Chasing Down the Derby

  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Danny Moloshok
    Groupie Doll, a 5-year-old mare ridden by Rajiv Maragh, winning the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint in November. Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Danny Moloshok
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Gary Bogdon
    Jockey Mike Smith celebrates his victory aboard Mizdirection, who won the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in November. Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Gary Bogdon
  • Photo by Jonathan Palmer
    During Keeneland’s annual September Yearling Sale, which spans two weeks, owners and prospective buyers spend much of their time appraising horses in the stable areas. In particular, they’ll critique a horse’s bone structure, posture, and gait. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
  • Photo by David Coyle
    During Keeneland’s annual September Yearling Sale, which spans two weeks, owners and prospective buyers spend much of their time appraising horses in the stable areas. In particular, they’ll critique a horse’s bone structure, posture, and gait. Photo by David Coyle
  • Photo by Z
    During Keeneland’s annual September Yearling Sale, which spans two weeks, owners and prospective buyers spend much of their time appraising horses in the stable areas. In particular, they’ll critique a horse’s bone structure, posture, and gait. Photo by Z
  • Photo by David Coyle
    During Keeneland’s annual September Yearling Sale, which spans two weeks, owners and prospective buyers spend much of their time appraising horses in the stable areas. In particular, they’ll critique a horse’s bone structure, posture, and gait. Photo by David Coyle
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Gary Mook
    Secret Circle (left), a 4-year-old colt ridden by jockey Martin Garcia, is shown winning the $1.5 million Expressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint in November. Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Gary Mook
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Phil McCarten
    Mizdirection storms back to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint for the second year in a row. Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Phil McCarten
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Dan Dry
    Jockey Gary Stevens celebrates his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic riding Mucho Macho Man Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Dan Dry
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Pat McDonogh
    Jockey Gary Stevens celebrates his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic riding Mucho Macho Man Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Pat McDonogh
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Danny Moloshok
    Jockey Gary Stevens celebrates his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic riding Mucho Macho Man Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Danny Moloshok
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Rodney White
    The Reeves Thoroughbred Racing continent celebrates the victory (bottom) before heading to the winner’s circle. Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Rodney White
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Jamie Rhodes
    Beholder, a 3-year-old filly, sprints to victory in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff in November. Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Jamie Rhodes
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Dan Dry
    With her win at the Breeders’ Cup in November, Groupie Doll increased her career earnings to more than $1.9 million. She sold for $3.1 million at a Keeneland auction four days after her Breeders’ Cup victory. Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Dan Dry
  • Photo by Z/Keeneland
    A yearling colt with four white feet (a bad omen to some owners) sells for $1.7 million at Keeneland’s annual September yearling auction in 2013. Photo by Z/Keeneland
  • Photo by Z/Keeneland
    Photo by Z/Keeneland
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Danny Moloshok
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Gary Bogdon
  • Photo by Jonathan Palmer
  • Photo by David Coyle
  • Photo by Z
  • Photo by David Coyle
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Gary Mook
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Phil McCarten
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Dan Dry
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Pat McDonogh
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Danny Moloshok
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Rodney White
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Jamie Rhodes
  • Photo by Breeders’ Cup/Dan Dry
  • Photo by Z/Keeneland
  • Photo by Z/Keeneland

 “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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