Irv Naylor is shown with former timber horse and current field hunter Hot Springs. The longtime steeplechase owner and former amateur jockey, who was partially paralyzed in a racing fall in 1999, was named top owner by the NSA in 2010. He helps to fund research into curing paralysis.
Irv Naylor was a man on a mission on two fronts in 2010. After losing the National Steeplechase Association leading owner award the previous year by a scant $4,000, Naylor reloaded and closed with a rush, snatching the crown on the final day of the season.
A longtime major steeplechase owner and former amateur jockey, the NSA championship was his first. Persistence and determination are embedded in the DNA of the York, Pa. businessman. Nearly a dozen years ago Naylor, then 63, was seriously injured in a fall while riding Emerald Action in the Grand National on April 17, 1999.
He broke his neck. His life changed incredibly forever. Fracturing his C 5/C6 vertebrae, Naylor was instantly paralyzed with no use of his arms and legs. After extensive and tortuous rehabilitation workouts Naylor regained fifty percent use and strength in his arms, but the sight line for his steeplechase racers is from a wheelchair.
Over the past decade Naylor has persevered. In addition, he has championed a cure for spinal injuries and has given a reported $3 million to help fund research at Michigan State University. While his horses will compete in the 2011 NSA campaign, Naylor may be on hiatus. Last fall he agreed to take part in groundbreaking stem cell research treatments and is slated to undergo stem-cell surgery in April.
“I’ve been so close to the owner’s title; I really wanted to win it last year,” he said. “It was very welcome and I am appreciative to all my trainers and their crews that prepared our horses.”
A native of Stevenson, Md., Naylor’s father operated a filling station in nearby Pikesville. His introduction to the horse world was through his grandfather and uncle, both blacksmiths.
“I don’t remember ever not being on a pony,” Naylor, 75, recalled. “I attended McDonogh, a military school (grades 1- 12). In my senior year I was the captain of the school’s cavalry.”
After graduating from Miami University, Naylor launched Lok-Box in 1960, a packaging company that produced wooden boxes for clients such as English Leather toiletries. Eight years later he started Cor-Box that made corrugated boxes. Lok-Box was sold in 1980 and after his accident Naylor sold Cor-Box in 1999. An avid skier and longtime supporter of the National Ski Patrol, Naylor started Ski Roundtop in 1964 and his company, Snow Time, Inc., then later helped develop Liberty Mountain Resort, Ski Windham in New York (later sold) and Whitetail Mountain Resort.
Naylor’s stable sprinted to the lead during the 2010 spring steeplechase season, but fell back as Chester County’s Bill Pape’s runners swept four of five races in Saratoga. By October, Naylor had acquired several new and talented horses, including Percussionist, King of America and Decoy Daddy.
In his first American start, Percussionist, the 9-year old son of Sadler’s Wells, ran away from the field to score a 7-length victory in the 2010 Grade 1 Grand National, earning a $150,000 paycheck that pushed his career earnings to more than $709,00 from 11 wins (eight over fences). Back in 2004 he finished fourth England’s famed Epsom Derby, and sixth in the Colonial Cup, his first start in Naylor’s green, white and gold silks. Percussionist is one of three horses nominated for Steeplechase Horse of the Year.
“Percussionist was brought over by a Danish owner along with another horse and he didn’t want to take them back to in England after the Grand National, so I did a deal for both his horses. He’s had suspensory issues, but he’s run very well over the past few years and we’re hoping that continues this year.”
After a slow start, Naylor’s reigning timber champ, 10-year old Patriot’s Path, put it all together last fall, delivering three victories in the Genesee Valley Hunt Cup, the New Jersey Hunt Cup, and the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Irish import Decoy Daddy rolled to an impressive win in the Noel Laing Memorial at Montpelier. Finally, Tax Ruling, winner of the Mason Houghland Iroquois in the spring, galloped home third in the Colonial Cup and lifted his owner past Pape by $7,910 to seal the 2010 owner’s championship. Naylor has been the leading timber racing owner for seven of the past eight years.
Jump horse trainers Brianne Slater, Anne Stewart, Kathy McKenna and Billy Meister each train a few horses for Naylor. Christine Close trains Percussionist. Desmond Foley conditions the majority of Naylor’s jumpers at his Still Water Farm in Maryland, including Tax Ruling and Decoy Daddy. For the first time Foley has taken a string of Naylor’s jumpers down to Camden, S. C. to get a jump on the early spring racing season.
“With the hard ground in Maryland in the winter we’re not able to do this, so down here we’ll school them up and get them ready to go,” noted Foley who has worked with Naylor since 2006. “We’ve worked well together. Irv wants communication and to be in the picture concerning what races we’re pointing toward. The last few years we’ve banged up some good winners.
“He doesn’t talk much about his medical situation, but he’s a very determined man. He knows the research he’s backing will help younger people who have the same injuries. He wants it to benefit as many people as possible.”
Searching for a Cure
Shortly after his accident Naylor says he turned his interest, instincts and intellect toward a cure for his paralysis. Initially, he sought out researchers at Advanced Cell Technology that had been involved in the cloning of Dolly the sheep.
Naylor recognized stem cell research as his best hope, and the best hope for others suffering from paralysis. Many experts believe that stem cell therapy could transform medical treatments for "incurable" diseases such as spinal cord injury, heart failure, Parkinson's disease, kidney failure, retinal degeneration, and diabetes. The confusion surrounding “human embryonic stem cells” and “human therapeutic cloning” research has led to a strong negative public debate.
“I met Dr. Jose Cibelli, a pioneering scientist to whom I took an instant liking,” Naylor recounted. “I became mesmerized by his work. He needed a larger platform so he moved on to Michigan State University. I reviewed his work there along with his criteria and budgeting that called for a six-year program. I asked if we could speed that up to three years, and Jose said we needed to double the budget, so I got a partner.”
Naylor funded half of the research costs to the tune of a reported $3 million. Last May Naylor revealed that Dr. Cibelli and his research team have succeeded in their research project that revolves around a patented process known as “dedifferentiation.”
Working with Dr. Phil Horner of Washington University they were able to convert skin cells from Naylor’s inner thigh into stem cells as if in their embryonic stage. The original plan required both the U. S. Federal Drug Administration and its counterpart in Europe to grant approval before having the newly programmed cells injected into a neck area location.
Treatment in Hong Kong
Naylor’s latest obstacle: FDA approval that could take from two to ten years. Safety precautions for the patient are at the root of the lengthy delay, according to Naylor.
“That time frame is not in my comfortable horizon, so we have a meeting set up for April 2o in Hong Kong to present our case to do this procedure over there,” he explained. “ If they agree to it, the operation could be a few days later. If it falls through that will be a large and bitter pill with all the time, energy and money that have been put into this study. “
Naylor says the April 20th date is especially ironic, a few days after his accident’s date that is never very far from the front of his mind.
“I feel very much at a loss for all the things I haven’t been able to do physically over the past 11 years,” Naylor acknowledges. “It’s changed my life incredibly and even more so wife’s Diane’s life. I don’t know what I would have done without her. Diane has been my hands.”
So did the wildly successful businessman and sportsman ever think that he shouldn’t be riding in timber races at the age of 63?
“No one has ever asked me that question,” Naylor replied in a quiet voice. “My plan was to ride that race and the Maryland Hunt Cup and then retire. My reach exceeded my grasp by two races. I rode at that age because I loved it. Four mornings a week I would gallop horses, then start fox hunting in the fall. I was in very good shape. I skied five or six weeks a year in Aspen and Steamboat Springs, even helicopter skiing. Played tennis, went diving. I led a very active life.”
He has tried sit-skiing, but it’s little consolation. His travel has been cut back dramatically, though Naylor and his wife were headed to the Cayman Islands in mid- January for five weeks. Still active in business, he undergoes grueling physical therapy routinely at his York home. He can move his arms with roughly 50 percent total range of motion. But, mobility in his hands has not come around.
“I’ve been through a half dozen operations on them and there is still no real value,” he admitted. “Writing is difficult. I have a hard time handling paper. People not in a wheel chair don’t know what it’s like to be totally dependent on other people, especially for a proud person.”
Naylor has been in touch with Chester County jump jockey Jake Chalfin, offering support and advice. The amateur rider suffered paralysis from the chest down in a fall at the Blue Ridge Fall Races in Berryville, Va. last September.
“At his age he has to look toward a cure,” Naylor said. “At my age, I’m not sure I’ll see it unless Jose and Phil and our group can do what we’re capable of doing and find a location to do this transplantation. If we can do this, there could be a cure much sooner.”
Despite significant downside risks and possible failure of the injections, Naylor remains determined.
“All in all, I’ve had a magical life,” Naylor acknowledged. “Right now, I’m doing all I can to push the Hong Kong button, working as hard as I can to get that accomplished.”