The Winner's Circle
Owning Thoroughbreds Is an Expensive Gamble Offering Great Rewards--and Costly Losses
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
Thoroughbred trainer Anthony Bizelia stood smiling last summer in the winner's circle of the Daryl's Joy Handicap at Saratoga Race Course. He was holding the reins of Pride of Summer, a nine-time winner with more than $600,000 in earnings. He had bought the horse at Belmont Park in October 1993 for a mere $300 at a bankruptcy auction for a New York thoroughbred farm.
Bizelia hadn't even gone out that day to buy Pride of Summer, but rather to acquire a horse named Cazzy B. for 10 golfing buddies who go by the name TOC (Touch of Class) Stable. Bizelia got Cazzy B. for $25,000, but while he was there, Pride of Summer passed through the sales ring without attracting a bid. Bizelia said to himself, "What the heck," and picked him up for the minimum price--$300. The 10 partners who were going in on Cazzy B. coughed up the extra $30 each to go in on Pride of Summer.
Joe Cornacchia was one of the 10 to ante up the $30 for a share. "I didn't really want to bother, but the rest of them said, 'We want you in it--you're good luck,'" says Cornacchia, a major partner in the Kentucky Derby winners Strike the Gold and Go for Gin. "Watching Pride of Summer win that stake at Saratoga was as much fun as watching Go for Gin win the Kentucky Derby." Actually, someone should have checked Pride of Summer's pedigree, the genealogy of four-legged ancestorsthat means so much to horse buyers. They would have found a blood link to the famous turf racer John Henry.
If Hollywood had come up with the John Henry story, you would give it two thumbs down for being too Hollywood. Sold as a yearling for $1,100 in chump change, John Henry was so puny, ill-bred and ill-tempered that he was gelded. He showed modest talent in winning a few races at low-level tracks in Louisiana, changed hands five times and bounced from track to track, before ending up in New York running in $25,000 claiming races. But his last owner, Sam Rubin, an importer of Korean bicycles and a player of horses, put John Henry in a turf race and the horse turned into a champion. Winner of seven Eclipse Awards (racing's equivalent to the Academy Awards), John Henry earned two Horse of the Year titles, the second of which he won in 1984 at age nine in the final year of his career. No horse so old has ever been so honored. He retired as the sport's then all-time leading money winner, with career earnings of $6,597,947.
But for every Pride of Summer or John Henry, there is a Seattle Dancer or Snaafi Dancer. The highest price ever paid for a yearling at auction was $13.1 million in 1985 for a colt later named Seattle Dancer; that broke the record set two years earlier when Snaafi Dancer went for a bid of $10.2 million. At least Seattle Dancer eked out a couple of Group II stakes wins in Europe. As for Snaafi Dancer, not only did he never make it to the races, he also never made it as a stallion, because he turned out to be sterile.
Somewhere between the fairy tales of John Henry and Pride of Summer and the tragicomedies of Snaafi Dancer and Seattle Dancer lies the reality of thoroughbred ownership--lots of cash up front and no promise of return. Take D. Wayne Lukas, who had a 1995 that most owners only dream about, with horses that included Thunder Gulch, Timber Country and other national champions. In 1987, he coughed up $2.9 million for a colt named Houston. "He's perfect, the best horse I've ever trained," Lukas said at the time. Houston initially looked like a good investment, winning the Bay Shore and the Derby Trial in 1987, but when asked to stretch out to the classic distance of a mile and a quarter in that year's Kentucky Derby, he ran eighth. A sixth-place finish in the subsequent Preakness wasn't much of an improvement. That summer, Houston managed to win another decent little sprint stake, the King's Bishop. But he never hit the big time of Grade I stakes, where the real money is made.
Stories like Lukas' point out a simple truth about horses--every purchase, no matter how perfect the bloodlines or the seasoned judgment of a horse expert, comes complete with an excruciating range of possibilities, from multimillion dollar earnings to an equine money pit. There was a time, however, when only the rich were at risk, because they were the only ones who could afford to play the game. In the 1980s, for instance, Middle Eastern money drove prices for good yearlings into the stratosphere. Today, with the decline of the old-line, blue blood stables, new forms of ownership have evolved, opening up the sport of kings to those lacking regal bloodlines. Where once there was one owner owning 40 horses, increasingly there are 40 owners of one horse. And there may be more than one way to get in: fractional ownership, partnerships and syndicates are letting people get their feet wet in the game without drowning.
The upside of thoroughbred ownership remains not only ever-present, it has gotten a lot more attractive as purses continue to rise. The most prominent examples of this trend are the seven-race $10 million Breeders' Cup, racing's richest day, at Belmont Park in New York; the $3.9 million Japan Cup, the world's richest turf race, at Fuchy racetrack in Tokyo; and the $4 million Dubai World Cup, which became the world's richest race when it was run in the United Arab Emirates for the first time last March.
What kind of animal is worth all this money? What kind of horse is the thoroughbred?
A horse is a thoroughbred if its parents were thoroughbreds and their parents were thoroughbreds, and on and on back to the turn of the eighteenth century, when three stallions were imported into England from the Middle East to be bred with the native stock: the Godolphin Barb, the Darley Arabian and the Byerly Turk. Every thoroughbred traces its lineage in an unbroken line back to at least one of these founding stallions.
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."
While a horse is recuperating from illness or injury, the owner not only pays upkeep for an unproductive horse, but he is also faced with veterinary bills. These can include the same range of often pricey procedures humans face--X rays, ultrasound, bloodwork, surgery, even chiropractic and acupuncture--without health insurance to pick up the tab. In worst-case scenarios, the bills can add up to thousands of dollars.
Advances in veterinary medicine are saving horses from maladies that just 10 years ago might have proved fatal--and enabling them to race again. However, illness and injuries still conspire to make thoroughbred ownership a dicey proposition. In the words of actor and owner Jack Klugman, as quoted by thoroughbred owner Dragone, "If someone tells you you're as healthy as a horse, you better run for your doctor!"
During the seminar, the prospective owners were also guided through the business, tax and legal issues of thoroughbred ownership and were given a workbook that takes them step by step through the process of acquiring a thoroughbred, or at least a piece of one. After touring the barns and talking to leading trainers, the prospective owners spent the rest of the day at the races.
You've done your homework, you've gone to the races, you've observed trainers in action, you've read the trade publications like The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times and Daily Racing Form. You've introduced yourself to trainers and owners and you've been to the TOBA seminar. You're ready to take the plunge, but which way do you jump? Sole ownership? Partnership? Do you get a horse out of a high-profile yearling sale or claim a horse that's ready to run?
For most new owners, it makes sense to start as a part owner. Place a call to Dogwood Stable in Aiken, South Carolina. If you're lucky you'll be left on hold, because then you'll hear the race call of the stretch run of a major Dogwood triumph, such as Summer Squall's winning run to the wire in the 1990 Preakness. Dogwood Stable is considered the gold standard of the thoroughbred partnership business, in part because it practically invented the concept in 1969.
"I was the first to put together a limited partnership for the purposes of thoroughbred ownership," says Cot Campbell, the 67-year-old founder of Dogwood Stable. "Our first was a filly named Mrs. Cornwallis and she ran a hole in the wind. She won three stakes and finished second or third in three others."
Since Mrs. Cornwallis, Dogwood has campaigned approximately 50 stakes winners that have won over 100 stakes among them. Dogwood has ranked consistently in the top one-half of one percent of the 20,000 North American stables since 1978. It currently has 60 horses in training and operates a training facility in Aiken, in the heart of horse country. In a typical Dogwood partnership, Campbell buys a horse and marks it up about 30 percent, then sells four shares of 23.75 percent, retaining a 5 percent share and the title of managing partner. Share prices for Dogwood Stable horses range from $15,000 to $77,000. Campbell bills his clients on a quarterly basis, with the average bill per share amounting to $2,000. "Except for life insurance, it costs as much to keep a good horse as a cheap one," he says.
"Here's the proposition: You might make money--you probably won't--but if you lose money, you'll be able to write it off," Campbell says. "And you'll find yourself in a tremendously exciting sport. It's a heck of a lot of fun and a great adventure. But if you don't think it will be a lot of fun, if the idea of watching your horse running down the stretch with a chance to win doesn't ring your chimes, then don't touch this game with a 10-foot pole." Campbell takes every opportunity to warn people off. "I rub people's noses in it," he says. "Thirty percent will make money, 70 percent won't. It's like drilling for oil. You're going to hit a lot of dry holes."
Mark Rovner's LSI Gold Stable operates a bit farther down the thoroughbred food chain. The 33-year-old Long Island real estate lawyer wanted to make the move from fan to owner, but he got sticker shock when he saw how much it would cost to get the kind of horsepower he would need to compete in New York.
"I tried to buy a horse alone, but at my level I'd be in the low end of the game," Rovner says. "I came across a book on thoroughbred syndication--it was 4,000 pages long and boring--but I read it from cover to cover. I had done real estate syndications and saw that thoroughbred syndication was a way to make a high level of racing affordable."
The minimum price for a share of an LSI Gold horse is $5,000. In a general partnership arrangement, Rovner retains a 10 percent share of each horse and divides the other 90 percent into 40 shares. LSI Gold Stable currently has 15 horses on track, primarily in the Belmont Park barn of trainer H. Morgan Tesher, and 130 owners.
"You buy a share, you're an owner. You get the same rights and privileges of any owner, even a big-time owner like George Steinbrenner," Rovner says. Those privileges include access to the barns, clubhouse and box seats, and, hopefully, posing with your horse in the winner's circle.
Not all partnerships are as formal as Dogwood, Centennial, LSI Gold and dozens of others. Friends in pursuit of a good time often form partnerships.
Gary Biszantz bought his first racehorse when he was 21, for $400. The horse turned into a winner and Biszantz was hooked. Today, the 61-year-old chairman of Cobra Golf Inc., manufacturer of King Cobra golf clubs, keeps enough horses in training that he can see them run 10 to 12 times a month. Biszantz recently purchased a Kentucky farm and has a legitimate Triple Crown candidate in multiple-stakes winner Cobra King. He still enjoys running his horses in partnerships.
"I have partners in every one of my horses. I get my friends involved; it's just more fun that way," Biszantz says. "It's like we're all partners in our own pro franchise. When we all go down to the winner's circle, it's the best thrill there is, and the wonderful thing is, it never changes. It doesn't matter if it's your first winner or your hundredth."
In spite of racing's emotional appeal, Biszantz cautions new owners to keep their minds on business. "You've got to establish your goals and you've got to have a business plan. Ask yourself if you can comfortably spend $20,000 a year to keep a horse in training," he says. "And I recommend that as you grow in the business, diversify. Have some claimers, some two-year-olds, some grass horses." (Claimers are horses that can be purchased, or "claimed," at a set price.)
With two trips to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle, Joe Cornacchia has been successful enough to strike out on his own, yet he, too, prefers partnerships. "In partnerships you can share the risks and own more horses for the same amount of money," he says. "With more horses you stand a better chance of getting one or two good ones."
For Glenye Cain, a partnership wasn't so much a way of spreading the risk as it was a way of getting in the game. Formerly a Dogwood Stable employee and now news editor for the Thoroughbred Times, Cain realized her dream of thoroughbred ownership by spending under $2,000 for 5 percent of a two-year-old named Trail Dust, who races in the colors of trainer Clint C. Goodrich.
"I didn't want to take a huge plunge with my life savings," she says. "At five percent my influence is limited, but I'm always asked for my opinion. And when I arrive at the barn in the morning, Clint will say, 'Bring out Glenye's horse.' I never think that someone else owns him. Even if you own just five percent, you're still a racehorse owner. That still carries a lot of weight. Take a friend out to the barn with you in the morning. He'll be impressed."
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!"
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.'"
Horses sold privately are usually ready to race, giving the buyer a quick entrée into the action. The potential buyer can see the horse run and conduct a thorough veterinary exam. There is time for rational evaluation, as opposed to the hyper-emotional, competitive nature of auctions. A typical private purchase requires an inquiry to the current owner, an inspection, the negotiation--which should include a thorough study of the pedigree and race record--and, finally, a written Agreement of Sale and Purchase. It's probably not a bad idea to do a lien search, and of course demand the horse's Jockey Club certificate before closing the sale. (The Jockey Club is an organization that serves as North America's thoroughbred registry.)
Racing has various levels that open up as you get inside that world. One of the most peculiar and pervasive is the claiming game. Seventy percent of races run in the United States are claiming races, and they offer a route into thoroughbred ownership best left to the wise guys. Here's a dry, dictionary-style explanation for the quirky, colorful and sometimes cutthroat claiming game: In a claiming race, each horse entered is eligible to be purchased at a set price. The price is set by the racetrack. Claims must be made before the race by licensed owners or their agents who themselves have a horse registered to race at that meeting. When a horse has been claimed, its new owner assumes title after the starting gate opens, although the former owner is entitled to all purse money earned in that race.
It's an odd system, but it's the main mechanism by which competitive races are created through matching horses by their perceived financial value. In a typical $25,000 claiming race, you might find a few horses that have been running at that level with moderate success, a couple that have been running with little success at higher claiming prices, one that might be coming off a big win at a lower claiming price, as well as a mystery horse that has been running in much classier races.
Let's look at the mystery horse: He's got a clear edge in class, good breeding--on paper a bargain for $25,000. Yet why would his owners risk him in a claiming race? Are they desperate for a win or are they trying to unload damaged merchandise? Why was the horse wearing front bandages? Is he nursing an injury, or are they trying to make it look as if he has leg problems to scare off a claim? Or is he a decent horse that just doesn't fit his owners' goals? Strictly a game for wise guys.
Claimers have painted vivid colors into the thoroughbred landscape. Princequillo, claimed by Hall of Fame trainer Horatio Luro for $2,500 in 1942, developed into one of the best long-distance runners of all time and retired to become one of his era's top sires. Also in the '40s, a thoroughbred named Stymie ran in 14 rock-bottom claiming races before winning his first race. Trainer Hirsch Jacobs was an admirer of Stymie's paternal grandsire, the great Equipoise, so he put in his claim when he saw the horse running for a $1,500 tag. Stymie went on to win 35 races, 25 of them stakes, and retired in 1949 with then-record career earnings of $918,485. A race was later named for him at Aqueduct racetrack in New York.
If you're still interested in making a claim, heed the caution of Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who says, "If you are going to claim horses, you better claim quite a few. That way the good ones can overcome the bad ones." Even Jerkens can't always tell the good from the bad. "Horses, being what they are, make a monkey out of you sooner or later."
But even the threat of embarrassment is unlikely to stop the avid horse owner. Once hooked, you are hooked forever. After all, nothing can take away the thrill of hearing "They're at the post" when your horse is in the starting gate.
For Further Information: The Blood-Horse (800/866-2361) and Thoroughbred Times (606/260-9812) are published weekly and cover all aspects of thoroughbred racing and breeding. Daily Racing Form (800/306-FORM) is a national newspaper published in an array of regional editions. It provides past performance information on the horses running at various tracks as well as news. Thoroughbred Daily News (908/747-8955) is a daily faxed to its subscribers, with breaking news and coverage of national and international racing. Many state breeding associations also publish magazines. A prospective owner should read Ainslie's Complete Guide to Thoroughbred Racing by Tom Ainslie (Simon & Schuster), a comprehensive and frequently updated guide to the sport. To learn more about the TOBA Prospective Owner Seminars and other related programs, or to receive a brochure entitled "Buying Your First Racehorse," contact Ann Stiltz, owner projects director, at 606/276-2291. Thoroughbred Racing Communications (212/371-5910), racing's national media relations office, can also help steer you in the right direction.
John Lee, a New York-based writer, has lost money at 29 racetracks around the world. A Guide to Thoroughbred Terminology
Broodmare: A female horse that is being bred
Colt: A male horse up to the age of five
Dam: A horse's mother
Filly: A female horse up to the age of five
Foal: A horse of either sex in the first year of its life
Gelding: A castrated male horse
Horse: A male horse age five or older
Juvenile: A two-year-old horse
Maiden: A thoroughbred that has yet to win a race
Mare: A female horse age five or older (Note: Female thoroughbreds with decent breeding can have considerable residual value as broodmares.)
Names: Names of North American thoroughbreds are registered by the Jockey Club. Most horses sold in yearling sales are unnamed. Names can be no longer than 18 characters, including punctuation and spaces. A horse's name is often a clue to its breeding: for example, Seattle Slew sired Slew o' Gold, Slewpy and Tsunami Slew. Aerospace tycoon Allen Paulson names his horses after aviation checkpoints, which is how Horse of the Year Cigar was named. John Ed Anthony names his horses for Arkansas landmarks, such as Cox's Ridge, Prairie Bayou and Temperence Hill.
Sire: A horse's father
Stallion: A male horse being used for breeding (Note: Only colts and horses that have exceptional breeding or had exceptional racing careers will earn substantial money as stallions. Stud fees for quality stallions can range from $1,000 to $75,000 and higher. Stallions are bred to about 50 mares a year. Artificial insemination is not allowed in thoroughbred breeding. Geldings, having no breeding value, must earn their keep entirely on the racetrack.)
Weanling: A foal that has been separated from its dam (mother)
Yearling: A horse in the second calendar year of life, beginning Jan. 1 of the year following its birth
In North America, most races fall into the six-furlong (three-fourths of a mile) to a mile-and-an-eighth range, although the classic American races, such as the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, are longer. Racing on grass courses is increasingly popular, although the majority of U.S. races are run on dirt tracks.
Types of Races
Allowance: A race in which the weight each horse will carry is determined by a formula relating to the horse's age, sex and past performance. A horse would typically run in allowance races before going on to stakes races.
Claiming: A race in which all the entrants can be claimed (or purchased) for a set price. The price ranges from $2,500 at a small track like Charles Town in West Virginia to $100,000 and higher at Santa Anita in California and Belmont Park.
Handicap: A race in which the racing secretary assigns weight to horses in order to match the entrants evenly. Most of the important stakes races in America for older horses are handicaps, such as the Metropolitan Handicap and Santa Anita Handicap.
Maiden: A race for horses that have yet to win a race. A horse "breaks its maiden" when it wins its first race.
Stakes: The most important races awarding the highest purses and the most prestige. They can be run under allowance, handicap or weight-for-age conditions. The most important stakes nationwide are designated Grade I, Grade II or Grade III, according to their prestige. The Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races are Grade I, while the Daryl's Joy that Pride of Summer won is a Grade III. European stakes are classified along similar lines as Group 3, Group 2 or Group 1 races.
The money distributed to the owners of the top four or five finishers in a race. The winning owner typically receives 60 percent of the purse, and gives 10 percent of his share to the jockey and 10 percent to the trainer. In a race such as the $500,000 Woodward Stakes, the owner of the winning horse might receive $300,000 and give $30,000 to both the trainer and jockey. Purses at a top track such as Saratoga Race Course range from $21,000 for its lowest claiming race to $750,000 for its premier race, the Travers Stakes.
Racetrack refers to both the entire racing facility and to the main racing surface. The typical track at an American racetrack is a dirt oval measuring a mile to a mile and an eighth, which often surrounds a turf course that tends to be a furlong shorter than the main track. Dirt tracks have the advantage of being usable day after day and in most weather conditions. Turf courses have to be used more sparingly but may provide a better surface for horses to run on. Horses tend to run their best on one particular surface. John Henry, for example, excelled when he was switched from the dirt to the grass. Horse of the Year Cigar, though bred for the turf, became a champion when switched to the dirt.
The word "backstretch" has two meanings in racing as well and refers to the stable area and the straightaway of the racetrack oval farthest from the stands.
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