Jockey Jose L. Ortiz ridesSerengeti Empress to victory at the Longines Kentucky Oaks May 3. 

Dr. Joel Politi might have been the happiest man in Columbus on May 3, when what could be called a legacy dream of his family came true when Serengeti Empress, his 3-year-old filly, won the Longines Kentucky Oaks. 

In the world of horse racing, the Oaks is known as the premier event for fillies, female horses usually younger than four years old. Held at the prestigious Churchill Downs race track in Louisville, Ky., home of the Kentucky Derby, it’s a Grade 1 stakes race that’s been held since 1875. 

While Politi, a member of Temple Israel in Columbus, hasn’t been around the track that long, he has spent nearly his whole life around horses. His father was born and raised in Egypt and had fond memories of spending time at the race tracks there. When he emigrated to the United States he continued to be passionate about the sport. So much so that he built a twelve-horse barn in their backyard. The family trained and raised horses to race regionally at tracks at JACK Thistledown Racino in North Randall, a suburb of Cleveland, and Waterford Park in Chester, W.Va.

“It was just part of our life,” Politi said as he reminisced about spending Saturdays at the track with his father.

While retaining an interest in horse racing as he grew up, Politi pursued a career in medicine as an orthopedic surgeon. He works at Orthopedic One with locations around Central Ohio, where he specializes in hips and knees.

In 2005, he took his first step into the horse racing ownership ring. While he owned a number of strong runners, it took a few years to find “the one.” In 2017 he attended the Keeneland Yearling Sale with trainer Tom Amoss. It was there that he was introduced to his future champion.

“It was clear during training that she was pretty good,” he said. 

He said he didn’t really understand how good though until she cruised to a win in the Ellis Park Debutante in Henderson, Ky., by 13½ lengths in August 2018. She followed that up with a win of 19½ lengths in the Pocahontas at Churchill Downs in September 2018. 

“You just don’t win by that much at Churchill Downs,” Politi said of the record-setting run. 

Even while she was riding a wave of success, there was a question of whether Politi would have Serengeti Empress run in the Oaks. She had experienced a health-related concern and Politi and Amoss put a brief hold on her career until they were sure that the health issues were not systemic. After checkups and workouts she was, figuratively and literally, off to the races.

Politi is quick to credit the work of Amoss in Serengeti Empress’ development and recuperation calling him “a great trainer and a great man.”

After a lifetime of being around horses, Politi, still finds joy in the simple areas of the sport. 

“I love waking up early and getting down to the track and seeing the horses,” he said. “Being involved with them, watching them grow, watching them train.”

His only disappointment, if you wanted to call it that, is that his father passed away in 2009. 

“He would have been over the moon on Friday,” Politi said.

Noell Wolfgram Evans writes for the Columbus Jewish News from Columbus. 

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