To win in the NBA, a team has to have the horses.
Nobody understands that better than Washington Bullets general manager John Nash, who is trying to piece together an NBA contender after years of mediocrity at the Capital Centre.
And Nash is a man who knows his horses -- literally.
For 20 years, the basketball executive has owned thoroughbreds that have competed on the Philadelphia-New Jersey circuits, basically in lower- to mid-level claiming races.
He even had a small interest with Robert Levy, chairman of Atlantic City Race Course, in Bet Twice, a Belmont Stakes and Pimlico Special winner who was also second in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Bet Twice earned $3,308,559 during a 26-race career, ranking 13th all-time when he was retired.
"I like to say I owned one hair of Bet Twice's tail," said Nash. "I was involved in a minuscule way."
Nevertheless, ownership has been a passion for Nash since he )) cashed in three trifecta bets within three weeks in 1972 at Garden State's fall meeting -- and soon bought his first horse.
"I was in one of those zones where I couldn't do anything wrong," said. "As I recall, the payoffs were $3,300, $1,000 and $9,700. I made a decision to put it back into buying. The next March, I made my first buys."
On May 5, 1973, the day Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, a horse named Sky Champ was Nash's first winner in a $4,500 claimer at Garden State.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is an easy game,' " Nash said. "But the horse was claimed from me, and it took several years before I went back to the winner's circle."
Now, he looks at the game differently.
"Frankly, it's an avocation," he said. "If I can break even, I'm happy."
Generally, he has maintained a one-horse stable through the two decades, at times getting out of the game. More recently, he has gotten involved in breeding.
A 3-year-old filly named Cheeseball Ann, named after his wife's "awful cheese ball," has been one of Nash's most successful acquisitions with five victories in 15 starts.
He also has a 4-year-old gelding, Ashburn, named after Philadelphia Phillies great Richie Ashburn, recovering from a bowed tendon at his small farm in Newtown Square, Pa., outside Philadelphia.
His personal favorite is Granite Run, a horse he bought as a yearling, sold as an unraced 2-year-old, then re-purchased as a pet after he broke down.
Granite Run, who was bowed in both legs at the time, recovered to win 19 more races for various owners, never running for more than a $7,500 claiming tag.
"I owned him six different times and claimed him four times," Nash said. "He's 18 years old and still a pet today. He last raced in 1980."
Nash said his horses never have competed on the Maryland circuit, because "I felt it was a little tougher than elsewhere. At the lower claiming prices, it's as tough as any state."
During the years, Phil Aristone, who learned the trade under Ben Perkins in New Jersey, has served mostly as Nash's trainer.
"My daughters tend to the horses at the farm. In the winter, we don't keep as many there," he said. "Right now, we have two babies, two mares and two geldings."
Nash is also a partner in a syndicate of "East Coast-area sports people," including Levy, who have six unraced 2-year-olds in training. "It was an opportunity to get involved with real top-quality horses.
"But my real enjoyment is at the lower levels," he said. "That picture after a $5,000 race in the winner's circle looks a lot like the one after a big stakes."