A common touch in racing

Thoroughbreds: Judging by recent Triple Crown successes, the common man continues to make a mark on `the sport of kings.'

Preakness Stakes

May 14, 2004|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

Long known as "the sport of kings," thoroughbred horse racing has recently produced several winners more plebeian than royal.

Last year, there was Funny Cide, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, owned by a hard-partying group of former high school buddies who came to the races in a yellow school bus.

This year, there is Smarty Jones, the Derby winner and favorite tomorrow in the Preakness at Pimlico. The Pennsylvania-bred colt is based at Philadelphia Park - about as far from racing's major leagues as one can get.

Their back-to-back high-profile successes raise the question: Is racing, once reserved for the wealthy, now a sport in which an Average Joe (or Josephine) can also win?

Well, yes and no.

Four years ago, a regal colt named Fusaichi Pegasus won the Derby; he had been bought as a yearling for $4 million. Two years later, War Emblem, bought for $900,000, won the Derby and the Preakness.

Funny Cide, by contrast, was sold twice, once for $22,000 and once for $75,000. Smarty Jones' owner, Roy Chapman, paid $40,000 for the mare that produced the Derby winner.

"I think it's more possible than ever for the little guy to win a Triple Crown race," said Tom Bowman, president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

Larger stables can have 30 to 75 horses in training and many more on farms; they annually spend many millions buying and breeding.

Funny Cide's owners have just a few horses, and Chapman has even fewer after downsizing his equine operation.

But such smaller stables, Bowman said, have a better chance now in the Triple Crown, the three races that conclude June 5 with the Belmont Stakes in New York. That's because the larger stables are increasingly afraid of pushing their most expensive young horses too hard.

"You're seeing a lot of the larger owners just skip the Triple Crown with their best horses, and that leaves it open," Bowman said.

But Ray Paulick, editor of The Blood-Horse, a prominent thoroughbred racing and breeding magazine, said the back-to-back Derby victories by smaller stables, while heartwarming, aren't the start of a trend.

"I don't see it as a changing of the guard," Paulick said. "I don't think the Derby is going to be dominated from now on by horses from small stables. These things run in cycles. It's great that these guys won. But it will swing back the other way."

The sport has had "common man" champions before. Carry Back, winner of the 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was the product of a $665 breeding session. Canonero II, winner of the 1971 Derby and Preakness, was owned by a Venezuelan manufacturer who had to send the horse in a van from Miami to Louisville for the Derby because he couldn't afford to fly.

New York-bred Funny Cide and Philadelphia's Smarty Jones now belong to that chronology. Not only are they from small stables, but they're also from states with little history of producing Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners, as opposed to Kentucky, the epicenter of the industry.

But while their owners might seem like "little guys" compared with Vanderbilts and Arab royalty, their images are misleading.

Chapman has nine car dealerships in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that he recently turned over to his sons.

And though Funny Cide's ownership syndicate includes a retired teacher, it also includes a building contractor and the owners of a health care consulting business, a construction company and a catering business.

"These aren't guys crying poverty," Paulick said.

Given the cost of racing a top horse, it's hard for anyone other than those with higher incomes to make a splash.

In other words, despite the populist victories of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, don't expect minimum-wage workers to start flooding Triple Crown winner's circles.

It takes money, a lot of money, to breed or buy a racehorse and keep it running.

Michael Pons, business manager of Country Life Farm in Bel Air, estimated that it takes $25,000 to get a foal from birth to the races as a 2-year-old, and then another $25,000 a year to keep the horse running.

Those amounts cover insurance costs, feed, veterinary and training bills, and "other reasonable expenses," Pons said.

Throw in the stud fee required to produce the horse in the first place - $5,000 to $50,000 in most cases - and entry fees for major races, and you're approaching six figures.

Owners who buy horses might pay even more, as sale prices typically range from $15,000 to $250,000.

The goal, of course, is for the horse to earn back in purse money at least as much as he or she costs, but victories are difficult to achieve, horses are fragile and many wind up costing more than they earn.

One industry adage, delivered with a sigh by veterans, is that "the only guy getting rich is the feed guy" - the person who delivers the horses' oats and other victuals.

Despite the sport's high costs, there is room for owners who don't have open checkbooks, especially in a partnership such as the one that owns Funny Cide.

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