Chasing Down the Derby

  • Shaun Tolson

 “This is a hope business,” Bill Thomason, Keeneland’s president and CEO, said at the onset of the association’s annual September Yearling Sale last year. Many owners and trainers concur, but they underscore just how much hope is being sold, since numerous 1-year-old horses typically exchange ownership for more than $1 million apiece. “There’s no cookie-cutter formula,” Thomason continued. “Everyone looks at something differently with a horse. All it takes is two people who have the money, who want the same horse, and who are serious about it.”

“This is like starting restaurants and making movies,” Bolton says of Thoroughbred ownership. “It can be run as a business, but the negative of that is that you’re competing against people who don’t care if they make money. The challenge is always keeping it self-sustaining. You can’t think of it as real money if you want to keep the horse business going.

“The thing that kills new people in this business is getting too big too quick,” he continues. “The overhead will kill you.”

It’s a challenging proposition for many new owners. Thoroughbred ownership and racing attracts powerful and successful people—many of whom have reached that level of success by fully investing in their respective businesses. They’ve been conditioned to believe that if they throw enough money into a project, they’ll be rewarded in the end. Thoroughbred racing doesn’t follow those rules, which is why Bolton advocates a slow integration for new owners. Buying a share of a racehorse lets newcomers gradually learn how the business works and provides them with time to decide if it’s an endeavor that’s right for them. The strategy doesn’t offer the highest level of pomp and circumstance right out of the gate, but it eliminates the risk that new owners might get in over their heads.

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