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Canadian diamond magnate doubles down in Run for the Roses

Kentucky Derby entry Java's War, owned by Charles Fipke and trained by Ken McPeek, gets a bath after a morning exercise the day before the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky, on May 3, 2013.

David Stephenson

Charles Fipke's life sounds like a fantastic tale Hollywood scriptwriters could spin into an epic film:

A clever kid from Alberta grows up to be a brilliant geologist, and survives malaria, perilous helicopter journeys, angry wild animals and Stone Age warriors in his tenacious quest for diamonds and gold. He discovers one of the world's richest diamond deposits in Canada's Arctic, builds extraordinary wealth and applies his tenacity to another pursuit – breeding thoroughbreds to run in the world's biggest races.

Horsemen from all over invest and strategize to get their horse enough experience and points to qualify as one of the elite 20 for the annual Kentucky Derby. The now-66-year-old diamond prospector had a horse there in 2008, Tales of Ekati, which finished fourth.

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On Saturday, Fipke will have two horses in the $2-million (U.S.) Run for the Roses – Java's War and Golden Soul – a feat racing experts say hasn't been accomplished by a Canadian owner in recent Derby memory.

The eccentric multimillionaire geologist hasn't jumped into horse racing as a simple financier. He has invested in top-quality broodmares to breed and develop his own stallions. He has been patient, methodical, and relentless, just as he was when exploring for gold, copper or diamonds in the jungles of New Guinea, the rainforests of Africa and across hundreds of painstaking kilometres in the Northwest Territories, where he famously hit the mother lode in 1991, with the Ekati claim, which would become Canada's first diamond mine.

Charles (Chuck) Fipke was raised in the outskirts of Edmonton, an animal-lover and outdoorsman, raising some 200 hundred pigeons in the family garage. At 15, he bought his first race horse with the little money he had and raced it once himself, using a big Western saddle instead of one made for a jockey. Fipke outsized the other riders and his exhibition horse was so big it made the others appear as greyhounds.

"My horse finished dead last, and it shattered my ego to be honest," Fipke said with a laugh as he spoke by phone from his home in Kelowna, B.C., this week. "And I had no money to pay the guy driving the horse trailer, because I had been so confident, I thought I'd take it out of the winnings."

Though he speaks with zest of his adventures and horses, Fipke says he doesn't care for interviews, but does them to promote racing. There is youthfulness in his voice as he stammers at times somewhat absent-mindedly through tales with his signature "hey?" ending almost every thought. He's every bit the one-of-a-kind personality many describe.

The young geophysicist married his high-school girlfriend and had five children at a young age. In the 1970s, he spent long months searching for copper and gold in places such as New Guinea, South Africa and Brazil, enduring harrowing helicopter rides into unexplored jungles and encounters with headhunters. He immersed in the culture of local tribes he met and lived through a bout of cerebral malaria.

The University of British Columbia grad opened a mineral separation lab in Kelowna in 1977, which struggled to make money but began a diamond exploration program. He partnered with geologist Stewart Blusson to form Dia Met Minerals in 1984, and they became experts in knowledge of the indicator minerals that showed the way to hidden diamonds. They went to prove Northern Canada was rich with the precious stones.

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It was a formidable task in the barren Arctic, since the indicator minerals had been transported for miles by moving glaciers, and they were exploring on a shoestring budget. Competing geologists from diamond giant DeBeers were looking in the area, too. But in 1991, Fipke and Blusson finally found evidence of diamond-bearing kimberlite rock formations near Lac de Gras, NWT, which would eventually become the Ekati Mine, opened in 1998. The discovery sparked prospectors to pour into the Yellowknife area in a great Canadian diamond rush.

"He's a legend in the industry, miners admire his adventures," said Julie Lassonde, chief executive officer of Shear Diamonds Ltd. and a colleague of Fipke's in the diamond world. "Geologists understood Northern Canada had the geological makings to have diamonds, but some thought it was crazy talk. Chuck and Stu proved it wasn't crazy. Great scientists have an incredible artistic bent, imagining things that nobody else can imagine."

Shares of Dia Met, rocketed from pennies to $70. He and Blusson each got 10-per-cent shares of the Ekati Mine. Fipke has sold some of his share since, and he says his split with long-time wife, Marlene, in 1995, cost him some $200-million, one of the biggest divorce settlements in Canadian history. But he still ranks among Canada's top 100 individuals in net worth.

The fortune allowed him to further pursue his passion for horses. He had dabbled by buying his first thoroughbred in 1981, a filly for $16,000 named Boldest Spirit. One of her foals, Travelling Spirit, became Fipke's first stakes winner and a champion 2-year-old in B.C. in 2002. Fipke kept progressing.

"Rather than saying, 'I want it now and I'll throw millions of dollars at it,' his vision has been 'I want it all ultimately but I'm going to enjoy the ride with my own vision as opposed to buying somebody else's vision,'" said John Phillips, owner of Darby Dan Farm in Lexington, Ky., where some of Fipke's stallions were bred. "It's why he's so respected. It's the joy of the journey for him rather than just arriving in the winner's circle, which sets him apart from some other billionaires who want to participate in the sport."

His first attempt at masterminding a champion racehorse was Woodbine-bred Perfect Soul, the sire of his current Derby horse, Golden Soul.

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Perfect Soul won the Grade I Keeneland Turf Mile and Grade II Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland in 2003, and was named Canada's champion male turf horse. Fipke has also owned 2008 Queen's Plate winner Not Bourbon, and 2011 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Perfect Shirl.

Fipke studies pedigrees as thoroughly as anyone Phillips knows, researching bloodlines for numerous generations, looking for his own desired blend of racing characteristics. He also bought his own breeding farm recently, called Escondida, a historic farm in Paris, Ky. He's got horses in Kentucky, Ontario and even France.

"He'll talk to me until midnight about horses, he's very intense and analytical," said Kenny McPeek, the Kentucky-based trainer for Fipke's Derby horse, Java's War. "I think his mindset with thoroughbreds is similar to his geology work. It's not exact, but if you work hard at it and try to outsmart everyone else, you have a better chance. Horse racing is his next diamond mine."

Golden Soul was a late addition to the Derby field this week, trained by Dallas Stewart, getting in after trainer Bob Baffert pulled his two horses from the race.

Fipke and McPeek took a gamble with Java's War, who appeared not long ago to be more of a grass competitor than a contender on dirt. He won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland by going from last to first with his typical late-burst style.

For Fipke, buying into horses has never been about the shot at lucrative purses. The tough adventurer is said to be child-like and affectionate with horses of all kinds. He loves to ride and has befriended Canadian Olympic equestrian gold medalist Ian Millar, even wading into show jumping by investing in Millar's horse, Baranus.

It's also about the pursuit of more diamonds – those of the Triple Crown variety. A Derby victory would be a lifelong dream, but the Triple Crown is the ultimate goal.

Cameras at Saturday's Kentucky Derby will be focused on trainer Todd Pletcher and his remarkable five horses in the race, or 26-year-old beauty Rosie Napravnik, hoping to become the first woman jockey to win the "most exciting two minutes in sports."

Also there will be Fipke, seated with an eclectic mix of horse experts, family and long-time friends, likely his female companion, Niki, who is a show jumper, and actress Bo Derek, who shares his passion for horses and the advocacy of animal welfare.

"You can get a therapist to help you with most addictions, but there is only cure for an addiction to horses – the only cure for this is death," Fipke joked. "It's really tough to get horses in the Derby – they have to be really early-maturing. So I'm really, really lucky to have this."

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