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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Joe Cornacchia thrives on auction action. "The sales are nerve-wracking, exciting and one of my favorite parts of the game," he says. "[Trainer] Nick Zito marks up my catalogue with 30 or so horses that he likes. Other people know that so they watch me to see what I do." To avoid this surveillance, Cornacchia will go outside the building and make his bids through a spotter stationed inside. "A couple of years ago, we were interested in a colt and decided we'd go as high as $140,000 for him," Cornacchia recalls. "When the bidding got that high we decided to go $5,000 higher. The bidding kept going up, so we said let's take one more shot and go to $150,000." They won the bid. The colt was Go for Gin, the 1994 Kentucky Derby winner.
More than 8,000 yearlings are sold at auction each year in the United States and Canada. By buying a yearling at auction, you have the advantage of having extensive pedigree and veterinary analysis at your disposal, but you are still bidding on an untested commodity, which has yet to feel a saddle on its back. The yearling's first race is probably a year away and the risks are high, but with the risks come the greatest potential for reward.
Sunday Silence was purchased as a yearling for $17,000. He went on to win two-thirds of the Triple Crown--the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness--and the Breeders' Cup Classic and retired with career earnings of $4,768,554. Seattle Slew went for $17,500 and became one of only 11 horses to win racing's Triple Crown, in 1977. Alysheba fetched a respectable $500,000 as a yearling, and went on to bank $6,679,242 to become the sport's leading money winner when he retired in 1988; he was recently overtaken by Allen Paulson's Cigar, the Horse of the Year for 1995, whose victory in the Dubai World Cup on March 27--his 14th straight-- raised his career earnings to $7,669,815.
These examples, however, are exceptions to the rule for trainer Clint Goodrich. "A Keeneland yearling is like a new car off the lot. Its value instantly starts to deteriorate. Most horses will never be as valuable again as they were the day they were sold as yearlings."
Besides the prime Saratoga and Keeneland yearling sales, there are two-year-old-in-training sales, horses of racing age sales, mixed sales, dispersal sales and sales of restricted horses bred in particular states. "I like the two-year-old-in-training sales," trainer John Kimmel says. "They are a happy medium between yearling sales and claiming horses. In the two-year-old sales, conformation loses some of its luster. Instead, you can get a sense of how they move, because you get to see them on the track." If you buy a two-year-old-in-training, you may be getting a horse that is very close to its first race. This would get you into the game far quicker than buying a yearling will. You are buying a more defined product at a price that tends to be a more accurate reflection of its worth.
Regardless of the type of sale, auctions have inherent advantages. Bloodstock agent MacDonald says, "There are a lot of pluses to buying horses at auction. One is that you get a large population of horses in one place. Auctions can be a great opportunity if you do your homework and your legwork." The homework includes setting a budget, studying the auction catalog and estimating prices, contacting an adviser who knows the setting and making firsthand inspections with him. You'll also need to make arrangements with a veterinarian for pre- and post-sale exams, establish credit with the sales company, find a place to board and train the horse (it's yours after the sale) and arrange transportation to that location.
Many of the horses sold at auction will change hands later through private sales, just as the legendary John Henry did. To arrange a private sale, you'll need to work with a bloodstock agent who really knows the game.
For the past 33 years, Joe Brocklebank has been a regular visitor to the Belmont Park paddock, where the horses are saddled before each race. From 1963 to 1982, he wore the colorful garb of a jockey and had his eyes on winning races. From 1982 on, he has worn the business attire appropriate to a bloodstock agent, and he has been on the lookout for value. "I'm someone who puts A and B together, buyer and seller, just like in real estate," says the Irish-born Brocklebank, president of Erin-American Bloodstock. "I'll ask the buyer, 'What would you like to spend and where would you like to race?' and then I'll try to find a horse that matches."
Being a good matchmaker requires Brocklebank to read all the industry publications and travel to tracks around the country to see prospective purchases in the flesh. "I like to see a horse run before I recommend it to a client," he says. "I watch the horses train in the morning and spend time where the trainers congregate. I stay in tune with what's happening." Brocklebank's job is easier when the prospective buyer is also in tune. "I like an owner that says, 'Get me a horse that can run at Aqueduct in the winter and I want to spend $50,000 on him.' I deal with all kinds of price ranges, but the people at the higher end tend to be easier to work with."
When his efforts succeed and a sale is concluded, Brocklebank receives a 5 percent commission, which can come from either the buyer or seller. In Brocklebank's view, a buyer should always be ready to become a seller. "I should keep a count of all the people that I offer fair market--more than fair market--value for a horse and they decide against selling," he says. "The percentage of them that profited by not selling is minuscule." Brocklebank deals primarily with sole owners. "Partnerships might be a good step for some people, but I've seen a lot of partnerships dismantle," he says. "You know the old saying: 'A partnership is a bad ship to sail on.'"
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