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The Winner's Circle

Owning Thoroughbreds Is an Expensive Gamble Offering Great Rewards--and Costly Losses
John Lee
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 4)

As a 5 percent owner, Cain gets 5 percent of the bill for the upkeep of Trail Dust. "It's been very manageable--never more than $125 a month," she says, adding that "it's opened up a whole new world. There's nothing like owning your own racehorse. The competition puts a spark back in your life. And it's not just me. The risk and gamble of racing seems to appeal to the kind of people who have had everything under their control for so long."

Racing syndicates have their critics, however; trainer and TV racing analyst John Veitch is among them. The son of National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame trainer Syl Veitch, John is a member of the old school of racing. On his old school tie are the colors of Calumet Farms, for which he trained the likes of Alydar and Davona Dale, and Darby Dan Farm, for which he conditioned Breeders' Cup Classic winner Proud Truth and Eclipse Award winner Sunshine Forever.

"Not to throw cold water on the concept of limited syndication, because it allows people of means but not of wealth to play a part, but with syndicates the trainer becomes more of an entertainer for a huge group of owners," says Veitch. "Back at the barn it can turn into a real dog and pony show for a constantly changing cast of characters. I liken the situation to a serious operation where the extended family shows up to interrogate the surgeon and in the meantime the patient expires."

Veitch also doesn't buy into the "it's-like-owning-a-pro-sports-franchise" analogy. "No, it's not like owning a team. To the fan of a team it's a sport, but to the owner it's a business. There's admissions, parking, hot dogs to sell," Veitch says. "Owning a racehorse is a vicarious thrill. It's like paying for a fine meal and watching someone else eat it."

No matter how they are owned, thoroughbreds are acquired through one of three sources: auctions, private sales or claiming races. For many, the real action in the thoroughbred game is in the auction sales ring. The highest profile American sales are the yearling auctions at Keeneland in Kentucky in the spring and at Saratoga Springs in upstate New York in the summer. For three evenings each summer, the epicenter of the racing world shifts a few furlongs down East Avenue from the Saratoga Race Course to the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion, a concrete amphitheater that houses the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling Sales. During the day, owners, trainers and bloodstock agents search the sales grounds in search of the classic winner, checking out conformation (the horse's physique), pedigrees--and each other. In the evening, they gather in the bi-level semicircular sales pavilion to focus on the cream of the yearling crop, one horse at a time.

"Next in the sales ring, hip number 127," intones announcer Terence Collier as a baffled, but buffed, son of a leading sire enters the sales ring, led by a white-jacketed handler and followed by a similarly attired man with a shovel to clean up any...unpleasantness...that hip number 127 might leave behind. The horse is scarcely a year old and as close to perfect as breeding and meticulous grooming will allow. His seamless topography is interrupted only by a generic label about the size of a credit card bearing black numbers on a white background, which is pasted on his hip--his hip number, by which he will be identified during the sale and which indicates his order of appearance in the sales ring.

Auctioneer Walt Robertson, the sales' play-by-play man, is seated on high with Collier, who serves as his color commentator. Sounding as though he is speaking in tongues, Robertson warbles away in the sing-song auctioneer's patter, reminiscent of the old cigarette commercial set at a tobacco auction that ended in the call of "Sold American!"

Out of Robertson's patter emerges the sound of money. "$50,000...55,000...60...65,000...70...75,000...." Tuxedo-clad spotters scan the hall tracking the subtle signals of the bidders and barking out when they find someone ready to up the ante. "85...90... 95,000...."

The bidding slows, so the color man commandeers the mike. "That's an awfully low price for a colt of his pedigree. As good-looking an individual as you'll ever see, a half-brother to a classic winner, from a female family that produces nothing but runners, could be any kind, and really should be getting more than this," Collier pitches, and the bidding rebounds.

"$100,000...$105,000...110...115...115...115...115 once, twice," says Robertson, and with an authoritative bang of the gavel adds, "Sold for $115,000!"

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