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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

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.

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