Buying a racehorse is a lifetime wager

Auction: Spending a bundle on one 2-year-old may bring only bills, while a pittance on another could yield riches.

May 18, 1999|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Joan Everett had seen horse No. 86 run, so she knew he was fast. She'd seen X-rays and a veterinarian's report, so she knew he was healthy. She'd seen his family tree and knew his stock -- brother to 109 winning racehorses, with a Kentucky Derby winner as a great-grandfather.

But Everett couldn't quite explain what made her decide that this particular 2-year-old colt with no racing experience was worth $41,000.

"He looked like a racehorse," said Everett, who, as of yesterday at 1 p.m., owned 18 horses. "A lot of them just don't look right -- he does."

The 1999 Preakness is already a memory, but horse racing's most devoted gamblers are still at it. They don't bet on racehorses, they buy them -- wagering on the entire life span of an unproven thoroughbred.

More than 500 horses went on sale at the annual Fasig-Tipton Midlantic auction of 2-year-olds at the Timonium fairgrounds yesterday. Buyers came from up and down the East Coast, all of them studied investors, gamblers, animal lovers and genealogists hoping to distinguish the next Cigar from the next Old Paint.

If tradition holds, they could spend $12 million or more by the end of the auction today. The losers will own horses that cost more than $1,000 a month to feed and train but never get to the races, while a few could find the keys to the winner's circle of the Triple Crown.

"It's very speculative. As much as people try to learn about a horse, they can't know whether or not it will win," said Mason Grasty, executive vice president of Fasig-Tipton, a Kentucky-based auction house that holds sales in Maryland and other states.

"We sold Seattle Slew, who won the Triple Crown, for $17,000 as a yearling. Then there are a lot of horses sold for half a million that you can't remember."

There are success stories -- like Real Quiet, who sold for $17,000 as a 2-year-old, then won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness a year later.

Buyers begin sizing up the horses days before the auctions. They pore through the catalogs listing three full generations of the horses' lineage. They sift through a repository of veterinary reports and test results.

They visit the stables and check the horses' gait and demeanor. Then they watch them "breeze," or sprint a quarter-mile or so, to check their mechanics and time their speed.

Warranties cover only known physical defects. Guarantees don't exist.

"It really doesn't matter what you pay for him, if he can run," said Buzz Chace of Little Silver, N.J.

Chace is a professional horse agent who visits auctions around the country looking for potential winners, then buys them for his clients. He claims finds like Unbridled's Song and Artax in his recent past. He was outside the pavilion smoking a cigar yesterday, several minutes after buying a Maryland colt named Treadgold for $165,000. He bought him for an owner in Florida.

"I had my eye on him even before I saw him breeze," said Chace. "He's built well, has a nice way about him, nice long lines. Then he ran an eighth in 10.4."

Many horse buyers are professionals like Chace, bidding up the best prospects into six-figure range. At last year's 2-year-old sale in Timonium the top horse fetched $360,000, and 12 others went for more than $100,000. At the top auctions in Florida and some other states, prices can reach $1 million and more.

Grasty was sitting on a bench outside the sales pavilion yesterday explaining how buyers pay for their horses (mostly on credit) when there was a commotion inside. He looked inside toward the board above the auctioneer.

"There's a $100,000 horse," he said.

It was Carson City Mint, a Pennsylvania colt fathered by the respected sire Carson City. He ran an eighth of a mile in 10.3 seconds Friday, one of the fastest on the track. And 197 of his brothers and sisters are race winners. He sold for $105,000.

More typical, however, are buyers like Everett, who selects her own horses and hires a trainer to manage and house them. The average 2-year-old thoroughbred at Timonium sold for just under $30,000 last year.

Everett, who lives in Northern Virginia, keeps her horses at Bowie and on a farm in Ashland, Va., and races them in mid-Atlantic states. The horses that actually race usually turn a modest profit, she says, covering the cost of feeding, training and purchasing them.

But because of injuries, pregnancies and other complications, fewer than half her horses race at any one time. She and her husband are in the business because they love the horses, not necessarily for the money.

"It's so tough to make any money in this business. You're always hoping the next one's the one," said Everett. "You can pay $100,000 for a horse that does nothing, then buy one for $27,000 that's a champion. It's part of the thrill.

"But it's also so much more than a business. A lot of people treat the horses like a commodity -- like stocks or a bank account. But they're flesh and blood. That makes it worthwhile."

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