Sunday, May 05, 2002

Money rules the Derby


High price for victory

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        LOUISVILLE— It is not the sport of cab drivers. It is the sport of kings.

        Money talks. Wealth matters. You don't win the Kentucky Derby on a shoestring, not unless it's made of mink.

        So the notion trainer Bob Baffert “bought” Saturday's showcase with War Emblem; that he and Saudi Prince Ahmed Salman swooped in and grabbed the garland of roses with a wad of oil money is at best naive and at worst silly.

        When choice horses are up for bids, who do you suppose buys them? The same people who buy Old Masters and new yachts. Hint: It's not Joe The Janitor.

128th KENTUCKY DERBY
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Jockey Victor Espinoza, aboard War Emblem, is triumphant as he wins the 128th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Derby photo gallery
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        “Everybody buys the Derby,” Prince Ahmed said Saturday afternoon. “Because you have to buy a horse or raise a horse to win the Derby. Spending money is not buying?

        “Bought the Derby? If you tell me next year who is going to win it, I'll buy it again.”

        The prince has a point. Much as we might want to romanticize them, racehorses are property and require upkeep. They are bought and sold like real estate or vehicles and soon, surely, through some equine EBay. Charismatic, a chestnut colt descended from Secretariat, was entered in a claiming race 11 weeks before he won the 1999 Derby. For $62,500, he was available to anyone.

        Not until Saturday, however — at least not in modern times — has a Derby winner changed hands between his final prep race and the ceremonial playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Prince Ahmed purchased War Emblem on April10, four days after it won the Illinois Derby, less than four weeks before its wire-to-wire win Saturday at Churchill Downs.

        Moral: The rich get richer. Not that that qualifies as news.

        Thoroughbred racing is a millionaire's game. Always was. Always will be. War Emblem was one of an estimated 36,500 registered foals in 1999. Included in that number are a whole lot of horses that will never make a dime. Somebody's subsidizing all those worthless nags in the search for worthier horseflesh, and it's not some guy pushing a shopping cart of empty pop cans.

        Russell Reineman paid $20,0000 for War Emblem at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2000. He elected to cash out most of his interest for an undisclosed princely sum last month.

        Like many savvy investors, Reineman took his profit rather than waiting for the market to peak. Reineman would have made more had he waited, but banking on an individual horse to win the Derby is only slightly more speculative than plowing your life savings into lottery tickets.

        The top trainers earn their money by recognizing talent when it's still reasonably priced. The smart owners learn to recognize sources of sound advice. War Emblem's win was Baffert's third in the Derby. Rival trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose Proud Citizen ran second Saturday, has won the Derby four times.

        Successful trainers are a magnet for big money and, consequently, their success is self-perpetuating. If they can't develop a Derby winner, they are in business to buy it. Those who would make an issue of it, Baffert said, are “just jealous ... envious of us ... whatever.”

        “I know a lot of people feel it's not the fair way to come into a Derby,” Baffert said, “but believe me, this is my livelihood. This is how I make my living.”

        It's nice work, if you can get it.

       Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456; e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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