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'Beginner's luck': Oceanport couple among ownership group of Belmont Stakes winner Mo Donegal

Mo Donegal won the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. We're refeaturing this story on Oceanport residents Jeff and Kathy Heiss, who are shareholders in Donegal Racing, the owner of Mo Donegal.

Last year was the first time Oceanport residents Jeff and Kathy Heiss invested anything in horseracing beyond plunking down a small wager at the track.

And on Saturday they’ll be a Churchill Downs with a horse in the Kentucky Derby.

Crazy, right?

UPDATE: Mo Donegal wins 2022 Belmont Stakes, Rich Strike finishes sixth

Also: Trouble for New York horse racing. Will there be an impact in New Jersey?

Except when you consider how fractional ownership of racehorses has altered the sport’s landscape over the past few decades, providing relative ease of entry into the game by many who might not otherwise venture into the Sport of Kings.

Now the couple have more than just a rooting interest in the Run for the Roses, along with the other 53 owners of Wood Memorial winner Mo Donegal, part of a Donegal Racing partnership.

“It’s been unbelievable,” Jeff Heiss said. “It’s kind of all new to us - beginner’s luck. But we did our research on the Donegal group beforehand. I have a friend who has a buddy who has been in the group for a while. So far so good.”

Related: Kentucky Derby contender Cyberknife's emotional ties to Monmouth Park

For the record, the Heiss’ have a 2.5 percent stake in the partnership. And with Mo Donegal having already earned $621,800 on the track, Donegal Racing sold a minority interest in Mo Donegal last week to Mike Repole, the New York entrepreneur and avid horseman.

“Each year Donegal buys from seven to nine yearlings, with an average price of around $180,000,” Heiss said. “There’s money left over for care of the horse throughout its life, all the training fees and if you make some money in the purses as things go on, maybe at the end there’s a little left for you. But the first question Jerry Crawford, who runs Donegal, asked us is ‘do you expect to make money doing this?’ We said no, this is horse racing, an expensive hobby.”

Donegal, Ireland is where Crawford's ancestors are from. Mo Donegal got the rest of his name from his sire, Uncle Mo.

Donegal’s successes have included Keen Ice, who beat Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes and won $2.38 million on the track, and Dullahan and Paddy O’Prado, both Grade 1 winners who finished third in the Kentucky Derby. Arklow, a top turf horse, has $2.9 million in career earnings.  

In all, Donegal’s runners have earned around $18.7 million since its first partnership 14 years ago, with 28 graded stakes wins and eight Grade 1 victories.

“My wife and I grew up at the Shore,” Heiss said. “She grew up in Sea Girt, I grew up in Spring Lake. We met at the Warren Hotel, as bell hop and an elevator operator 40 years ago. I worked in New York City and we lived in Fair Haven, and now we live in the Jockey Club across the street from (Monmouth Park).

“We’ve been enthusiasts, going to the racetrack for 40 years, without getting too involved. I retired from Wall Street like seven years ago, and Kathy’s mom (Maureen Smith) was a huge horse fan and she passed away a few years ago. And what a better way to remember her than trying to do something with the horses and see what happens, so it’s probably her who’s bringing us the good luck.”

 It’s been quite a ride already.

They were at Del Mar for last year’s Breeders Cup, where Ready to Purrform ran in the Qatar Golden Mile Stakes on the undercard. Then Mo Donegal came from just off the pace to beat Kentucky Derby favorite Zandon by a nose in the Grade 3 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in December.

After a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 5, Mo Donegal earned a spot at Churchill Downs this weekend with an impressive win in the Wood Memorial.

Now the Heiss’ are heading to Louisville, with their son, Thomas, and daughter, Kelly, making the trip as well. In all, Donegal will have a group of 300 at the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s going to be great,” Jeff Heiss said. “I think Mo’s got a shot. I think he wants to go longer. And no matter what happens here if he stays healthy, the Belmont might be a good race for him.”

And given all the excitement their investment has generated already, Jeff and Kathy Heiss are playing with house money this weekend at Churchill Downs.