Kentucky Derby hopeful Tale of Ekati's owner Charles Fipke name his colt after a diamond mine that made him a millionaire a hundred times over.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They told Charles Fipke he was on a fool's errand, combing through Canada's barren Northwest Territory with microscope in hand, digging for buried treasure in the untamed tundra like a young boy who had read one too many adventure novels.
At his heart, though, Fipke is a scientist. His instincts told him there were diamonds hidden in the area called Ekati in the early 1990s, a remote area about 200 miles north of Yellowknife. Peering through the lens one day, Fipke thumbed through the clues that sparked the biggest land rush in a century and made him a millionaire hundreds of times over.
"Looking at the concentrate and seeing they're full of diamonds, it's pretty exciting," he said.
Almost as exciting, Fipke says with a laugh, as making the Kentucky Derby.
After spending nearly three decades losing money, if not patience, searching for the horse that could bring him to Churchill Downs, Fipke is finally in the Run for the Roses with the colt named after the mine that he turned into one of the world's largest diamond producers.
Tale of Ekati qualified for the Derby by edging a tiring War Pass in the final yards of the Wood Memorial, and has blossomed under trainer Barclay Tagg, who guided Funny Cide to wins in the Derby and Preakness in 2003.
At first blush, the swashbuckling Fipke and the perpetually cranky Tagg make the Derby's oddest combination of owner and trainer. Their hairline - or lack thereof - may be the only thing they have in common.
Yet Fipke has a way about him that puts others at ease. Early Friday morning Tagg, Fipke and good friend Jack Werk stood outside Barn 48 at Churchill Downs laughing among themselves as Tale of Ekati prepared for a light gallop on the track.
"There were a lot of trainers that were more flamboyant, but I don't care about that," Fipke said. "We want to get the job done and do things right."
It's what led Fipke to Tagg in the first place. Knowing he had a talented 2-year-old on his hands last spring, Fipke crunched the numbers before coming up with Tagg.
Now the man who sleeps at the houses of generals in Angola while monitoring his mining operation there and talks faster than a jackhammer has formed a partnership with the tightlipped Tagg, who's nearly as high strung as some of the horses he trains.
Where that partnership will lead Saturday is anybody's guess. Tale of Ekati will start from the No. 2 post and at 15-1 in the field of 20 is not among the favorites. Fipke, however, has made a career out of beating the odds.
The Ekati mine opened in 1998 and now employs 1,500 people and produces 13,000 carats of the most expensive jewels on the planet each day. There's even a book "Fire into Ice: Charles Fipke & the Great Diamond Hunt," that immortalizes Fipke and Stewart Blusson's daring search for the precious stones.
He's hoping for a similar storybook ending with this Tale. But even if Saturday afternoon passes without Fipke and Tale of Ekati living happily ever after, he's already planning on a sequel.
Ever the scientist, Fipke stables some of his horses in Kentucky because of the limestone bedrock buried deep beneath the bluegrass. The mineral finds its way into the water, providing horses with valuable calcium that he feels makes them stronger than those raised elsewhere.
"If you're going to be in this, you've got to have every advantage," he said. "You've got to do the things it takes to win."