Give That Owner a Medal - By Eric Mitchell

If you were on the fence about owning a Thoroughbred racehorse and watched this year’s Eclipse Awards ceremony at Gulfstream Park, it’s likely you began researching trainers the following morning.

The thrill of ownership and the allure of the sport could not have been packaged better.

Spunky octogenarian Morton Fink received his second golden Horse of the Year trophy for his homebred Wise Dan, whom he produced out of a $29,000 mare bred on a $1,000 stud fee. Sports talk radio personality Jim Rome, once a self-professed Thoroughbred racing antagonist, gushed that winning his first of two Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprints (gr. IT) with Mizdirection ranked only behind his wedding day and the birth of his two sons as the most amazing day of his life.

Owner after owner shared his or her passion and enthusiasm.

“I am fairly new to Thoroughbred racing; I am very deeply in love with it,” said Benjamin Leon Jr., the owner of Royal Delta, who was honored with her second Eclipse Award as champion older female and third career championship. “I want to thank everyone who had anything to do with getting me into this sport.”

Mark Dedomenico, a heart surgeon and co-owner of champion 2-year-old filly She’s a Tiger, even offered a road map to prospective owners.

“If you’ve never owned a racehorse but you’d like to, it’s really simple,” he said. “Seek out the trainer who you have the most respect for in your local area. Go see him and then get ready for the ride of your life.”

Though the Eclipse Awards theater was packed with hundreds of the world’s most competitive people, their appreciation of what the night’s big winners have gone through to earn their moment under the klieg lights is every bit as powerful as their will to win. In that room everyone has felt the heartache and disappointment of dreams shattered by injury or cruel misfortune. They also appreciate most deeply those times when it all comes together—the elation in the winner’s circle, high-fives all around, and every nerve buzzing from the athletic performance just witnessed on the racetrack.

This is what ownership is about, and when you’re hooked, you want to share it with everyone.

It was rewarding to see on Eclipse night so many trainers and jockeys recognize the financial and emotional commitment owners make to the sport. The sport, however, could do a better job with its own recognition. Efforts are being discussed to improve owners’ experiences at the racetrack; providing them with a more enjoyable day with family and friends for helping put on the show.

But there is an even simpler way to give the sport’s most successful owners some recognition that does not require launching a revamped customer service initiative, according to national advertising agency owner Lance Bell. Give the owners of every Eclipse Award nominee a medal in recognition that they raced one of North America’s top Thoroughbreds.

Even the Olympics gives medals to the top three finishers of an event, argues Bell. Why can’t Thoroughbred racing provide owners some tangible recognition that they raced one of the best Thoroughbreds in North America? Out of 29,270 horses that won at least one race in the U.S. and Canada in 2013, only 35 were nominated for an Eclipse Award, making it an extraordinarily elite group.

As Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas put it while accepting this year’s Eclipse Award of Merit, owners are fueling racing’s fire. They buy their horses, pay to keep them healthy and in training, and then pay more just to watch them perform. And when owners are fortunate to have horses run in one of the sport’s premier events, they have the privilege of paying even more to watch them run.

A classy, well-designed medallion stamped with the name of the championship division would be a small way for the industry to recognize an owner’s large contribution and achievement. Nominee medallions would earn prominent places in display cases and on mantels, helping to keep those competitive fires burning as the owner seeks to replace that medallion with a trophy.

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