Americans go horse mad during the first week of May every year. The Kentucky Derby turns casual race fans into serious race fans. Maybe it’s the pomp and circumstance surrounding the race at Churchill Downs or maybe it’s the chance to win big money. But it probably has more to do with the majesty of the thoroughbreds racing around the mile-long track.
Thoroughbred racehorses are a breed apart from other horseflesh. They are tall, strong, hot-blooded animals that are used primarily for equestrian sports. Modern thoroughbreds trace their lineage to three Arabian stallions that were imported into England in the 1600s. The breed first came to America a century later. Today, Lexington, Kentucky, is considered the horse capital of the world, with approximately 450 horse farms, employing 80,000 people.
These horse farms board thousands of horses, many of them thoroughbreds with stud fees attached. Horse owners pay upwards of $150,000 to breed their broodmares to a sire that was once a winning racehorse in the hopes of birthing a foal.
So, what if you attend the big race this year and want in on owning a future Derby winner? Here is some helpful advice for the first-time thoroughbred shopper.
Do your research. Before you think about buying a horse, get your facts so a disreputable seller doesn’t scam you. All thoroughbred racehorses should have proof of age, pedigree and racing history. Proof of age is verified via foal papers—these should be readily available from any seller—and pedigree via the free site, www.pedigreequery.com. The Jockey Club, a century-old breed registry for thoroughbreds in North America, can confirm the last.
Educate Yourself. Talk with horse farms, trainers and other horse owners. Contact the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association of America for help. One way many first-time buyers can get in on horse ownership is joining a fractional ownership group a.k.a. a syndicate, a group of owners who share custody of a horse. “For someone looking to become a first-time racehorse owner, a syndicate is a great way to learn about and invest in the business of horse ownership with minimal risk. They can own a broodmare and breed her every year in order to produce a foal that they can either sell at public auction as a yearling or that they can keep and race,” says Jen Roytz of Three Chimneys Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
Know the Costs. Horses aren’t cheap. Once you purchase your racehorse, you still have to stable it somewhere and pay for its upkeep—training, stable costs, travel and veterinary work—which can run you about $25,000 a year. Broodmares cost less but you still want them in a top-notch facility. Three Chimneys charges $40 a day, plus additional fees for farrier work and veterinary care.
Consult with breeding experts. Once you’ve bought a broodmare and are ready to find a sire, consult the experts. Many farms have pedigree and mating analysts on staff. Each owner has different goals so state your intentions clearly. “Some of the considerations they take into account are what the owner’s goals will be for the foal—will they keep the foal and race it or will they plan to sell it at public auction—what stallions’ bloodlines/pedigree match up well with the mare’s bloodlines/pedigree [Three Chimney boards former Derby Champ Smarty Jones] and what price range the mare owner is looking to spend on a stallion stud fee [the cost of breeding the two horses],” says Roytz.
Decide what you want out of the horse. Some people go to public horse auctions—the Keeneland September Sale is one of the nation’s largest—to buy a horse to sell it quickly while others buy to race. Once breeding commences, many owners have a ring of roses on their minds while others intend to sell the resulting foal. Weanlings—horses less than a year old—and yearlings are available at auction. For those intent on racing their foals, patience is key.
“It takes three years from the time a mating is planned to the time at which a horse can potentially make its first start in a race as a two-year-old. People who breed to race have to have the patience to wait that long to see the fruits of their labor and planning,” says Roytz. “Buying to race cuts down on the time between acquiring the horse and being able to race it, but it can come at a higher cost for a good horse.”
Stay connected with the farms. Once your mare delivers a foal, the farms will care for it. You don’t have to live near the farm to get updates. But stay connected. You don’t want to neglect your investment.
—Shandana A. Durrani