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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

(continued from page 1)

Other buzz builders will include video lottery machines at a handful of New York tracks (they might not bring upscale gamblers, but they will contribute to richer purses, which will make for better racing) and enhanced advertising (a former Calvin Klein creative director is now handling the NYRA; one ad features a decked-out model in the stands and it asks, "Looking for a great filly?"). Currently, Schwartz is embroiled in a battle to take control of the local Off Track Betting, which is operated by New York City. "The OTBs in New York are horrible," Schwartz groans. "Our plans for OTB would involve closing a number of them and building some new ones on a much higher level."

Schwartz's personal and financial interest in racing increased in the late 1970s, when a Calvin Klein licensee let slip that he owned a lot of horses—including a champion filly named Chris Evert. Schwartz heard this and responded, "I'd love to own a horse." He was quickly hooked up with a good trainer and soon became the proud proprietor of a thoroughbred. "Buying one horse didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but it's come a long way," says Schwartz, who now has more than 100 in his stable. "Words can't describe what it's like to have a hot, winning horse. The highs are incredibly high and the lows are incredibly low. You go through bad periods. But if you come up with one good horse, and he wins one big race, well, it wipes out all the aggravation."

When Schwartz considers a horse that took him through a gamut of deep emotions, he immediately thinks of Three Ring, a filly of his that finished second in her first start, won a couple of major stakes races, and showed in the Breeders' Cup. "Her wins were so impressive that we ran her in the Kentucky Derby," recalls Schwartz, emphasizing that having a horse in that race is the brass ring for any thoroughbred owner. "She got knocked sideways coming out of the gate, the saddle slipped, and the jockey couldn't control her. She finished last, but came back to win the Acorn Stakes at Belmont. All of her wins were unbelievable highs." He hesitates for a reverential beat, then adds, "Prior to her next race, the Mother Goose, also at Belmont, she reared up, fell back, split her skull open, and died in front of us in the paddock. In 10 starts she won more than $750,000. Then one day she got killed, just like that. It was the worst experience I ever had in racing."

Despite the heartache, Schwartz never came close to selling his racehorses. Beyond the pageantry and attention and thrills—not to mention the elite company of fellow owners like Houston Texans founder Bob McNair, the late Gene Klein (he sold the Chargers and vowed to spend the proceeds on horses), and Executive Jet Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard Santulli—Schwartz loves the genealogy and science that goes into breeding. He loves that somebody once offered to buy an early winner of his for $900,000—"I thought that horse was heading for the Kentucky Derby, and didn't sell; in retrospect I should have." In owning and breeding horses, Schwartz finds the kind of rush that eclipses even the headiest bets he might have made back when he was a serious handicapper who picked horses the way he currently picks wines: searching out good values and undiscovered gems. "These days," he says, "the bet is in buying the horse. When I breed to a horse with a stud fee of $400,000, isn't that a big enough bet? I'm betting that the mare will produce a horse that generates over $400,000 in winnings." He shrugs and adds, "But, hey, I'm an action guy."

A sure bet, where Schwartz is concerned, seems to be the growth of racing under his stewardship. Four months after the Breeders' Cup, sitting on a sofa in his gargantuan office at Calvin Klein's midtown Manhattan headquarters, Schwartz marvels over numbers that are much bigger than any single wager or horse. He talks about how the 2001 Breeders' Cup generated $100 million in bets from across the country. And he proudly points out that New York track attendance is up: it rose 14 percent in December 2000 as compared to the same month in the previous year, and did nearly the same thing in January 2001. Then he acknowledges that part of the reason for the climb stems from his decision to offer free track admissions in the winter (normally it's only $2—and the saved money surely gets spent at concession stands or betting windows). "You've got to have people in the seats," he says, adding that he's encouraging fans to make a picnic of it when they come to the track. "Racing is an exciting sport and it's sad to see empty stands. I remember in the late 1950s and early '60s when there would be big crowds every weekend."

Then he glances at a TV monitor built into the wood-paneled wall alongside his desk. On-screen a race is about to start. Schwartz focuses on Navajo Code, one of his thoroughbreds. "That horse has been a real disappointment," Schwartz admits. "Navajo Code has got a lot of speed, but not a lot of heart." Nevertheless, the horse thunders out of the gate and looks damn good through the first turn. "The start of a race is no problem," deadpans Schwartz, not sounding confident about his horse's prospects. "Finishing the race is Navajo Code's problem."

Defying expectations, Navajo Code holds a money position into the home stretch. Ultimately, the horse finishes third. Schwartz looks perfectly pleased as he states, "That's the best race this horse has had." A few minutes later he gets a call from the horse's trainer. They have an all-good-news chat. He hangs up and our conversation turns to the topic of elite races and their importance. This is when Barry Schwartz allows that a few of his horses, besides ill-fated Three Ring, have run in the Kentucky Derby. That, he says, is the best. "Nothing is as exciting. And one day I plan on winning." He smiles at the obvious folly of crystal-balling a far-off sporting event, then adds, "Just like everybody plans on winning it."

Sure, it's a dream. But, as Schwartz says, "Dreams are what keep this sport going."

Michael Kaplan writes frequently about gambling for Cigar Aficionado.

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