It's early morning at Belmont Park, and the 2-year-old filly Meadow Star is munching on a moist bale of hay at the northern end of Barn 26. A slender horse, she goes about her business while a groom wraps her ankles. "These are some important legs," he says, barely lifting his head.
Indeed. When Meadow Star lines up with 10 other horses in the Juvenile Fillies race on Breeders' Cup Day on Saturday, she will be the heaviest favorite in the history of what is billed as the Super Bowl of horse racing.
She'll also probably be a prohibitive sentimental favorite, given her beneficiaries. If she wins the $450,000 first prize, the Children's Rescue Fund, which shelters homeless and abused children, will win, too. That's the pledge from Meadow Star's owner, Carl Icahn, who says the filly's winnings in the Cup and future races will go to charity.
It's the content of those future races that holds considerable intrigue.
Meadow Star is unbeaten this year, having won six races. Her latest victory came at the Grade I Frizette Stakes at Belmont on Oct. 6, where she won by a stunning 14 lengths.
What's next? Maybe the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown. After all, Meadow Star, the daughter of Meadowlake, does have the best times of any 2-year-old in the country, regardless of gender.
"I won't rule it out," says Icahn, a Wall Street corporate raider, whose biggest trophy is Trans World Airlines. Shrewdly, Icahn and his veteran trainer Leroy Jolley are waiting for the year-end earnings report due out Saturday.
"You could say this is a test," said Leroy Jolley Jr., who is helping train the filly with his father. "She has been pointed to the top all along. And now she's in the best shape she's ever been. It's kind of scary."
Jolley's son says the comparisons to another filly that Jolley trained are inevitable. "Genuine Risk was unbeaten as a 2-year-old, too," he says. "Then she won the Kentucky Derby (only the third filly to ever win the first jewel of the Triple Crown)."
Meanwhile, Icahn is breaking through some barriers of his own. Raised in Queens, a few miles from Belmont Park, Icahn crept into the the breeding part of the industry in 1985. He's a relative newcomer among a field of families that have been in the business for years.
"I'm still not sure why I got into it," said Icahn, who paid a paltry $90,000 for Meadow Star. "I guess it was the challenge. I'm competitive by nature. When I got into it, everybody told me I might lose at it. I thought it would be interesting to get in there and prove that I could operate the venture and make a profit. We've done pretty well so far."
Icahn says he prefers the breeding side. But he also "gets an emotional charge when you go to a track and watch your horse win, like Meadow Star has."
Still, he doesn't see his emphasis switching to that side of the business. "I'd rather spend time finding the bargains at an auction," he says.
Either way, his presence has been a boon for both the sport, which prefers high-profile owners, and the kids he's trying to help.
Icahn may be ruthless behind a bargaining table, but he talks a good game when it comes to disadvantaged kids. And he backs it up, too.
"It's unconscionable what we've done to children in our cities," said Icahn, who has pledged to match every dollar that is donated under Meadow Star's name. "That's why Meadow Star can be so important for us. She can help turn this situation around."
BREEDERS' CUP AT A GLANCE
What: The Breeders' Cup consists of seven Grade I races with purses and awards totaling $10-million.
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
TV: NBC-Ch. 8, 1:30-6 p.m.