Heart, Soul & Saddle: Actress, activist, and Breeders’ Cup ambassador Bo Derek shares her love for the sport, and how her passion for animals has inspired her life
By Deanna Murphy | Photography by Kerry Perez
Since its inception in 1984, Breeders’ Cup has been the ultimate thoroughbred racing event; a world championship meeting designed to be the exclamation point to round out the year. Its reputation and recognition as the crème de la crème of the racing world has made it a favorite of fans worldwide, not the least of whom is actress, animal lover, and activist, Bo Derek.
As one of the celebrity ambassadors for the Breeders’ Cup, Derek is a longtime, enthusiastic cheerleader for the meet. She was a racing commissioner in California for roughly seven years (her tenure concluded with her resignation in 2015), providing her an ideal platform to flex her muscle as an animal activist and impact the overall safety of the sport, which she did in spades. Under her leadership, tremendous leaps were made to improve the health of both horse and jockey. Though her position took her to countless races across the globe, she’s quick to play favorites. “I just think that, for so many of us, we know the Breeders’ Cup, we know the Triple Crown, and I’m sorry but the best racing is Breeders’ Cup,” she says, matter-of-fact. “It’s the international ‘world cup of racing.’ It takes racing to another level.” The best part for Derek isn’t even the thrill of the horses barreling down the home stretch. “My favorite part is going out in the mornings to various barns, watching the foreign horses come in, saying hello to friends,” she says. “The racing community is especially wonderful for me because I’m around people who have the same passion that I do about horses.”
A memorable introduction to Breeders’ Cup just might have contributed to her love for this particular event. “Merv Griffin actually invited me the very first time to Breeders’ Cup [at Hollywood Park],” she says. “I was blown away!”
Fast-forward several years, and Derek became a central figure in the racing world, proving that an interest in horses’ health and well-being can coexist with a love of the sport. And it’s that genuine caring that she hopes will encourage people to rethink any negative opinion of the sport. “I think that if someone truly went back side to the barns and saw for themselves everything that goes on with the welfare and safety of these horses — they’re happy,” she says. While she admits this may not be the case yet globally, “Come to the Breeders’ Cup and you’ve a lot of happy, very spoiled, very indulged horses. They don’t run well unless they’re happy and they want to be in front.”
“I’m really proud of the changes we’ve made,” she continues, adding that Del Mar is a leader in safety within the industry. So much so that, she says, the California Horse Racing Board would look to Del Mar to show other tracks how to implement changes for improved safety.
Of course, that’s not all she loves about Del Mar. It also holds some special memories for her. “My earliest memory of Del Mar is, I think was 17 and I came down with some friends and we had drinks at sunset with Jimmy Durante, and I remember the horses on the beach coming out of the water,” she recalls. “I’ll never forget it. I feel like I’ve stepped in one era and then another. I had a foot in both, just for a second, anyway.”
It’s the coastal setting that sets Del Mar apart from other venues for Derek. “I just love that you could go to the beach in the morning and find trainers, jockeys, exercise grooms, everybody in the water, then go back, have lunch, and then go to the track and everyone’s racing. I think that’s unique to Del Mar,” she says. “And the nighttime scene is fantastic — one great restaurant to another.” Market, Pamplemousse Grille, Cucina Enoteca, and Morada top her list.
Of course, it’s well known that Derek’s love for both horses and the sport long precedes her official affiliation with horseracing. She titled her 2002 autobiography Riding Lessons: Everything That Matters in Life I Learned from Horses, and, explaining how her love for animals came to be, she says simply, “I was born that way.” While she’s reluctant to actually label herself — “I never set out to be an activist, and I still don’t consider myself an activist,” she says humbly — her passion for all animals has drawn her to involve herself in numerous causes where she feels she can have the greatest impact.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as you go to an event, sit next to someone at a dinner party and you start talking, and they’re doing something so incredible and admirable, and they’re an expert at, and they say, ‘Can you help?’” she says.
Being drawn into so many different places makes it easy to wonder where her heart is. Her response: “It’s everywhere,” she says, honestly. “[Acting] has always been really good to me so I’m grateful for any work I get, and to be included in it. It turns out that for a really lazy person, as I would define myself, I keep really busy and I keep taking on new projects. I’ve gotten very big into an organization that fights wildlife trafficking [Wild Aid], I was actually special envoy to the Secretary of State on wildlife trafficking, and I keep taking on these projects and keeping myself very busy.” In fact, Derek is looking forward to Wild Aid’s star-studded annual gala in Beverly Hills on November 11.
But first, it’s Breeders’ Cup on November 3 and 4. She’ll be in Del Mar to take in the many events planned throughout the week leading up to the actual races, including Jake’s 35th Annual Beach Fun Run on October 28, where she’ll be on hand — and horseback — as the race’s official starter. There, she’ll also have a booth selling her recently re-launched Bo Derek Pet Care line, featuring her patented signature fragrance that keeps pets smelling fresher, longer. Borne out of necessity when Derek’s ranch home included a veritable menagerie of big, hairy dogs (the pack has since shrunken to only two, plus four horses and a donkey), the line is yet another tangible by-product of Derek’s love for all animals.