Cot Campbell: Less Racing, But More Partners?

by | 11.12.2017 | 8:15pm
"Cot" Campbell

There is no question that when one “gets along in years” one tends to think that the good old days were better. I am definitely along in years, and I am pretty damned sure many things used to be better.

That admitted, I wish to address two ponderable points having to do with owning a racehorse.

Number one. The primary reason for ownership would be the excitement of seeing the horse race. The more he does that, the better. The function of a racehorse is to race. But presently they don't do that nearly as much as they used to, and there seems to be no clear-cut, plausible reason. This is frustrating. We know that today a handful of trainers control most of the high-class horses in America. Their battle cry tends to be, “This horse does better when he's fresh.” This translates to six weeks or two months between races, and sometimes skipping important and lucrative prep stakes.

While the elite trainers set the tone for this extreme competitive wariness, most all trainers today follow suit – shilly-shallying about “putting 'em in the entries.” Training, training, training.

There are great horsemen training horses today (and I salute them!). There were great horsemen training in the late part of the last century. And those guys ran their horses twice as much, with no history of mistreatment. Why this has changed drastically in recent decades is puzzling. Many of our sharpest turf writers, fans and sage observers bemoan this circumstance, and seek the reason, to no effect. (A refreshing shock took place at this year's Breeders' Cup, when Aidan O'Brien, one of the most successful trainers on the planet, started a 2-year-old in his 11th race.)

With purses in big races today being enormous, good horses are not automatically whisked off to stud as quickly as in the ‘80s and ‘90s – a good development. They stay on the battlefield longer, but they do not battle very much. So it's a wash.

Second point, and a special puzzlement to me. When I (Dogwood Stable) stumbled into the logical idea of forming partnerships to own racehorses a half-century ago, I was convinced that a participating partner would want to feel – subconsciously – that it was HIS or HER horse. Thus, I made no concerted effort to foster fellowship: no partner picnics at the farm, no pre-race dinners, no buttons to wear. I felt that if you were involved in any way with a racehorse, that animal tended to be an extension of your persona. You wanted to feel that you were in it together. So, there was little inclination to recognize one's fellow partners, and embrace the group ownership concept.

I think I was wrong.

Partnerships that followed me – some definitely having gone to school on the basic Dogwood concept – tended to stress togetherness, and that was an appealing ingredient. What I identified as an understandable, ego-driven objection of not wanting to share the joy of ownership of a horse with others was by no means a partnership drawback. And now this clubbiness has been taken to a new and most surprising level. One truly interesting and unexpected trend today would seem to seriously dilute any brand awareness:

Partnerships are joining other partnerships, with great gusto.

For instance, three or four hedge fund pals, owning a few horses together, think nothing of pairing up with an established partnership made up of – say – 20 people, a single-person stable, and/or maybe a farm … if the right horse comes along. Many horses today run under double, triple, quadruple names on the program, and in a confusing rotation of colors. And still all entities seem to milk considerable joy out of the venture. Even though in such a lash-up there could be a participant owning less than one percent of the horse!

Chris Kay, the New York Racing Association chief executive with an innovative bent, once described participation in racing partnerships as akin to owning a sports franchise. True, but it is hard nowadays to clearly identify the franchises or “teams.”

Years ago, when I was just an avid racing fan, my buddies and I pulled for different outfits whose names were then all over the sports pages of metropolitan dailies. I loved Greentree. Others rooted for such stables as Calumet, Rokeby, Cain Hoy, Darby Dan, Harbor View, Phipps, Sagamore, Wheatley, Brookmeade, King Ranch, etc, etc. You recognized their silks a half-mile away. Of course, most of these privately-owned outfits are no more, and the recognizable stable names in the starting gate often have been the big racing partnerships, of which Dogwood was – but is no longer – one.

Some of the aforementioned complex partnerships not only race together, but buy high-dollar horses together at sales. The consignors are thankful for them, but, interestingly, the market and the sport would probably be better served if instead of a resulting single $1-million yearling, five yearlings averaging $200,000 changed hands

Racing horses is a wonderful endeavor indeed. It has been good to me. I'm sure the sport/industry probably has more pressing matters to ponder than these. But here are two developments that would seem to have some interesting ramifications. I worry about the first, and am simply surprised by the second.

W. Cothran “Cot” Campbell originated racing partnerships in 1969 with Dogwood Stable and campaigned champion filly Storm Song and classic winners Summer Squall and Palace Malice, among others. 

 

  • todd fortune

    Battle of Midway is a prime example of part of the problem, not the horse, the owners. Here is a horse that has just ran a bang up race, came out of it fine, and the owners think it’s the right time to retire him to stud. His pedigree tells you he will improve and I think he has not even hit his best race yet, but we’ll never know just exactly how good this horse could have been. 10 starts is all this horse had to offer? Not likely.

    • Erin Casseday

      And this is the most frustrating part of the modern day industry.

    • MR.DR.

      maybe they know the horse has issues………..you “fans”….you critic “owners” decisions, with no facts…………

    • really?

      You will never know how good this horse could have been, but the owners probably felt this was the best race he could produce and the risk of running and getting beaten would diminish his appeal.
      Or, he could be unsound, you and I as consumers will never know.
      The point?
      If you want horses to extend their racing careers, buy your own, and see how you make the same decisions.
      No whining otherwise.

      • Always Curious

        Could it be his pedigree, his sire Smart Strike is deceased made him a little more marketable?

  • Erin Casseday

    Great “ponderings” Mr. Campbell. Wonderful food for thought. Now, if we could only find a way to fix the first point you talk of.

    Ps, My grandfather went by the name “Cot”. His full name was John Cotter Rochel. All of the first born grandsons (and great-grandsons) have Cotter as their middle name!

    • pallyhubris

      Well, Welcome back!

  • McGov

    I LOVE the way you write Cot. You are brilliant.
    Racing needs all of it’s best and brightest, if it is to survive the evolution of gambling. Thank you for taking the time to put pen to paper.
    Partnerships or syndicates …..spreading out the risk ..doesn’t translate into spreading out the fun. A group can actually make the whole thing a much more dynamic experience. Dinners and breakfasts and and and….synergistic ;)
    Rookie trainers take note….sometimes it just takes a little leadership and organisation and a few phone calls and couple hours from a lawyer ( hold your breath, you’ll make it lol) ….and you can grow your stable with partnerships.
    Appoint a contact for each syndicate…. and don’t panic when it takes 5 minutes for them all to get to winners circle photo…..simple framework that everyone signs up for…..next thing you know you are joining them on walk days for breakfast at the golf course and having more fun than them :)

    • Tango F

      Gee, you have some nerve, thinking that YOU can school Cot Campbell on racing partnerships. However, considering the source, I am not in the least surprised; ignorance usually isn’t self aware.

    • Rachel

      I agree, it is a delight to read this article!

  • Zaskar13

    Anyone who enjoyed this article and is interested in getting involved or starting a horse partnership needs to read Cot’s LIGHTING IN A JAR: CATCHING RACING FEVER. A THOROUGHBRED OWNER’S GUIDE.

  • BillinStL

    Great article by Mr. Campbell (a great innovator and ambassador of the game). I, along with a number of other good friends, was invited by another good friend/horseman/U of Louisville grad to get involved in a small St. Louis-based horse racing partnership in 2009 to “learn the game and have some fun.” We didn’t have a big bank roll and bought a very inexpensive yearling filly at the Keeneland September sale. She didn’t do much as a race horse but did get us to the winner’s circle one time before we retired her and found her a good home. But we had so much fun we have been involved ever since and have brought others in as well.

    We are currently on the verge of debuting our current group’s 2 – two year old fillies that we purchased at the 2016 Keeneland September Sale … so “the dream” is alive and well with us. The old saying “Nobody ever committed suicide with an unproven two year old in the barn” is certainly a valid statement. I would be so disappointed if I hadn’t gotten involved based on what I have learned and the enjoyment I’ve experienced.

    I can tell you (at least in our group’s experience) that Cot is 100% correct about his later revelation about the “togetherness” aspects of partnerships. When unable to attend in person, we have often had race viewings at a local watering hole when one of our horses was racing. A mix of partners show up … the camaraderie and social element has been a great part of the overall experience.

    If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend reading Cot’s book “Lightning In A Jar” … an outstanding educational and entertaining read even if you don’t have aspirations to be involved in thoroughbred ownership. It’s more than worth your time.

    • McGov

      Lightning in a jar eh…..well, my xmas list just got bigger ;)

  • Bubba

    Number one is not as difficult to solve but yet complex. Trainer’s win percentage became way too important. Owners flock to trainers with a high win percentage not a high number of starts. How did Dogwood select trainers? I’m guessing win percentage more important than starts. I recall you used to have some gentlemen trainers and over time moved to the hot flavor of the month trainers. This creates a cycle that doesn’t end. The gentlemen trainer gets pushed to retirement so the super trainer can have 100 plus horses.

    So now less starts because they are in barns with 100 plus horses. So they all need to take their place and share the races. Or sometimes one not as good and needs to wait for his spot. Just as you point out that instead of one, one million dollar horse, there would be five two hundred thousand dollar horses. The same with trainers at the track, you give your horse to a trainer with 100 plus horses. Or have 5 trainers with 20 plus horses or even 10 trainers with 10 plus horses. This would create more starts. You by placing your horses in these large stables have created your own problem.

    Maybe have equibase and DRF print in the money(1,2,3) percentage rather than the win percentage, someone can do the math for themselves if they really need to know.

  • Jimmy Dale Williams

    I can hear Cot on the phone when he would call me to fill a partnership, now in an echo from yesteryear——-“Now, Jimmy Dale, we would really like to have you in this one with us!!!” Do you say no to that pitch from Cot Campbell, the snake charmer??? Of course not!!! Had fun, learned a lot and rubbed elbows with the master. I had to see my pawnbroker to sell some gold coins to get in one——so my wife would not know until after the deed was done. Snake charmer indeed!!

  • Michael Castellano

    Racing is divided into very separate parts and interests, which causes many imbalances and tremendously inflated prices to purchase a race horse, as that seems the most profitable end. Which I feel has always been a deterrent to more people getting involved in ownership. It’s always been well beyond my income to afford a race horse, but always a dream to one day be an owner. My father once was in a special lottery drawing with just a 1000 – 1 chance to win a million. And me and my brother were already trying to convince him to get a horse. Of course, he did not win, but the desire to be an owner still runs deep. I was never attracted to some of the partnership deals that appeared from time to time — I tended not to trust them and thought that some were akin to scams. There may have been honest ones around, I just never heard of ones that sounded that way. I think one of the most famous ones was for “Funny Cide.”

    • Bullet Point Handicapper

      From my research which includes 362 winners trained by Chad Brown and 386 winners trained by Todd Pletcher: Brown’s winners averaged 42 days between their previous races and the winning races. Pletchers average was 37 days. Does anyone know how many days it takes for EPO administration to become undetectable?

      • Always Curious

        No I do not but I have been told it takes 6 wks. to fully recover from Lasix. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  • Always Curious

    Cot, thank you so much for your article. Please keep writing! I miss you. I became encouraged about the breed when I discovered overseas TBs race every 2 wks. I loved your book. Try to squeeze out another:-) I just have to add you have to race a horse for them to get beat. Also who but the wealthy can afford to keep their horses in training for months w/o racing and some purses?

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