Dream Come True: Necker Island First South Dakota Owned Horse to Run Kentucky Derby in Fifty Years
for Tri-State Livestock News
Wayne Scherr rode his first racehorse when he was five or six years old. He still has the tiny saddle that his father strapped him into that day at a North Dakota track.
“They dropped the flag and away we went,” Scherr remembers.
He was hooked. From that time on, he dreamed of someday having a horse run in the Kentucky Derby.
The son of Alvin and Lois Scherr, the Napoleon, North Dakota native grew up going to school, wrestling, and working during the week at his dad’s masonry and construction business, but most weekends they would load up horses and go to the races.
“There were a lot of tracks in North Dakota back then,” Scherr said. “When I got a little older and got my driver’s license Dad turned me loose. I spent my high school and college years training and racing horses. I took my younger brothers along to ride them. We went to tracks all over North Dakota and into Minnesota and South Dakota as well.”
Scherr wrestled for Jamestown College, and after graduating he taught at Rollette, North Dakota, and then took a job teaching and coaching wrestling in Wagner, South Dakota, where he also operates a masonry business. He maintained his ties to racing for a while but eventually decided to take a break.
About a decade ago, Scherr’s friend Scottie Bergsrud started telling him he needed to get back in.
“Scottie rode for us as a youngster,” Scherr said. “He left high school early to be a professional jockey. I told him I wasn’t ready to get back in the game, but he kept after me. I finally gave him the ok but told him my budget was $25,000.”
Bergsrud picked out a horse, but when Wayne’s wife, Candy, found a receipt for $37,000 in the mail for the purchase, she was not happy.
“We didn’t talk for two or three days,” Scherr said. “That was probably the toughest time in our thirty-eight years of marriage.”
They can laugh about it now, but it was no laughing matter at the time. Scherr eventually got forgiveness even though he hadn’t asked permission before he bought the horse. They put the yearling in training and sold him as a two year old for a profit.
“That horse ran out three hundred thousand dollars,” Scherr said. “We probably should have kept him. But I had to show Candy that it could work.”
For several years Scherr bought yearlings in Kentucky and hauled them to Bergsrud’s place in Ocala, Florida, where they were trained and sold as two year olds. Then he started buying weanlings and selling them as yearlings.
“We did well,” Scherr said, “But I was always looking for my dream horse: one that could take us to the Derby.”
When he talked to trainers they all smiled and nodded but brushed him off.
“That’s every owner’s dream,” one told him.
“They didn’t understand,” Scherr said. “For me it was more than a dream, it was a goal.”
Three or four years after getting back into horses Scherr knew that it was going to be tough.
“I realized that it was something I might never accomplish,” he said. “There are a lot of big name guys out there who have one or two hundred half-million dollar horses to pick from. A price tag isn’t everything though; there are plenty of one to one and a half million dollar horses that don’t make it in. When you’re picking yearlings all you have to go on is pedigree and conformation.”
Scherr worked with several trainers before he found Chris Hartman. Chris was a great fit for Scherrs; with a smaller program he was able to give more personal attention to his horses and clients.
Scherr knew that the odds were not in his favor: out of the roughly twenty thousand Thoroughbreds foaled every year only about twenty will be picked to run in the Kentucky Derby.
“Even though I knew it might never happen, giving up is not part of who I am,” he said, “I’ve gone after my goals 100 percent all my life, both as a wrestler and as a coach.”
Things fell into place to make Wayne’s dream come true in unimaginable ways.
“I’ve prayed hard and long for this,” he said. “God finally gave in and it fell in our laps.”
Due to Covid, the Derby was postponed from May to September. June 13, Chris Hartman called Wayne and said, “I think we found your dream horse.” Necker Island was running in an allowance race with an optional claim and Scherr managed to pull together the funds to claim him on a Saturday, when his bank was not able to wire the money. Another party also put in a bid, but Scherr won the shake and bought his dream horse with two partners from Lexington, one of whom is the great-grandson to Man-O-War’s groom, and his three brothers, David, Kyle and Rick. Necker Island improved under Hartman’s care and training and managed to perform well enough in subsequent races to be in the running for a Derby slot.
“Qualification for the Derby is determined by a horse’s earnings and by a point system from qualifying races,” Scherr said. “We were sitting 28th; the top twenty earn spots. Two or three horses got hurt. Three or four were withdrawn. The secretary of Churchill Downs called and said, ‘We have a spot for him.’ I was working on my daughter’s house when I got the news, and I couldn’t work the rest of the day. I was literally shaking I was so excited.”
Necker Island was picked to finish last, but he finished ninth in the 146th Kentucky Derby that was run on Sept. 5. According to the Scherr family’s research, it has been at least fifty years since a horse owned by a South Dakotan has competed in the Kentucky Derby. In spite of Covid, Scherr was there, along with his wife and fourteen other family members.
“We had a lot of fun,” he said. “I can’t credit Chris Hartman and his wife enough. We beat horses that had beaten us in previous races. They have done a great job with Necker Island. She babies him, takes him out in the yard to graze and keeps him happy. He gets better and better every race.”
Hard work and persistence definitely played their part in getting to the Derby, but so did Divine intervention.
“If you don’t try to do something, it will never happen,” Scherr said. “I’m sure my parents were both smiling down from Heaven, and I’m confident that God was the one to bring all the details together to make this dream come true.”
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