BETHESDA — – Thoroughbred racing is sometimes called the "sport of kings," but the horse owners and prospective owners sipping red wine at a reception the other night seemed too young to have ascended to an exalted level of royalty.
Maybe they could symbolically be earls or viscounts. They looked like recent college graduates too old for the bar scene but too young to yet possess the graying, distinguished, moneyed look commonly associated with the sport's elite.
But that was the point.
The suburban Washington reception was sponsored by Justin Nicholson, 26, who grew up around horses, became fascinated by the sport and started a small syndicate last year with the goal of bringing racing "to the public's doorstep."
One of the nation's youngest syndicate owners, Nicholson — studious, ambitious and as fresh-faced as his age suggests — has been relying on cocktail receptions, social media and word of mouth to deliver his message "that racing is neither a sport only for the super-rich, nor a sport full of cheaters and wrongdoers." His syndicate, 90 North, which will host a suite at Saturday's Preakness, offers shares at less than $1,000.
Nicholson and other "boutique" partnership operators believe an infusion of new — and perhaps younger — owners can help the sport.
Racing has "got a bad stigma about it in the general public — that it's your grandfather's place to go hang out and bet his money. It's so not the case," said Matt Gatsas, 35, president of Sovereign Stable, a partnership company that races primarily in the East.
"I don't know that it's the sport of kings anymore," Gatsas said. "There are kings in this game — rulers and sheiks and multi-millionaires and billionaires. But there's plenty of space for just your Average Joe to get into this game. It's definitely becoming more popular through these partnerships."
In other words, there is plenty of room in the castle. While Nicholson's and Gatsas's groups don't turn away older, big-money partners, they're meant in part as alternatives in a sport with lots of mega-brands.
Sovereign has about 150 clients and "anywhere between 10 and 20 horses," Gatsas said.
On average, a minimum buy-in is about $5,000.
Ninety North has between 15 and 20 partners and a handful of horses so far. Most of the horses are stabled at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton. Their trainer, Jimmy Toner, says: "I'm the token old person (in the syndicate)." He says his age is "right around 70."
At the Bethesda reception — meant to entice new customers — Nicholson, who left Georgetown law school to pursue his dream, worked the room wearing khakis and a button-down shirt. Brochures were laid out on a table. The horses being promoted included Wabbajack , a two-year-old, unraced colt presented as an "option to those who are new to racing or perhaps looking to get involved in the sport at a lower price point."
Among those involved in the syndicate is Nicholson's girlfriend, Kathyrn Sharp, 24, whom he met at Emory University. Another friend, Alan Aberg, 25, is a partner in AJ Suited, a partnership formed by Nicholson's family and others several years ago.
Aberg, who recently graduated from NYU with a dual law and graduate business degree, said some classmates seemed to wonder why a 25-year-old was involved in the horse business.
"I got a little bit of that throughout graduate schoo l—'Oh, you own race horses,' " he said.
Aberg and Nicholson are also poker players. In 2007, they traveled to Las Vegas together and played in the World Series of Poker. Aberg won $7,174 playing Omaha Hi-Low. Nicholson did not finish in the money.
Through 90 North, Nicholson said he's not selling people on the possibility of making money. There can be no guarantees about that. The syndicate's literature mostly promotes the experience of watching the horses grow and train — the things that Nicholson grew up loving.
"We'd like to go out there and introduce more people to the sport of racing. It's good for our sport," he said.