In the Kentucky Derby of political giving, one horse laps the field

Kentucky Derby
(Photo credit: Velo Steve via Wikimedia Commons

While bettors will be spending big on the 20 thoroughbreds racing to win Saturday's 139th Kentucky Derby, many of the horses' owners have been making their own high-stakes bets — the kind that could pay off in much more than roses.

In honor of America's premier horse race, Sunlight took a look at the political giving records of the owners behind the field's ten favorites on Influence Explorer, and found some heavy political bets: Members of the elite group gave almost $4.5 million to political causes and campaigns since 1990.

In this derby, however, the winner looks like Secretariat at the Belmont: The place and show ponies don't even come close to Kenny Troutt, a telecom mogul whose net worth Forbes puts at $1.2 billion. Owner of the horse Revolutionary, Troutt has contributed a staggering $4.1 million. Of that, 96 percent went  to conservative causes. On 12 occasions Troutt made a donation of more than $100,000, including contributions to Karl Rove's super PAC American Crossroads ($500,000) and the pro-GOP Progress for America Voter Fund ($250,000 on two instances) and to the Red, White and Blue Fund ($150,000) that backed former Sen. Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential bid. But Troutt's prized pony is Texas Gov. Rick Perry: He has contributed $740,000 campaigns and last year gave $150,000 to Make Us Great Again, the super PAC that backed Perry's unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Troutt has generously supported other GOP candidates from his home state of Texas. He has dropped $825,000 for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and $450,000 to Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst (who ran unsuccessfully for Senate last year). Several other Lone Star state Republicans have received thousands from Troutt, including Rep. Pete Sessions as well as Sens. Ted Cruz (who beat Dewhurst in the GOP primary) and John Cornyn, the chief deputy to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Other owners of this year's Derby contenders who have made political contributions are lagging far behind Troutt, though most share his tendency to list to the right. Of the $273,000 in donations made by other of this year's Derby owners, 55 percent of the funds went to support Republicans. This compares to 27 percent for Democrats and 17 percent to other causes, which include third party candidates and non-partisan groups. 

Owners of Orb, one of the front runners for the Derby, donated the second most to political campaigns with more than $225,000 in contributions since 1990. Financier Ogden "Dinny" Phipps sent almost $150,000 to conservatives, including his biggest gift of $30,800 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Owner Stuart Janney III, who is a first cousin of Phipps, has given more than $75,000, much of it to Republicans including $5,000 to Mitt Romney's failed 2012 presidential bid and contributions to a (Seattle) slew of GOP senators, including:  Kentucky's McConnell and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. But Janney has helped some Democrats as well. He made mulitple gifts to retiring Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, and to former Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

The eight horse owners in the 10 whose records we examined have spent minimally throughout their careers, hardly making a dent in past elections. Of the $45,000 they collectively contributed, about half came from the ownership group of Goldencents. Glenn Sorgenstein, a professional numismatist, has a modest record of Democratic giving, making 23 separate contributions to President Barack Obama and his Victory Fund worth about $10,000. Louisville college basketball coach (and current NCAA champion) Rick Pitino also has a stake in Goldencents, and has also supported Democratic politicians. He focuses his efforts in-state, supporting Kentucky Gov. Steve Bashear in 2007 and 2010 as well as Ben Chandler during his gubernatorial run in 2003.

And the owners of four horses haven't given any money to political causes. Personnel representing frontrunner Verrazano as well as thoroughbreds Java's War, Vyjack and Normandy Invasion have kept their wallets sealed shut.

Of the top ten Derby favorites connections, none of the jockeys contributed to a political campaign, and only one trainer did so: Todd Pletcher, who has five horses in the Derby including Verrazano, Overanalyze and Revolutionary. Pletcher has given $1,000 to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association PAC. Horse PAC, as its known, has doled out as much as $638,000 in previous election cycles to candidates of both major parties.

And what of the state that hosts the "Fastest Two Minutes in Sports?" Overall, politicians from Kentucky received a little more than $25,000 from the top ten Derby horse owners. Bluegrass political veteran McConnell has received $4,500 while freshman Rep. Andy Barr, also a Republican, has accepted $5,000 in gifts from the field.