Vincent Viola didn't get on the Forbes 400 list by being one-dimensional. The self-made e-trading mogul believes that both business and sports come down to an artful balance of a black-and-white plan — and zeal. It's an approach that has worked for him in the stock market and on the racetrack.
The son of a Brooklyn truck driver, Viola grew up attending the races at Aqueduct and Belmont Park with his father before leaving home to attend West Point. He made his career in the financial sector, launching Independent Bank Group, a regional operation based in Texas, and worked for the New York Mercantile Exchange beginning in the 1980s, serving as chairman from 2001 to 2004. He started Virtu Financial, a high-frequency trading company which turned a profit in all but one of its first 1,484 days of business and became publicly traded earlier this year.
In the late 1990s, Viola wanted to use some of his newfound fortune to tap into his racetrack roots—his father was sick, and Viola was looking for something new they could do together. The two claimed a few horses and shared two years as participants in the racing game before Viola's father died in 1999.
Viola took a break from the sport but found that he and his wife Teresa, who had grown up going to the races with her grandfather, missed horse racing. In 2011, the couple got back in the game with the help of Terry Finley's West Point Thoroughbreds and quickly experienced the same good fortune on the track that they had in business. The Violas have owned all or part of graded stakes runners Freedom Child and Ring Weekend under their St. Elias Stable moniker.
For Viola, the same basic principles of business carry over to his sports franchises (he also purchased the NHL Florida Panthers in 2013 for $240 million).
“I think it's all about understanding your objectives in the context of managing the risks,” he said. “We treat all of our sport investments and activities very much like we do our businesses. We put a disciplined (an attempt at discipline, anyway) plan in place, and we execute it against the risks and rewards that we seek.”
That may sound a little dry, but Viola's feelings about Thoroughbred ownership are anything but.
“The ups and downs are way up and way down; behind it all is a black-and-white business plan, but there's no feeling in the world like when one of your horses crosses the finish line first,” he said. “It doesn't matter if it's a claiming race or a Grade 1. Can't quite figure out why that is, but it's just exhilarating. I wish I could share that feeling with every sports fan in the nation because horse racing is not as popular as it was when I was growing up, but it's just a fantastic sport.”
Viola's operation has expanded to include 50 horses, both on the racetrack and on the farm, and even he seems a little astonished at what how much success he's had in a short period of time.
“I'm blessed to be the protector of these horses,” he said. “Sometimes after the race, you almost feel so lucky you ask yourself, 'Why did that happen to me?' because it's something you dream about. What a feeling.”
In ten days, the Violas will be watching not one but two of their horses go to the post in the Breeders' Cup—Greenpointcrusader will contest the Juvenile, and Liam's Map, owned by Teresa, will be in the Dirt Mile. As a native New Yorker, watching both horses prepare for a run in the world championships in his home state was a special experience for Viola.
Liam's Map won the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga in September, while Greenpointcrusader is coming off a hard-knocking Win and You're In victory in the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Oct. 3.
“When Greenpoint finally got some running room and started to stride, it was surreal, quite frankly,” Viola said. “Being able to win a Grade 1 at a track that we've been going to since we were kids…it's like one of those fairy tales come true, actually.”
Viola and his family visit their horses at the barns of Todd Pletcher and Dominick Schettino every chance they get, and they hope a move to Florida later this year will make it easier to be more hands-on when their horses ship south for the winter. Their participation has been a learning curve for the Violas, who work with agent J. J. Crupi and bloodstock advisor John Sparkman to choose sale prospects but make final purchase decisions themselves. Greenpointcrusader, owned in partnership with Mary Ellen and Anthony Bonomo, was a $575,000 purchase at Keeneland September last year. Liam's Map was a $800,000 yearling at the same auction in 2012.
Although he won't have a large entourage at Keeneland for the Breeders' Cup, Viola hopes two of his sons will watch the family horses go to the post (one may be at home caring for a newly-arrived grandson named after Viola). He's also hopeful that a particular military member will be on hand—Liam's Map is named for Col. Liam Collins, a decorated officer and former professor at the U.S. Military Academy, where Viola got his bachelor's degree.
Though he plans to enjoy the pageantry regardless of the outcome, Viola admits that deep down, he's coming to town to win. That competitive drive has worked for him in the business world, and with a little more of that trademark luck, it could bring him a big return on investment come Breeders' Cup weekend.
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