This week, the Paulick Report is launching a new series interviewing young people in the Thoroughbred industry. Despite the recent economic recession and resulting shrinking of the Thoroughbred industry, some members of Generation Y are choosing to launch careers in racing. Each week, we will ask these young professionals what issues they're most concerned about, and how they think they could be solved.
Sean Feld is currently the managing director for Bullet Train and the Kentucky representative for Bongo Racing Stable, which most recently made news with Centralinteligence's Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap win. Previously, he worked in stallion sales at Spendthrift Farm, and holds a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Kentucky.
PR: What got you hooked on racing, and why?
SF: When I was a kid, my dad was a produce salesman in downtown LA and he would have to leave the house at 3:30 a.m. As a toddler, I wouldn't sleep through the night so when he would leave for work, he would put in tapes of the Breeders' Cup for me, and I would fall asleep at some point during them. My favorite horse was Cozzene, because he won the Breeders' Cup Mile in 1985. Kids love gray horses, so he was my first favorite horse, but for me racing is a family deal. Both my grandfathers owned racehorses, my uncle was a trainer, and my dad's in the business.
One of my dad's favorite stories is when I was three or four, and we were at Santa Anita by the paddock. I was on his shoulders, and this Overbrook horse walks by, and I point to the horse, and I go “Storm Cat!” He realized that Storm Cat was in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile the same year that Cozzene won the Mile. So even as a little kid I was memorizing silks to the horse. He knew from that day I was in trouble. I was hooked in the horse game.
PR: What is it like for you, as someone who's at the beginning of their career, to be starting out in an industry that's undergoing some change and uncertainty?
SF: I grew up in it. I always wanted to be in the business from Day One. It wasn't easy to get a job. When I graduated from the University of Kentucky in '09, the whole economy had basically crashed in September of '08. There were absolutely no jobs, so I struggled just like every other young person trying to make a living. I was working sales, and ended up getting a seasonal job with Walmac that paid practically nothing, but I was able to parlay that into working for Spendthrift, and then parlay that into the Bullet Train deal.
It wasn't easy, but I didn't really have another option. I had a degree, but I've never had a job off the track. I've always been either hot walking, I was a jockey's agent one summer. I've never worked somewhere non-horse-related. So far, I've been able to make it work, but it's definitely not easy, because the less horses that are around, the less of a market there is to buy, or sell, or breed them, and the less jobs are around. And, the horse business is someplace that people work until they die, more or less. At this moment, the marketplace is very saturated. It's not an easy thing to get into at our age because someone's going to have a better resume and have ten years' experience on you, no matter what job you want.
PR: From your perspective, what is the biggest issue currently facing the Thoroughbred industry?
SF: I think there are too many racetracks and they run too many races. The supply and demand is out of whack. A place like Pennsylvania shouldn't have three tracks going on at the same exact time. To me, you can't better a product if you're glorifying cheap horses [by offering huge purses].
I think baseball has kind of the same problem. They have A, AA, AAA, rookie leagues—there's just too much. And Major League Baseball is wondering why nobody goes to the pro games. Well, if you can go to Rancho Cucamonga and pay $5 to see a professional baseball team, you're probably going to do that instead of going to the Dodgers and paying $50 a person, plus the $20 to park, plus the $10 for a hot dog. I think we mirror baseball a lot more than people think. I think there's too much racing, and it's expensive to go, and there are other forms of entertainment. Baseball and horse racing in the '40s, '50s, and '70s were the best thing going, that's all anyone wanted to do. But now, there's a lot more competition, and baseball and horse racing are stuck in the '70s.
PR: What do you see as a potential solution to the problem of too much racing?
SF: To me, part of the problem is that not every place has slots, so it doesn't even the playing field. It glorifies Presque Isle, when to me, if Churchill and Presque Isle had the same purses and same racing, Churchill would have 12-horse fields and Presque Isle would have four-horse fields. But since it's the other way around, Presque Isle has an 8-horse field and Churchill has a 6-horse field, and they're struggling to fill races. And if you want the sport to go farther, you want Churchill to be the strongest. No one goes to Presque Isle and there's no reason to. I don't mean to pick on Presque Isle, but that's just one example. To me, that's the problem: the states that don't necessarily need the slots, but need them to be comparable to other states that have them.
PR: Bearing in mind the supply-and-demand issue, are you optimistic about the future of racing in this country?
SF: I think long-term, I'm pretty optimistic. It's very sad that Hollywood Park is closing. I grew up at Hollywood Park. I was there all the time. I went to high school 20 minutes away from there. I'll always remember Hollywood Park as one of my homes, but it's probably not a bad thing. I get why it's closing—the land's worth a lot of money and the racing's not very viable, so it makes sense. I think the more tracks close, the better. I'm hoping they do more River Downs-type stuff where the slots come in and they actually want to make the facility better instead of throwing them in a room somewhere.
People love the Derby, and they love the track. It's just that no one wants to go to the track on a Wednesday, and you can't blame 'em. It's the worst racing. Even on a nice day at Keeneland, they probably struggle to get a few thousand people to show up, and that's a boutique meet.
The less tracks that are around, the better, because the supply of horses is going to continue to go down. I think this year it might plateau a little bit for the first time, but in the next three or four years there are going to be less horses to race [because of declining foal crops], and it will kill a lot of markets and tracks.
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