Chuck Sandford bought a horse because his wife, Maribeth, told him he needed a hobby. That was June 2009.
Not three years later and he has a star horse, a champion jockey and a highly respected trainer all headed for the Kentucky Derby -- the most prestigious horse race in the country.
Sandford and his wife, of rural Marengo in McHenry County, own Bag Makers Inc., a company that Maribeth started in 1980 in a converted dairy barn and Sandford joined after the couple's marriage in 1991. Bag Makers has grown into a leading supplier with hundreds of employees printing more than 55 million promotional bags each year.
Sandford said it's all of their capable employees that give the couple the opportunity to be in the horse racing world. They sometimes travel to different races three times a month and last winter spent almost five months straight in Florida, where Take Charge Indy and their seven other horses train.
The 3-year-old colt comes from pristine stock -- AP Indy, his father, and Take Charge Lady, his mother, are well known for their racing success.
"He's bred like royalty," Sandford said. "The racing industry is watching him with a lot of interest because of his bloodlines."
Take Charge Indy had his start at Arlington Park, taking second place in the Arlington-Washington Futurity last September -- the most important race for 2-year-olds at the track. Since then he has gone on to perform well at the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity and the Breeder's Cup.
His most impressive win to date came March 31 in Florida. According to Joe Kristufek, co-owner of Horseplayernow.com and the Daily Herald Arlington Park racing writer, two of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby were racing in the Florida Derby against Take Charge Indy. A horse named Union Rags was expected to win, but Take Charge Indy, ridden by Calvin Borel, breezed to victory after an early lead.
"Now he's really got everyone's attention because he beat those top-class horses," Kristufek said. "I guess you could call it his coming out party."
The win also was Indy's ticket to the Kentucky Derby, where the top 20 horses in the nation compete for the first leg of the prestigious Triple Crown.
Sandford said his horse's kin are known for getting better and faster with age, making Indy's future success anyone's guess.
"He's very, very talented," Sandford said. "We don't even know how talented. I guess we're going to try to find out (at the Kentucky Derby.)"
Patrick Byrne, Take Charge Indy's trainer, solidified himself as one of the best in the late 1990s, leading Favorite Trick and Countess Diana to Breeders' Cup wins and Awesome Again to the Breeders' Cup Classic. He has trained horses that have won hundreds of races.
And he said Take Charge Indy is definitely "one of the best" horses he has ever had -- maybe even the best.
Indy is a friendly horse, full of character and "a bit of a ham," according to his trainer. He loves people and gets plenty of attention from those who love him back -- leaving him probably more than a little spoiled. The colt is a beautiful dark brown with brown eyes and a spot of white in the center of his forehead.
Calvin Borel, Indy's jockey, has been on the winning Kentucky Derby horse three times since 2007 when he rode Street Sense, a male thoroughbred owned by Jim Tafel of Barrington.
Byrne said having the "king of the Kentucky Derby" on race day will take away some of the anxiety surrounding the run.
"Having a guy like Calvin just removes a lot of the guesswork," Byrne said. "You just throw him up and hope he has a safe trip."
Byrne, Indy and Borel will arrive in Kentucky at Churchill Downs racetrack May 1, flying in style from their Florida homes. Byrne said he plans to take it easy once they arrive, training a little on the track but saving Indy's speed for race day: Saturday, May 5.
Besides Union Rags, the horse Indy shocked the racing community by beating in Florida, experts have their eyes on Creative Cause, Gemologist, I'll Have Another and Bodemeister. The entire group of 20 that are racing have had strong showings this year, leaving the race wide open.
"This is going to be one of the strongest Kentucky Derby fields we've seen in a long time," Kristufek said.
For Sandford, he would have been at the race whether Indy went or not. He and his wife and several members of their families have made it down to Kentucky for "the greatest two minutes in sports" for the past few years and Maribeth grew up going to derbies when she lived in Louisville. She already has her hat picked out for this year's event.
When Sandford bought his first horse, it wasn't his first foray into the racing world -- he had followed the sport and bet on horses for at least 30 years. When Maribeth told him to find a hobby, he chose one of the most expensive ones around in becoming an owner. But with Take Charge Indy, his wins will more than make up for the expense of training him, insuring him and keeping him healthy.
Sandford said Indy will probably only run for another year or so before he retires and turns to the breeder's shed, where he'll continue earning money for potentially as long as he is fertile.
In the meantime, Byrne is training Sandford's other horses, two of which are racing this year. It was from Byrne that Sandford bought his first horse -- a young colt with good breeding but, ultimately, minimal racing talent.
"That didn't turn out real well," Sandford said. "But it got me started."