Partnerships Take Center Stage - By Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the May 14, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

Hollywood screenwriters could not have scripted a better story for racing partnerships than what unfolded on Oaks and Derby days at Churchill Downs.

Stables offering a more affordable avenue to Thoroughbred ownership by selling shares found themselves in the winner’s circle following the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I), and the grade II Churchill Downs Stakes on the Derby undercard.

Barry Irwin’s Team Valor International won the Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, John Fort’s Peachtree Stable won the Kentucky Oaks with Plum Pretty, and Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable—the oldest of the syndicates—took the Churchill Downs Stakes with Aikenite, who won his second consecutive grade II race this year.

Fort happens to be the sole owner of Plum Pretty but continues to maintain a limited number of partnerships with long-time clients. It was only through partnerships that Peachtree Stable got started more than 30 years ago.

“I didn’t have any money, and I needed partners to raise the capital,” Fort said. “From having played polo for years, I knew about horses, but I wanted to own racehorses and feel that thrill. General Motors can sell stock, but all I could sell was the skills and the knowledge about horses that the general public didn’t have.”

Over the years Peachtree partners have enjoyed thrills from graded stakes winners such as Red Giant, Flashpoint, Coin Silver, Mythical Power, and Chimichurri. As much as Fort already knew about horses, he said he learned even more about the sport of Thoroughbred racing from his partners.

“The people who invested with me wanted to get close to horse racing, and it made me realize the intense connection that still exists,” he said. “These connections reach back to people’s roots.”

Following previous stakes victories, Fort often received letters from fans recalling family stories from the Old West, of horses on family farms, or of early days at the track with grandparents.
“Those 165,000 people at the Derby have an interest in horse racing,” he said.

Irwin used the bully pulpit that is the winner’s press conference following the Derby to remind everyone of the important role partnerships play today in getting people engaged with Thoroughbred racing. He also used it as a platform to take a jab at the racetracks.

“I hope these racetracks pay attention to the partnerships and treat us a little better than they have been treating us,” Irwin said. When asked later to elaborate, he said Churchill Downs had provided good seats for some of the 20 partners that own a share in Animal Kingdom but also provided some outrageously bad ones.  

The size of syndicates and partnerships can vary significantly among companies. Dogwood Stable limits its partnerships to four per horse. Easily imagined is the logistical nightmare created for Churchill Downs by 20 partners with Derby Fever looking for tickets for their family and friends. Still, the major attraction of owning a racehorse is the excitement of watching it run and sharing the experience with friends after a win.

“I understand the need for revenue and to make shareholders happy,” said Irwin. “But (Churchill Downs) needs a little humanity to make sure the people putting on the show can share in it.”
Even though Fort has reduced his involvement in partnerships, he said they continue to provide the best vehicle for growth in Thoroughbred racing.

“People think we live in a celluloid world of imagery and virtual realities,” he said. “But my experience is that people want to reach back to something that is real and tangible. In that way, partnerships are great for racing.”

Also felt during Derby week was a strong vibe emanating from the still-influential career of the late Bobby Frankel. The Hall of Famer, who died in 2009, trained both Leroidesanimaux and Medaglia d’Oro, the sires of the Derby and Oaks winners, respectively. Frankel took over the training of Leroidesanimaux when the Brazilian-bred colt arrived in the United States in 2004. He won six graded stakes for owner Stud TNT, including grade I victories in the Atto Mile Stakes, Citation Handicap, and the Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap. The colt also finished second in the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) at Belmont Park. Medaglia d’Oro won seven graded stakes for Frankel and owner Edmund Gann, including the Travers Stakes (gr. I), Whitney Handicap (gr. I), and Donn Handicap (gr. I). Beyond the Derby, Frankel’s namesake—an undefeated Juddmonte Farms homebred by Galileo—is the most talented 3-year-old racing in Europe and maybe anywhere. The legend lives on.

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