Thoroughbred Ownership: The Derby Dream Price Tag
The first thoroughbred horse race I ever wagered on was the 1997 Kentucky Derby and while it’s embarrassing to admit, the only reason Silver Charm received my backing was because his alloy laden title spoke to me. During this era I was twenty-three years in age and making $7.00 an hour but partial poverty didn’t prevent a hard day’s pay from being attached to the nose of this innocent grey colt. I’ve often referenced the immeasurable impact this edition of the Kentucky Derby had on me because when Silver Charm collared Free House in mid-stretch then gamely staved off the late flying Captain Bodgit to win “The Sport of King’s” preeminent prize, my life’s priorities eternally shifted.
Naturally the 4-1 payout on my flutter was quite handsome but money wasn’t the force that had stirred a previously hibernating sector of my soul. When the infield winner’s circle at Churchill Downs was shown on TV I couldn’t seem to break my gaze towards the Kentucky Derby Gold Cup that Silver Charm’s owner (Bob Lewis) clutched in his hands.
Fashioned after the “Golden Jubilee Trophy” originally presented to Mrs. Rosa L. Hoots, (Owner of 1924 Kentucky Derby Champion Black Gold) this cup along with the blanket of roses draped over Silver Charm’s shoulders suddenly became the aim of my entire existence.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of my affliction with “Derby Fever” which I can say quite confidently is a plague that blankets a fair percentage of race trackers. The primary symptom of this ailment is a reoccurring vision of a ridiculously impossible and laughable dream; owning the thoroughbred that wins the Kentucky Derby. Believe me friend, aside from eternal life, owning a Kentucky Derby Champion is all that I will ever really want. Keep your money, mansions, automobiles, yachts and diamond crusted Rolex watches because these possessions as a whole are still radically eclipsed by triumph on the “First Saturday in May”. You may scoff at this sentiment but countless souls inside the game of horseracing share a similar outlook and contend their personal yearning for dominion over Louisville is unmatched. Yet in the end if any of us are going to succeed in living out the “Derby Dream” one very pivotal occurrence must transpire…we’ve got to buy a horse!
Have you ever wondered why thoroughbred racing is often referred to as “The Sport of Kings”? Well it’s because ponies aren’t cheap brother and traditionally only the wealthy have participated in the practice of equine ownership. The price tag of our aforementioned “Derby Dream” is especially ludicrous and each year hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by turf zealots seeking to find that one beast whose nose is destined to tickle the Kentucky Derby’s wire.
Now don’t believe for a minute that financial solvency automatically dictates success when acquiring a thoroughbred. At Calder Racetrack’s 2006 Fasig-Tipton Florida select sale of two year-olds in training an equine named The Green Monkey was sold for $16 million dollars but never even won a race for his connections. While some cite this disaster as reason to keep the purse strings drawn, others counter that the $4 million dollar price tag on 2000 Kentucky Derby Champion Fusaichi Pegasus proves that when acquiring equine racers, you get what you pay for.
The majority of those who deem themselves ready to plunge head first into the world of thoroughbred ownership are not royals, sheiks, magistrates or barons and must honestly access what strata of racing they are suited for. This boils down to a matter of cold hard cash and while it is possible to catch lightning in a bottle (1999 Kentucky Derby Champion Charismatic sold for a mere $17,000) one shouldn’t expect to snag a Triple Crown contender for a few grand. Don’t believe for a moment though that a person of modest means can’t dwell among the sport’s elite; they must simply be willing to coexist with some teammates.
Most individual parties don’t have $40,000 to spend on a thoroughbred racehorse but what if I told you that a share in an animal of this quality could be acquired for just a few thousand dollars? Well if this sparks your interest then listen up because thoroughbred syndication is a type of joint venture that makes this possible! Syndication not only entices people to enter the world of horseracing that would otherwise never consider ownership but many veterans of the game including Pocket Aces Racing manager Marc Wampler agree that, “For the potential thoroughbred owner yearning to get their feet wet, syndication remains the most prudent avenue.”
Inside these syndicates multiple participants purchase shares in a single thoroughbred (Pocket Aces Racing shares range from 4% to 5%) and while some may adamantly proclaim “Wait a minute, I want a racer of my own!” remember that sole ownership also entails shouldering the entire financial burden presented by the beast. Inherent fiscal risks go far beyond a horse’s initial purchase price and include but are not limited to: feed, shoeing, shipping, veterinarian exams and trainer compensation. These “maintenance fees” can total into outlandish sums so it is recommended that when syndicating one aligns with a partnership that outlines a schedule of such capital outlay in advance. In the case of Pocket Aces Racing a standard (and might I add very economical) quarterly maintenance fee of $300 is employed.
The most famous thoroughbred syndicate in recent memory involved a group of six gentlemen who had been good friends dating back to high school. Except for one member which owned some harness stock, the group’s collective knowledge of the races was rather opaque but that didn’t stop them from pooling $75,000 to purchase a thoroughbred named Funny Cide. This New York bred gelding turned some heads with a second place showing in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Racetrack before hitting pay dirt in the 129th Kentucky Derby four weeks later. Funny Cide went on to capture the Preakness Stakes and might have improved upon a third place result in the Belmont if not for an extremely sloppy racetrack. Funny Cide’s owners dubbed the “Sackatoga Six” reveled in being “everyday guys” and while many owners insisted on having chauffeured limousines, this contingent arrived at each of the 2003 Triple Crown Races in a yellow school bus!
Thoroughbred racehorses are acquired in a variety of ways at various stages of their career. The most traditional and dare I romantic alternative when it comes to such a purchase is the public auction and thriving inside this unique commerce are yearling sales, two year-old sales and two year-old in training sales. Presently yearling sales (which offer runners of either sex between the ages of one and two) remain the most prominent in the industry and bring in heavy hitters with deep pockets from all around the world.
Risks magnify when buying a yearling or two year-old thoroughbred for no one can be sure of the horse’s true ability and many buyers never recover one red cent of the purchase price. Marc Wampler of Pocket Aces Racing adds, “Only half of all thoroughbreds purchased ever start in a race and just a median percentage of those ultimately visit the winner’s circle.” The majority of yearling sales transpire from late summer to mid-fall and from 1943 to its conclusion in 2002, the Keeneland July Selected Yearling Sale was considered the world’s most prestigious thoroughbred auction turning out a total of 11 Kentucky Derby Champions. Keeneland currently holds its yearling sale in September due to what CEO Nick Nicholson cites as “consigner preference”.
Two year-old in training sales that showcase racers primed for competition have steadily grown in popularity over the last several years for it is naturally easier to gauge the aptitude of these sophomores than say a yearling who has only thus far frolicked in the fields. Dealing with younger equines also means a longer waiting period for competition and due to a lack of patience many parties find this prospect undesirable. Since the general public has access to all workout figures at two-year old in training sales one shouldn’t expect to “steal” an exceptional two-year old at a discounted price but conversely, the chances of coming up with an empty sack are equally tapered.
Any buyer who attends a public auction with serious intentions had better do some homework beforehand and having a detailed knowledge of the sales catalogue is a step in the right direction. This text is a portfolio of all equines offered and includes lineages from both the sire and dam (mother and father). These blood-lines will assist in determining genetic traits like speed or stamina that might have been generationally passed down and while no technique is flawless, pedigree will be the primary factor that drives a thoroughbred’s sale price. Catalogues will also include a plethora of other details including the conditions of sale. These terms should be reviewed extremely carefully so all parties involved in a transaction realize their inherent responsibilities such as post-sale boarding and transportation.
Many times an interested party will request a veterinary exam or x-rays of a horse slated for sale and while these accompaniments incur added expenses on prospectors, they may very well morph into an invaluable insurance policy. The pre-sale period is also a time where clients and their advisors may decide to inspect a runner’s physical characteristics or “conformation”. Thoroughbreds are naturally built vastly different from each other and being able to recognize a sound animal on appearance alone is truly an art form.
First time buyers rarely have an eye capable of properly appraising an equine’s conformation so drafting a teammate who can assist is an intelligent decision. Blood-stock agents are the thoroughbred owner’s consigliere (that’s for you Godfather fans out there) and they will analyze the sales catalogue while bearing in mind total budget and overall goals. As a blood-stock agent for both Equine Analysis Systems Inc. and Classic Thoroughbreds International (which was a self formed enterprise) Pocket Aces Racing manager Marc Wampler has appraised thoroughbred racehorses for private sale at 31 domestic racetracks and served affluent clientele in Dubai, Germany, France, England and Ireland. When I spoke personally to this guru of horseflesh he reflected on how these international crusades had provided invaluable experience for his current venture with Pocket Aces Racing, “The opportunity I had to evaluate some of the world’s finest breeding stock, racing prospects and racehorses drastically honed my eye and ensures our investors achieve the maximum potential for every dollar spent.”
A trainer may also serve as an agent of equine selection but will most likely expect to handle the conditioning duties of any purchase they advise you on. Even if a trainer is not sought initially, the services of one must be secured eventually and when choosing it is important to hear opinions from many present and former clients. Trainer rates vary and some factors that determine fees include experience, winning percentage, barn size, reputation and location. Conditioners who head their class regularly charge $100 per horse per day while other competent but lesser known individuals may receive only half that amount. Be aware that thoroughbreds rarely remain in training year round and routinely need time away from the races to unwind. Boarding houses that provide such services are plentiful and owners should expect to pay nominal weekly fees to utilize them.
Claiming a runner from the track itself remains the fastest way to become an owner of a thoroughbred that is immediately ready to race. The pages of the Daily Racing Form are routinely saturated with claiming races where each participating thoroughbred is for sale at a predetermined price and by grouping equines of similar caliber together, the racetrack ensures their contests remain competitive. If the claiming method wasn’t employed then a trainer could run a superior horse against a sub-par crop to pick up a quick purse but in actuality no conditioner would think of entering a racer worth say 100K into a 10K claiming race (just as you wouldn’t sell a dollar bill for a dime). Claiming rules vary depending on the state but an owner’s license from the state you are claiming in and enough money on account with the track to pay the claim is standard procedure. The claiming process has to be finalized before an appointed juncture (usually ten or fifteen minutes before post-time) and involves depositing a signed form in the “claim box” located near the race secretary’s office.
Buying a thoroughbred through the claiming process has some drawbacks including the fact that there is no entitlement to a veterinary exam and the previous owner retains any purse monies won in the race the horse is claimed in. Also be aware that if claimed, new ownership receives the horse “as is”, sadly enough more than one person has experienced claiming a dead racehorse. On a lighter note, many “claimers” that have changed ownership and conditioners vastly improve thus netting those who put faith in them a healthy profit. The thoroughbred Lava Man will forever remain one of racing’s greatest rags to riches stories for after being claimed by trainer Doug O’ Neill for $50,000, this son of Seattle Slew went on to win seven Grade I races including the 2006 $1,000,000 Santa Anita Handicap.
Whether a new owner has to wait years or just a few weeks, eventually race day will arrive on the horizon and that moment of truth is unequal to any other. Standing in the paddock while your very own thoroughbred is being saddled will create a unique sense of euphoria and substantiate all time and monies invested. Most owners prefer to have their runners compete at nearby ovals so they can be in attendance but in the long run it is more important to vie inside a venue where your purchase can be competitive. Pocket Aces Racing manager Marc Wampler’s stance on this matter is emphatic, “Every equine proprietor longs for that whopping purse but we refuse to get in over our head by running a horse where they don’t belong.”
Like any investment, acquiring principal in a thoroughbred racehorse has its risks. What an interested party has to ask the person in the mirror before considering involvement is, “Do I truly love the game?” If the answer is “yes” and syndication sounds appealing then priority one has to be locating an organization worthy to share in your dream. Options inside the world of syndicated thoroughbred partnerships are bountiful but in the end solid results build lasting reputations and that is why Pocket Aces Racing located in Lexington, KY has flourished since 2004.
Managed by partners Marc Wampler and Jared Shoemaker, Pocket Aces Racing offers affordable opportunities to purchase thoroughbred shares without giving up perks that owners have traditionally relished. Partners in every acquisition receive race tapes, winner’s circle pictures, paddock access and communication with trainer Joseph Deegan who is a former award winning European jockey and one of America’s foremost horsemen. If you are the type that heeds only what the balance sheet proclaims then consider these numbers; every single horse syndicated by Pocket Aces Racing has made it to the track (remember the industry average is only 50%) and except for a lone racer with only one career start, every runner syndicated by the group has visited the winner’s circle.
The duel tier management philosophy of Pocket Aces Racing has undoubtedly contributed to their fruitful success and the capability of Jared Shoemaker (M.B.A Sports Business Management) to oversee the business operation sector of this empire leaves ample hours for his partner to do what he does best…purchase talented thoroughbreds. Marc Wampler has selected numerous young racing prospects that developed into conquerors within the “Sport of Kings” and a current member of the Pocket Aces stable named Dixie’s Hope boasts over $66,000 in earnings! Other notable racers Mr. Wampler has selected for his clients include: Diamondrella (Grade 1 Champion), Waltzerkonigin, Artemus Sunrise (Grade III Champions), Tiberius Caesar, Chan Chan, and Three in the Bag (Stakes Champions).
We at Southern Gaming and Destinations continually advise responsible involvement in every aspect of leisure including thoroughbred ownership. With that said I beg of you… please do not spend principle savings, mortgage money, a child’s college fund or the 401K on a racehorse. The “Sport of Kings” is fraught with peril and its creatures are delicate- only invest discretionary income and do not wallow in overzealous expectations. Following these vital axioms will make any ownership experience incredibly rewarding and in the end who knows; maybe fate will select you to raise the Golden Kentucky Cup towards the Heavens!
Eric Vaughn Floyd is a turf writer for various gaming publications and consultant to several nationwide media outlets in regards to the Triple Crown. Excerpts from his gambling memoir, “The Backstretch (My First Decade Playing the Game),” can be viewed at LULU.com.