When Funny Cide breaks out of the gate tomorrow at Belmont Park racetrack on Long Island, N.Y., in his pursuit of horse racing's Triple Crown, the horseshoes nailed to his hind hooves will bear the mark of Victory.
Funny Cide is one of a legion of thoroughbreds through the years that have worn horseshoes made by Victory Racing Plate Co. of Rosedale.
The gelding, which wore Victory's horseshoes on his hind hooves in winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, has generated keen interest in his Triple Crown quest. But at the Rosedale plant, the focus is on business.
That's because Victory, with annual sales of less than $10 million, is locked in its own high-stakes race against global competitors.
"We're embroiled more in our own survival battle with import competition," said David A. Erb, Victory's chief operating officer. Competition from new rivals in the United States, Japan and Europe has led to a "bloodletting," he said.
"Victory has had to cut prices due to competition. The new guys on the block are cutting prices, offering free units," he said. "It is through our own success that we've created the competition, and that's sort of a double-edged sword."
Victory's expansion into global markets began in the late 1980s, and has helped make it a well-known name at the most rarefied levels of horseracing around the world. The company, founded in 1929, helped popularize horseshoes made of a lightweight aluminum alloy, rather than heavier steel.
Among big-name horses that have worn Victory's shoes, perhaps none is more famous than Seabiscuit. The company has a signed statement in its files from Tom Smith, Seabiscuit's trainer, attesting to the fact that the great horse wore Victory racing plates in a legendary 1938 match race in which he beat Triple Crown winner War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course.
Today, Victory sells racing horseshoes for front and hind hooves in 45 countries around the world.
"They may be small in Baltimore, but they are a big player in the horseshoe business," said Frank Lessiter, editor and publisher of American Farriers Journal. "There's probably six companies in the world that really have any amount of the market. ...[Victory is] one of the biggest."
Victory pushed to expand overseas after it could no longer count on long-term growth in the domestic horseracing market.
More than 45 percent of the company's sales come from abroad. The 38-employee company has more than doubled its annual sales since 1986, said Erb, the chief operating officer.
But Victory's sales growth is slowing because of the increased competition, Erb said.
The company's growth over the past decade has enabled it to spend $1.4 million in machine upgrades on its factory floor, with plans to spend an additional $250,000 over the next three years.
At its 25,000-square-foot complex, the company is able to handle the entire process of making the racing plates: bending the aluminum into shape, making the dies that serve as casts for new designs and pressing the plates into their final shape. Robotic machines help workers speed up production.
Victory makes about 50 kinds of horseshoes. By mixing sizes and styles for a horse's front and hind hooves, the company is able to sell more than 750 different combinations of its products.
"It's as well known as any," said Barry Wiseman, a trainer and farrier who works at Maryland racetracks. "It's the East Coast shoe, I would say."
Victory, which is owned by G.L. Ohrstrom Co., a New York private investment business, won't disclose how many horseshoes it makes and sells in a year. Wholesale prices for its plates range from $2.50 to $5 each. Each aluminum plate weighs about 3.5 ounces; the typical steel plate weighs 4.5 to 5 ounces.
In addition to established competitors including Thoro'bred Inc. of Anaheim, Calif., Victory is also facing new challengers, including Apple, a Japanese horseshoe maker; Kerckhaert BV, a Dutch company; and St. Croix of Forest Lake, Minn.
"You look at some new companies that want to get in the racing industry, and you wonder why," said Lessiter of American Farriers. "They're just going to make life tough for everybody."
Erb said that if Funny Cide wins the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont Stakes tomorrow, Victory will try to take advantage of the buzz around a Triple Crown winner to promote its products. Funny Cide's farrier, Bobby Petillo, gave his endorsement this week.
Petillo uses Victory's quarter horse model, size 6, on Funny Cide's hind hooves but puts a Thoro'bred plate that's bonded to a shock absorbent pad on his front hooves.
Petillo said he often mixes brands, depending on the specific horse, and uses Victory's front-hoof plates, too.
Reached by telephone at Belmont Park, Petillo said he uses Victory's racing plates "all the time."
"They're a really nice shoe, they have a nice shape, they're easy to fit, and that's it."