Duncan, photography by David Peterson
On a hot August evening at her home track, Maggi Moss is hardly incognito. Strangers and friends alike at Altoona’s Prairie Meadows greet her by first name. She graciously responds to everyone as she makes her way to the paddock.
She has two horses running tonight, and tout sheets specifically refer to Moss when giving both horses good shots at winning. Serious players are quite hip to that key connection. Most of Moss’ horse racing accomplishments are well-known, but her most amazing one is closely guarded by insiders and handicappers.
“In 2011 34 percent of all Maggi’s mounts won their races and 68 percent finished in the money (first, second, or third), by far the best percentages in the country,” says respected horseman-handicapper Ray Smith. “Some think those [statistics] are unprecedented, especially for an owner who starts 450 to 500 mounts a year.”
Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines lawyer and horseman who is also Vice Chair of the Breeders Cup, the world’s top racing series, says he’s never seen anything like those numbers. “Amazing. Maggi truly has a sixth sense — the sense that makes it possible for a few humans to understand and communicate with horses. It’s also the same sense used to size up juries in the courtroom. No surprise; Maggi is expert at both.”
Moss, a mostly retired Des Moines lawyer, obviously has horse sense — an incredible knack for seeing potential in animals that other horsemen have given up on. The sport calls these horses “claimers,” and they compete in races in which owners agree before the starting bell to sell them at a set price.
In the last four decades, the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association has awarded just 29 “Claimers of the Year” — recognizing thoroughbreds that go on to perform exceptionally and profitably, earning far more money than anticipated. Moss is the only owner who claimed more than one of them.
Still, her first horse leads in the home stretch. “Look out on the outside,” she yells — futilely and prophetically, it turns out. Her horse is overtaken on the outside and finishes second. Moss is stoic. “I don’t get that excited now. Not like the first time,” she admits. “God, it would be nice to be able to get as excited as I did before I ever had a winner.”
Moss has led the owner board in winners at Prairie Meadows every year since 2005. Nationally her stable has accumulated over 1,600 victories — just since 1998. Moss was the nation’s leading owner in 2006, the first woman ever in that exclusive club, and she’s earned the rank at least once at Oaklawn Park (Hot Springs), Belmont Park and Aqueduct (New York), Fair Grounds (New Orleans), and Churchill Downs (Louisville). In 2007 Moss was among three nominees for the world’s top horse racing honor, the Eclipse Award. She lost to Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai.
Moss competes on a frugal budget against kings who have relatively unlimited resources to buy top bloodlines at the world’s priciest auctions. A three-time National Equestrian champion as a rider, she represents everything that Iowans love in sports heroes. She’s an underdog who consistently beats long odds; she’s a coach who inspires losers to glory; she’s an outsider breaking through glass ceilings.
She’s the queen of “the sport of kings.”
Wendie O’Brien, who grew up a friend and equestrian competitor, thinks Moss knows no other way. “Maggi was raised to win whatever she did, whether it be with horses or law.” (Before Moss gave up her law practice to concentrate on horse racing, she was one of the state’s most formidable trial attorneys. Her work in Long v. Broadlawns changed the way alcoholics are treated in Iowa’s criminal system.)
She lives alone except for two Jack Russell terriers (she’s attracted to that breed’s “independent, stubborn personalities”) and three satellite dishes that monitor races around the country.
Her house and the lavish doggie bag for Storm and Jake are both symbolic of lifelong attachments. The former sits near the horse stables where she spent much of her youth training.
The original structure burned down in 1970, and O’Brien recalls how the tragedy impacted Moss.
Moss says her love of animals got her in trouble as a prosecutor.
“I was considered overzealous at busting puppy mills and getting search warrants to raid them. As a defense lawyer, my first civil case was against a woman operating a mill. It was something I had to do.”
During her second and last race tonight, Moss reveals another special attachment. “Ballistic Blonde is not one of my more talented horses. But I bought her cheap in Texas, despite the name. I call her Sybil because she’s obviously bipolar.”
Halfway through that race Moss looks resigned. “My trainer told the jockey not to be near the rail, and there he is. Other than that, he’s in trouble,” she says, preparing herself for more sad news about this thoroughbred.
The track announces that Ballistic Blonde has been claimed. “This is the hardest part of the business. But it’s big — $25,000 is a good price for her now. I just really wanted her last race for me to be a winner,” says Moss with emotion.
“It’s getting much easier for me to run my horses out East so that I don’t get so personally attached to them. Horses here at Prairie Meadows I see all the time. This is a business and my gut interferes. Dad always said that I would have a hard time in life because my heart overrules my head.”
Most legal work Moss picks up these days is on behalf of animal rescue and retirement operations, particularly Hope After Racing Thoroughbreds.
She races her horses less frequently than most owners, rotating about 14 horses at a time to pasture. “I just can’t keep them in a stall at a track all year. “I could make a lot more money if I didn’t insist on time off, but I have a working understanding of their feelings,” she explains.
“Dad made me join Pony Club when I was 10. I learned what was important to horses then.”
No horse ever goes hungry though — not if Maggi knows about it.”