Making spectacular bids

Spending big or small, horse owners buy with heads, hearts

May 21, 2008|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

They came to the Timonium Fairgrounds yesterday, braving the mud and the rain, many clutching wrinkled pieces of paper or catalogs with worn-down edges and scribbled notes in the margins. Some had millions to spend, others just a few thousand.

And although they were in town to buy horses, what's really for sale at the annual Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Preferred Two-Year-Olds in Training auction - where more than 300 horses can change hands over two days - is something more abstract.

They are buying dreams.

Was there a Triple Crown winner purchased yesterday at a bargain basement price? Probably not. But it's possible. Horse racing is called the sport of kings for good reason. A colt or a filly with good bloodlines can easily sell for half a million dollars at a public auction. On Monday, 158 horses were sold during the first day of the two-day auction, and with more than $7.2 million changing hands, the average sale price was $45,654.

But just like the stock market, there are always hidden gems waiting to be discovered by the plebeians of the horse racing industry. Horses don't start racing until they're almost 3 years old, and until they do, no one truly knows how they'll perform. Most haven't even been named yet.

Each horse is listed in the auction catalog with its family tree, birth date and blood type, and potential buyers show up a week in advance to inspect the horses and watch them work out. Then, over two days, the horses are paraded into a small arena where potential buyers sit stone-faced in plastic chairs arranged like an amphitheater. Buyers need to have their credit pre-approved if they want to place bids. A fast-talking auctioneer hollers out numbers and pounds his gavel to announce a sale.

In every horse, there is possibility. Even the horses that sold yesterday for $4,000. You don't have to find the next Funny Cide or Seattle Slew - both purchased at a Fasig-Tipton auction - to earn back your investment.

One gorgeous chestnut filly sold yesterday for $575,000. A gray colt fathered by Smarty Jones, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in 2004, sold for $22,000. Which investment will have higher returns?

It's not an exact science. For years, Bob Oliva - a round, sardonic man with short salt-and-pepper hair and thin silver glasses - has been coming to the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic armed with reams of research. He takes copious notes on every horse's workout and has his trainer examine X-rays of every horse he wants to try to buy.

Oliva doesn't shy away from the idea that he represents the "little guy" in horse racing. He embraces it. He knows too that sometimes the little guy can do pretty well if he knows what he's doing.

Cracking a steady string of jokes in his Brooklyn accent and insisting everyone call him "Bob-O," Oliva owns and runs Renpher Stable, essentially a group of investors that acts more like a family than it does a hedge fund. It includes a retired postal worker, an ex-Navy medical researcher and a pair of air-traffic controllers, among numerous others. Some have as little as $300 invested in one of Renpher Stable's horses, and most do so for little more than the love they have for the sport.

"We give regular, average people a opportunity to own a racehorse," says Oliva, who sends out daily e-mails to the 160 investors and encourages them to call him on his cell phone. "This isn't the most prestigious auction, but it's the right one for us. Some of those others where you have people bidding almost a million bucks, that's for the sheiks, not for us."

Oliva has been in love with horse racing since he was a teenager who studied The Daily Racing Form between high school classes in Brooklyn.

"When I wasn't this fat, when I was half the man that I am today, I was going to ride at Belmont Park," Oliva says, breaking into a smile. "I was so good at the buffets, I outgrew my dream. But I always wanted to stay involved."

He and his wife named Renpher Stable after their two children, Lauren and Christopher.

"My wife and I started with one horse we wanted to own for just ourselves, and now we have a partnership that owns over 20. ... We just love to get together and yell and scream. Every race for us is the Kentucky Derby."

Sandy Parker and husband Glenn Englehart come to Maryland from their home in Trophy Club, Texas, every year to sit with Oliva and watch the auction. They're air traffic controllers at the Dallas-Forth Worth airport, and Englehart originally invested in a horse as a Mother's Day present to Parker four years ago.

"It's very good stress relief for us to yell at the horses," Parker says.

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