The Winner's Circle
Owning Thoroughbreds Is an Expensive Gamble Offering Great Rewards--and Costly Losses
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
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Thoroughbreds are among the fastest animals on earth over a fairly long distance. They can run up to 39 miles per hour, and the quickest can run the mile in 1:33 flat. They range in size from 15 to 17 hands high (60 to 68 inches) at the withers (where the neck meets the back) and weigh an average of 1,000 pounds.
At more than 100 tracks in North America, thoroughbreds race primarily on dirt tracks at distances from six furlongs (three-quarters of a mile) to a mile and a quarter. Increasingly, races are being held on turf courses, as is the style in Europe, often at longer distances. An average American racehorse will run his first race at age two and may continue running until age seven or longer, although the best breeding prospects tend to be retired earlier.
Though thoroughbred purses continue to climb, not every owner will come out ahead. Robert Clay, owner of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky, and a prominent member of the board of trustees of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), says owners will pay out a total of $1.2 billion a year and get back $750 million in purses.
While the excitement, fun and competition of thoroughbred racing is payment enough for many owners, how can the prospective owner tap into enough of that $750 million so he doesn't tap out? There is a world of advice awaiting the new owner, but in keeping with the risky, roguish nature of the thoroughbred game, not all of it is good. Fortunately, the thoroughbred industry is now bending over backwards to make the right kind of information available to prospective owners, who in general acquire their horses at auctions, private sales or in claiming races. With the Prospective Owners Seminars that it holds at racetracks across the country, TOBA has become one of the more reliable sources of information for first-timers.
On the Friday before last fall's Breeders' Cup, the association held a seminar at Belmont Park. At 7:30 a.m., midday by racetrack standards, about 75 prospective owners took their places in the inner sanctum of Belmont Park's Turf and Field Club for a one-day immersion into all matters thoroughbred. Allan Dragone, former chairman of the board of the New York Racing Association and owner of December Hill Farms in Kentucky, offered participants the perspective of the sole owner, which he defined as "the one who gets all of the glory...and all the risk."
Wall Street investment banker Donald Little spoke about sharing the rewards and spreading the risk in the kind of racing partnerships his Boston-based Centennial Farms organizes. Centennial's horses, which race out of the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Scotty Schulhofer, include 1992 champion sprinter Rubiano and '94 Belmont Stakeswinner Colonial Affair. "In racing partnerships," Little said, "you find the highs are almost as high as in sole ownership, but the lows are not nearly so low."
Bloodstock agent Reiley MacDonald of Eaton Sales Co. stressed the need for professional advice and offered his guidelines on how to choose an adviser. "You need an adviser to help you develop your plan and set your goals," MacDonald said. "You need to put together a team, perhaps with a bloodstock agent and a trainer. Your criteria for choosing the team should be: one, honesty; two, knowledge; three, connections in the industry, especially if you are interested in private sales; and four, you need team members that will communicate with you."
John Kimmel, a trainer and veterinarian, called racing "the greatest outdoor sport played." He offered this advice for choosing a trainer: "Visit him at the barn in the morning, see how his operation looks, go to the paddock before the races and see how the trainer presents his horse."
Kimmel also explained how trainers bill their clients, displaying a sample monthly bill of his that came to $2,335 (he says the industry average is closer to $3,000). Routine veterinary care and treatment of minor injuries are included.
The real wild cards in the thoroughbred deck are injuries and illness. Viruses, broken bones, sore muscles, respiratory problems, colic, hoof problems and freak accidents can stop the fastest thoroughbred. "These are fragile animals and they are asked to run fast," Kimmel told the seminar participants. "Injuries are part of the game. The key is to address minor injuries before they become major problems."
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