Having a horse run in a Grade I stakes race is the thrill of a lifetime for many thoroughbred owners.
But for Marty Nixon and brothers Ron and Al Lepinski, all graduates of St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, they will relive their dream a second time on Saturday when Willcox Inn, their 3-year-old colt, runs in the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park.
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It is the first of three Grade I stakes on the International Festival of Racing day at Arlington Park.
In just their second year in the business in 2002, the Lepinskis and Nixon watched another 3-year-old colt, Extra Check, run third in the 28th running of the Secretariat.
Now they are back nine years later with a top contender who is trying to become only the fourth horse to sweep the Mid-America Triple Crown, and the first since Honor Glide in 1997.
Trained by Mike Stidham, the son of Harlan's Holiday will leave from post nine as the third morning-line choice.
Willcox Inn has shown great flexibility by winning over yielding turf in the Arlington Classic and firm ground in the American Derby, the first two legs of the Mid-American Triple.
Extra Check's third-place finish in 2002 was a thrilling start for Nixon and the Lepinskis, who started their Three Kings Stable a year earlier.
"Oh boy, talk about a good time," said Nixon, a 1979 Viator grad who grew up in Palatine. "You would have thought in that champagne toast to the winners after the race that we won. We were so excited about getting third."
This time, Three Kings Stable is a part owner of Willcox Inn along with Stidham, assistant trainer Hilary Pridham, Marette Farrell, John Adger and Jack Hodge. All are prominent owners for Stidham.
So did Nixon ever believe he'd have another chance at the Secretariat?
"The truth is we believe Mike Stidham is one day going to win some Breeders Cup races," he said. "We know he's that kind of trainer. We're just hoping that it's one of these that we all get together on and pick out. We're hoping we're on the right one when Mike does it.
"It's not a question of if he's going to do it, it's a question as to whether we're on the one that does it for him."
Willcox Inn is named after a hotel in Aiken, S.C., where the horse was raised before being bought in a sale for $50,000.
Three Kings Stable began with $60,000 in 2000.
"We each threw in $20,000 and we've kept it going and stayed afloat a long time," said Al Lepinski, who graduated from St. Viator in 1980. "Our first trainer was Gene Cilio and we claimed a horse by the name of Tindell for $35,000. He ran eighth, sixth and then won for us and got claimed that day for $50,000. So we hit a home run right away.
"When Gene passed away we hooked up with Mike. We went down to New Orleans for an interview with him. We bought Extra Check privately through Mike in 2001 and have been with him for the last 11 years."
The Lepinskis got their start by going to Arlington Park with their father in the 1970s.
"He liked to bet and watch the races, and we learned a lot going with him," Al said. "Once we got to know everything, we thought maybe one day we'd get a horse."
Al and Ron met Nixon through hockey. An experienced player, Al coached a novice hockey league team. His brother Ron and Nixon were on the squad that went on to win a national title.
"We were in our mid-20s and we'd go out after games," Al said. "That went on for about five or six years and then we broke it off. Then about 10 years later we ran into Marty again (2000). Our businesses were all going well and we started talking about horse racing and thought about getting a horse ourselves. That's how it all came to fruition."
Because they are hockey fans, they named their stable Three Kings for the Los Angeles Kings' line from the 1970s.
Saturday they will be fans of Willcox Inn, who is trying for his fourth win in 7 career starts. Robby Alvarado will be in the saddle for the third straight time.
"It's pretty cool," said Ron Lepinski, a 1977 graduate of St. Viator. "The European horses in the race (morningline favorite Treasure Beach and Ziyarid) are a lot better than I thought.
"I like the fact that Ziyarid runs on the lead. I hope we can sit just off him, and then at the eighth pole go right by."
Ron said he is just glad to be a part of the Willcox Inn team.
"We're very blessed," he said. "This is all the hard work of Al, Marty and Mike that got us back to this race. I'm just along for the ride. I just pay the bills."
The bills will be a lot easier to pay with a win Saturday.
"We didn't even know what we were doing last time (2002 Secretariat)," Nixon said. "This time, we can't sleep, we can't eat. We're having a great time going to the festivities all week. The last time we didn't even realize what we had with Extra Check. This time, we truly feel we belong in the race."
And who knows, perhaps an Arlington Million appearance could happen in the future.
"Let's hope we win this one," Nixon said. "And next year, the other one."
Stidham's Workin for Hops, owned by Estrorace LLC, won the first two legs of the Mid-America Triple last season.
"It's big any time you're in a Grade I race," Stidham said. " But this is extra special because we are going for the Mid-America Triple.
"To have a shot at it is tremendous. We are in the same position as last year. Hopefully we can get it done this time."