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The Return of Thoroughbred Mania

The sport of kings is enjoying a resurgence thanks to aficionados such as new york racing association chairman barry schwartz
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

Blustery, fall winds blow across Belmont Park as 54,000 thoroughbred fanatics crowd the stands. Horses are scrutinized, racing forms are perused, and an edge of big-time intensity permeates the air. Up in the glass-fronted owners' box, the atmosphere is elegant and moneyed. One man parades around in a baseball cap adorned with the Hermes logo and holds a flute of Champagne in each hand. Several women are turned out in ballooning skirts. Men sport tweed jackets, neckties and expressions of deep concentration. New York Racing Association chairman Barry Schwartz strolls down to the Belmont paddock, passing serious bettors who mentally crunch nuggets of horse-related data. Betting on thoroughbreds, after all, is not a spin-of-the-wheel no brainer.

Fanciers of this particular wager insist that it's an intellectual pursuit, fueled by information and comparative analysis, pitting bettor against bettor—rather than against the track, which earns its money via commissions and adjusts odds accordingly. Indeed, horse racing ranks as the one sport bet that directly challenges gamblers to out-pick their neighboring know-it-alls.

Admittedly, today does not represent just any day at the races. It's the afternoon of the 2001 Breeders' Cup, one of racing's premier events with a purse that exceeds $14 million. Bud-slugging guys, wearing Windbreakers and placing $2 bets, are clearly in the minority (or at least laying low), and Belmont vibrates with a kind of highbrow, big-budget elegance that suits the sport of kings.

Cast members from "The Sopranos" are in attendance. So are Kiwi supermodel Kylie Bax and former New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells. The final race proves so compelling, with a 7-to-1 long shot called Tiznow unexpectedly coming from behind to win its second Breeders' Cup Classic in a row, that Parcells' replacement, Bill Belichick, will show a video of the race six weeks later to the Patriots as a motivating tool. Beyond emphasizing the resurging pervasiveness of racing, the ploy actually works: New England doesn't lose another game all season and goes on to snag the National Football League championship by upsetting the St. Louis Rams, 20-17.

But it's not just strategizing coaches who glean inspiration from fast-running horses. Shepherding in a new, young crowd to enjoy the glories of racing is 24-year-old Ogden Phipps. On Breeders' Cup day, Phipps is with friends and family in the Trustees' Room—an unpretentious enclave that features an elaborate buffet and wall-bracketed TVs on which races are closely monitored by horse owners and VIPs. Unsatisfied with a small-screen view, however, Phipps continually darts from the Trustees' Room to the stands to catch each race up close and in person.

"Racing is in my blood," says Phipps, not exaggerating at all when you consider that his family's involvement in breeding and owning horses stretches back four generations. "Gambling is fun, but to enjoy racing you really have to look at these horses as incredibly graceful athletes. They weigh 1,100 pounds and run 35 miles per hour. It's a lot of speed for something that big."

Phipps, an investment banker with Goldman Sachs, is sufficiently enamored with the sport that he builds his summers around race weekends in Saratoga and invites a dozen or so friends to hang out in his big family house up there. Visitors, going to the track for the first time, are invariably impressed by the way racing offers a kind of civilized accessibility to the athletes—equine and human.

"You go down to the paddock, have interaction with the participants, spend a pleasant afternoon at a beautiful racetrack that's probably situated in one of the nicest parts of the country," enthuses Phipps, noting that his family raced Personal Ensign (the only horse to retire undefeated in 80 years) and has six Breeders' Cup wins to its credit among the various horses it has entered over the years. "Racing is becoming a cool thing. The last Kentucky Derby was packed with young people. You had the Backstreet Boys there; Reggie Miller was there. Racing people like to have fun: we dress up, go to great parties. Sometimes it feels like a throwback to a more elegant era." Fronting the campaign to keep racing on an upswing of growth, which merges state-of-the-art computer terminals with the old- fashioned adrenaline-infused kick that once defined this sport, is Barry Schwartz, who was named chairman of the New York Racing Association in 2000. Schwartz, a lifelong fan and longtime owner of thoroughbreds, has the sensibility and business smarts to take racing where it needs to go. "My challenge is to make New York racing as good as it can possibly be," Schwartz says, sitting in his Belmont office on the afternoon before the Breeders' Cup. "We already have the best horses and the best jockeys, which add up to equal the best racing. My job is to continue that trend and make it better. For most of the year, we have one of the strongest rider colonies in America—and, not coincidentally, the largest handle in the country. People follow money. Horses follow money. And as long as our purses stay big, we will get the best people and horses to race here."

Schwartz is a slender, stylish man who looks great in his Calvin Klein suit—which comes as no surprise when you realize that he's not only chairman of the clothier but also helped boyhood friend Klein launch the company in 1968 with an initial investment of $10,000. Like Klein, Schwartz grew up in the Bronx, where gambling was a common pastime. "Everybody was in action," Schwartz remembers. "We bet ball games, went to races, shot pool. It was part of my background." So much so that when Schwartz considers the four months (yes, months) he spent at New York University, he half-brags, "I majored in billiards at the Loeb Student Center—the place where you could play three-cushion."

Well aware that all gamblers are lured by good returns on their wagers, one of the most significant things Commissioner Schwartz did was reduce the takeout—the amount of money retained on all wagers—at New York State tracks. It's currently at 14 percent for win, place and show betting (down from 15 percent), which ranks among the lowest in the country, and he hints that it might drop further. "The decrease in takeout is offset by a seven percent increase in betting," says Schwartz. "My goal is for this to be so successful that I can go back and keep lowering it. With a 10 percent takeout, the size of our handle will become enormous." Schwartz considers this, then proudly adds that his decision was totally contrarian to industry wisdom: "Business got tough, so racetrack operators all over the country raised their takeouts. You don't do that. Where I come from, you lower your price when business is bad."


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