Early on the Sunday evening of March 28, 1993, with only 20 minutes until the boarding of his flight back to Buffalo, a euphoric Will Wolford squared up in front of a public telephone at Indianapolis International Airport to share with friends and family the sudden epochal turn of events in his life. The 6'5", 300-pound offensive left tackle had just signed a three-year, $7.65 million contract, which made him the highest-paid lineman in football and the world's richest Indianapolis Colt.
"I was so pumped," Wolford says. "The numbers were astronomical." Punching a few of his own, he reached his wife, Jude, who was eight months pregnant, at their home in Orchard Park, N.Y., then connected with his parents, Moe and Katie, who were visiting Will's sister, Maureen, in Huntsville, Ala. And finally, in a moment that signaled his intention to fulfill the most insistent of his dreams, Wolford called the Louisville home of Paul McGee, a young thoroughbred trainer with a stable of horses at one of Wolford's most favored old haunts, Churchill Downs.
"I have a new contract," Wolford announced to McGee. "We're going to buy some horses." Wolford had already been involved in racing as an owner for two years, and McGee was handling four blue-plate specials for him at the time—cheap to modest hard-knockers with obscure to middling pedigrees and limited futures. What Wolford had always wanted was to own a scion of the sport's aristocracy, a fancy looker with designer genes and bullet works—all attributes that hang, like ornaments, from an equine family tree. "I wanted the opportunity to have a horse with pedigree and that looked good," he says.
Now was his chance. The lineman, then 28, found himself in the ideal spot at the perfect time in National Football League history: in the first year of NFL free agency, with huge and hotly coveted skills and a recently expired three-year, $2.1 million contract with the Buffalo Bills. The deal that Wolford had just signed with the Colts would pay him nearly that much in up-front bonuses alone—$1.2 million to sign and another $850,000 just to show up. The Bills would go to work at once to kill the deal on a technicality, but a league arbitrator ultimately allowed the Colt contract to stand. The signing bonus left Wolford and McGee hatching plans to go shopping in July at that priciest of all thoroughbred markets, the Selected Yearling Sale at Keeneland.
"My goal was to play football long enough so I could own horses comfortably," Wolford says. "Treat them as an outlet, as a way to relax. It's not, 'Oh, gee, this horse has to win today because I got to pay bills.' I played five years in the league before I bought a horse. It's strictly done for fun."
Since Wolford was a boy growing up in Louisville, where Moe was a saloonkeeper-cum-horse-player, the Kentucky Derby has been his life's immovable feast. When Will was seven, on the family's way to Churchill Downs for the 1972 Derby, his parents dropped him off at a party of 20 other kids set amid a grim posse of baby-sitters. "We sat in front of the TV and watched Riva Ridge run around the track," he says. His ensuing Derby experiences extended through his four years at St. Xavier High and through four more at Vanderbilt University. The Kentucky Derby is a River City rite of spring, and for years Wolford partook of its rituals from the Catholic encampment in the infield at the far turn.
"If you went to a Catholic high school in Louisville and you went to the Derby, that's where you hung out," Wolford says. "It's a gigantic party. Everything and anything you want to do is in the infield at the Derby. You never see a horse when you're out there. Every once in a while there would be a wave, like at a football game, and everybody would scream, but you had a hard time seeing the horses. It got pretty wild. Drink beer and jungle juice—all kinds of juices mixed with grain alcohol. We used to hide it in the bottom of the coolers. In gallon jugs. Line the bottom of the coolers with beer, and line that with towels and ice. I always had a pint or two in my underpants."
Of his various physical accomplishments while attending St. Xavier, none is remembered more fondly than his last notable feat as a high school student. Wolford used to attend the infield bacchanal with a passel of athletic teammates—guys nicknamed Squirmy and Jaybird, Pygmy and Skinny—and at 9 a.m. on Derby Day of 1982, in the spring of their senior year, the boys found to their dismay that the lock was jammed on the trunk of the Mustang that held the day's ambrosia. The infield was beckoning. Chris Kurtz, one of Wolford's best friends, recalls that everyone looked to Will, then a buff 230 pounds, and began exhorting him: "You can do it, Will. You can do it!" Reaching under a corner of the trunk, he performed one prodigious squat thrust. It popped like a cap on a bottle. "He ripped the trunk right off," Kurtz says. "Amazing." To a chorus of cheers, of course.
Wolford's annual adventures on Derby Day belied the rigors and discipline of his daily life at home. Just as horses ran in the Wolford family, so to speak, so did football and basketball. Moe also graduated from St. Xavier and went on to start for four years on the line for the University of Louisville. At 6'3" and 252 pounds, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1956 and was attending their training camp that summer when the coach, Sid Gillman, caught him breaking curfew one night. "Get the hell out of here," Gillman told Moe. "I don't need any playboys."
Back home in Louisville he sold ads for the Yellow Pages, declined a call to try out for the Baltimore Colts and eventually became a nightclub owner in town. For years he ran a place called Big Moe's, and with his wife he reared and disciplined a family. In fact, along with his cousin and best friend, Ed Kupper, who played basketball for Louisville from 1944 to '47, Moe ran a kind of athletic boot camp for Will and his older brother, Moe Jr.