By Tonya Abeln
Photos by Amber Chalfin and Mathea Kelley
While the history books might reflect that 2017 was not a Triple Crown year officially, one Louisville legend took the odds in his own hands to assure that it would be.
Even the most casual observer of this year’s Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes noticed that the winner of each leg of the Triple Crown wore the Jeff Ruby’s logo down their leg. It was a move, like any Triple Crown winner, that required lofty dreams, wise negotiations and more than a little luck.
Jeff Ruby is used to taking a gamble when it comes to his business decisions. The legendary restaurateur, who owns five successful restaurants in three states, opened his first fine-dining steakhouse in 1981 amid a terrible economy. Since opening Jeff Ruby’s Louisville in 2006, the hotspot has become synonymous with the Kentucky Derby and hosts celebrities visiting for the occassion each year.
While Ruby doesn’t own a horse, his support of the jockey community has been noted for many years through his involvement with The Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund (PDJF), an organization that supports jockeys who have sustained serious injuries. “I’m a racing enthusiast and respect everyone associated with the sport,” Ruby says. Through his support of PDJF, Ruby built solid relationships with many within the jockey community and started sponsoring individual riders. “The jockey community is very close. They’re family oriented and share so many of the same values that we hold important,” Ruby shares. “For many of them, our sponsorship provides means for their families to travel and watch them race. They represent our brand very, very well.”
His relationships would not be enough to get Jeff Ruby’s logo emblazoned visibly on the pants of some of the most talented jockeys in the Run for the Roses. Although in 2004, a federal judge approved riders to wear advertising in the Derby, Kentucky state regulations required jockeys to gain approvals from multiple sources, including horse owners and racetrack officials, making the process difficult and, in most cases, impossible. Additionally, each track has veto power if a potential sponsor conflicts with any of their own sponsorships.
Ruby credits two prominent Louisville businesses with helping him realize his Triple Crown dream. “I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to sponsor a jockey at the Kentucky Derby had it not been for Bill Carstanjen, Kevin Flanery and Greg Creed,” he acknowledges. Ruby’s previous attempts to sponsor had been met with hesitation as a potential conflict with Yum! Brands, the presenting sponsor of the Kentucky Derby, since both were in the food business. Ruby was able to gain approval with previous Yum! CEO David Novak, but just as the process started to move forward with the green light from Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen and President Kevin Flanery, Novak announced his retirement in 2015. Ruby feared he would have to start the process all over again. Luckily, a relationship was established with new Yum! Brands CEO Greg Creed and by the first Saturday in May, Jeff Ruby’s logo was the first to cross the finish line on the leg of John Velazquez atop Always Dreaming.
Two weeks later, by the Preakness race, Ruby had jockeys approaching him for sponsorship. One of those riders was Javier Castellano who would ride Cloud Computing to victory. In Ruby’s business, they would say the “steaks” were high. No sponsoring brand had ever won each of the three legs of the Triple Crown in the same year. Would Jeff Ruby’s be the first? Well, Ruby wasn’t up for the gamble so he took odds into his own hands and sponsored all the horses in the field to secure his place in history. Tapwrit, one of the favorites at the time and the ultimate winner of the Belmont Stakes 2017, had already secured a sponsorship by a business acquaintance, but one phone call from Ruby was all it took to convince him to play into his plan and give sponsorship of winning jockey Jose Ortiz to Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse on June 10 and secure his triple crown victory.
You can stop into Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse to see the now-famous jockey pants signed, framed and proudly displayed. VT
Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse Louisville
325 W Main St.