Rise-and-Fall Saga Ends for Brennan

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A few days before the recent Preakness, Chick Lang was reminded of what he had said about Bob Brennan 16 years ago.

Lang, who now covers the Preakness for a Baltimore radio station, was the general manager of Pimlico in 1985, when Brennan’s Garden State Park, waving a $2-million bonus and a $1-million purse, sidetracked Spend A Buck, the Kentucky Derby winner, from the Triple Crown trail.

On the day that Dennis Diaz, the owner of Spend A Buck, announced that his colt would run in the Jersey Derby instead of the Preakness, the smoke that belched from Lang’s office could be seen for miles. The irate racing executive went on the radio and called Brennan a “snake-oil salesman from New Jersey.”


With the face of a choirboy, the confidence of a safecracker and the finesse of a riverboat gambler, Bob Brennan was the consummate charmer, a wheeler-dealer of the first water.

He built his fiefdom by selling penny stocks in the 1970s and 1980s, funneling much of the swag into an empire that included a couple of racetracks, a breeding operation and a racing stable with an unlimited budget. Now Garden State Park, under different management, has closed, and Brennan, convicted of bankruptcy fraud, is facing a possible 10-year prison term. It took a while, but history has made Chick Lang right.

Brennan’s career is the classic rise-and-fall saga. In his heyday, he could buy a good horse simply by opening the vault. For a 50% interest in Deputy Minister, the best 2-year-old in North America and Canada’s horse of the year in 1981, Brennan paid $6 million. Early in 1982, Deputy Minister wrenched his ankle and missed the Kentucky Derby, and a year later Brennan bought the rest of him as a stallion prospect.

One of Deputy Minister’s sons, Dehere, was named after Terry Dehere, a basketball star at Seton Hall, Brennan’s old school, and a No. 1 draft choice of the Clippers. In 1993, the colt Dehere was a 2-year-old champion, and Brennan, whose younger brother had been shot and killed on the streets of Newark, started a Dehere Foundation to educate inner-city youths. Brennan kicked in the first $1 million, pledged Dehere’s purse money to the fund and advertised the campaign with thousands of lights in Times Square.

Brennan reeked of philanthropy then. He donated $800 flak jackets to the New Jersey state troopers. He sent a $2-million check to his old prep school in Newark. The Boy Scouts honored him for his support. The March of Dimes gave him an award. Seton Hall recognized him as a distinguished alumnus.

It was hard to turn on the TV and not see Brennan’s big, winsome smile. He beat the drums for First Jersey Securities, his thriving but controversial brokerage, by emerging from a helicopter with the line, “Come grow with us.” That commercial and Brennan’s boilerplate sales tactics brought in carloads of investors.


Not many escaped his net. For the soirees at his rambling digs on the Jersey shore, parades of limousines deposited guests at the door. His office on Wall Street, the one he commuted to via private helicopter, was open-door. If you needed details about this mare or that stallion, the FedEx man was on your stoop before you hung up the phone.

“You only get so many years on this earth,” Brennan said. “I believe in taking the plunge.”

The heady good life was not without the flip side, though. Only days after his brother’s murder was the death of Brennan’s mother, who was in her early 50s. Brennan’s first wife committed suicide.

In the 1980s, the Securities and Exchange Commission began to pester Brennan, suggesting fraud and stock manipulation. In the heat of battle, Brennan thumbed his nose at the so-called ogre. He named his racing operation the Due Process Stable, “because that’s what I never got from the SEC--due process.”

By 1995, his brokerage firm was near collapse and Brennan was ordered to pay the SEC $75 million. Another court judgment against him came to $55 million. This year, the last shoe to drop was a brogan. A federal jury found Brennan, 57, guilty on seven counts of money laundering and bankruptcy fraud.

Garden State Park, the track that closed down on May 3, had been destroyed by fire and rebuilt by Brennan, at a cost of $180 million, in the early 1980s. Spend A Buck won the 1985 Jersey Derby, collecting $2.6 million in purse and bonus money. That’s still the most money a horse has earned in a single day at a track, and the next year Brennan was back for more. Ferdinand won the Kentucky Derby and Snow Chief the Preakness, but the Belmont Stakes missed out on the rubber match when Snow Chief opted for--and won--the Jersey Derby.


Photos of Brennan at recent court appearances show a broken man. His blond hair has thinned, his face is drawn and those twinkling eyes are hollowed-out circles. In his palmy days, Brennan looked younger than he was, but no more.

After the verdicts, Brennan thanked his family and friends for their support.

Last year, Bill Parcells, the recently retired pro football coach, showed up in court, reportedly to pay $150,000 of the $500,000 bail that kept Brennan on the street. Recognizing Parcells, onlookers were amazed. Brennan said, “I’ve got some very nice friends, you know.”

Then he left, a free man, at least for the moment. There wasn’t a limousine or a helicopter in sight.