Derby Innovator, Industry Agitator: Q&A With Barry Irwin

by | 05.13.2016 | 8:47am
Irwin and Team Valor won the Kentucky Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom

Team Valor International founder and CEO Barry Irwin has recently published “Derby Innovator: The Making of Animal Kingdom,” a book that is much more than a story about the racing partnership's success with Animal Kingdom, a homebred son of Leroidesanimaux, in the 2011 Kentucky Derby and 2013 Dubai World Cup. It's a fascinating memoir of Irwin's lifetime in racing: from selling racing tips for 25 cents on a Los Angeles street corner as a 12-year-old to putting together seven-figure syndication deals as the head of a successful international racing and breeding operation.

In between were plenty of ups and downs. Bankruptcy, deals gone bad, failed marriages – all offset by success in some of the sport's biggest races. A failed attempt as a writer of fiction led to a series of jobs as a racing journalist, which opened the door to the bloodstock business, where entrepreneurial Irwin wheeled and dealed his way around the world. Throughout the various stages of his life, Irwin has been an agitator or provocateur, quarreling with his bosses at the Daily Racing Form and fighting to make racing a drug-free sport.

Irwin was interviewed by Paulick Report publisher Ray Paulick.

Given your penchant for putting ink to paper (or tapping on keyboards) over the years, why did you wait until now to write a book?

I actually wrote four of these stories some years ago, showed them to friends and they discouraged me from publishing them, saying they were too volatile. I once asked Doc Harthill to let me write his biography and he declined because he didn't want to upset the families of some of the likely subjects. Once I thought about that, I knew exactly what he meant and it made me hesitate to write a book

What is your reason for writing it now?
I decided to write the book for a couple of reasons. First, I knew some interesting stories, the kind people never get to read about, and I wanted to tell them. And I wanted to write what I felt was important about Animal Kingdom before his first runners appeared, because a lot of times a top horse's racing career is discounted if they fail at stud.

You begin with the infamous “lying trainers” interview on national television right after Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby, but you really aren't that critical of any of your former trainers in the book. Why?
I knew the lying comment would be the elephant in the room and I wanted to deal with it up front. As for the trainers, even though they lied to me, some of them I consider to be friends. Lying to owners, whether by outright falsehood or by the so-called “sin of omission,” is so entrenched in the culture of training I have learned to accept it and not be too critical of these trainers. Even though I like them, it doesn't mean that I want to have horses trained by them.

You didn't address why you and Graham Motion parted ways, and you're now back to using multiple trainers. If the given the right opportunity, would you go back to having all of the Team Valor horses under one trainer?
Ideally, I would love to have one trainer in one location, on an off-site facility, because I truly believe that this is the way to get the best results. But one has to be a billionaire in order to afford it and I am not such an individual. The reason Graham and I parted ways had everything to do with my desire to have one trainer devoting himself solely to my stable and Graham was not in a position to do that.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the state of racing journalism. Why do you think, going back to when you were first hired by Blood-Horse magazine in 1969, there has been so little critical writing done on the industry?
Publications, whether daily or weekly, for too many years relied on racetrack publicity departments to supply them with news. Most newspaper writers were handicappers that had to also write some stories and it was easier to use a publicity handout than generate some fresh copy. Another reason is that racetracks wanted to control the news and they were successful in stifling critical reporting. Other than your website, there is very little space available within our industry for this sort of writing. As for the dailies, their coverage has just about shriveled up to nothing. The Washington Post and New York Times were viable for years, but with Andy Beyer gone from the post and Joe Drape assigned to stories that have been hit jobs, newspapers in America have forgotten about our sport. It takes a strong individual to buck the “house organ” trend of trade journals and the racing press. One such writer who managed to do it was our old pal Kent Hollingsworth of The Blood-Horse. You are another. Andy Beyer was one for many years. Stan Begstein was another. The list has dwindled significantly.

You transitioned from journalist to bloodstock agent/wheeler dealer and hit some significant home runs in the early going. What did you find so attractive about this part of the game?
I was unable to get much satisfaction from writing fluff for Daily Racing Form. When the first two horses I bought with some friends won a bunch of races right off the bat, I found it to be exhilarating. Instead of writing about players, I was able to become a player.

The description of your late 1980s bankruptcy is pretty dramatic: borrowing $20 at a time to eat, no workable transportation, etc. What would Barry Irwin be doing today if Jeff Siegel hadn't invited you into the partnership of a filly you claimed and turned a nice profit on?
I feel confident that I would have come out of my financial funk. That was a depressing circumstance, but it lasted only a few weeks. Virtually concurrent with the bankruptcy, I brought Jeff into the start of Clover Racing Stable, which was the forerunner of Team Valor.

Derby Innovator Barry IrwinThere is a lot of criticism of how racing partnerships rely on OPM (other people's money), mark up the price of horses too much or charge excessive management fees. How do you defend that kind of stuff?
Critics of successful racing partnerships usually have one thing in common, which is that they are unable to raise similar amounts of capital for their own ventures. Racing is a competitive enterprise and there is a lot of jealousy. I remember in Los Angeles when we first started winning a lot of Grade 1 races and people started to stare me down as I walked from my box in the clubhouse down to the winners' circle. After a couple of years of this, I would walk downstairs to the winner's circle to avoid those stares. As for the contention that syndicators are addicted to the opiate of OPM, that is laughable. Our economy is based on the same principle. Where would Wall Street or Broadway be without outside investment? How many show business producers use only their own money for a movie or a play? As for my business model, it has worked well for four decades. It might interest you to know that I am my biggest investor and I own more of the stable's horses than anybody else.

What is it about racing that, despite all the odds against an owner making money, continues to bring people in as owners in racing partnerships?
Your premise takes it for granted that the main or the only reason somebody would consider racehorse ownership is based on the profit motive, which I humbly submit to you is incorrect. The question you should have asked is this one: Racing horses as an owner appears to be a losing proposition financially, so where is the value to you in owning a horse? Here is the answer to that question: The value comes from my involvement in owning a horse, the experience, the excitement, the camaraderie with the other partners, etc.

You've made a lot of unconventional moves, especially on the international front with South African or German bloodstock in recent years. Where is the your next undiscovered frontier to find horses?
Stay tuned…

The book doesn't get into how the racing industry has changed, with tracks largely owned by casino companies or relying on casino revenue for purse money. Given the retraction we've seen, do you have any idea what horse racing in the United States will look like 20 years from now?
If racing is going to survive on any sort of viable level, I anticipate racetracks and training centers will be built in rural areas. Horsemen and die-hard fans will move close by. Racing will become a televised event with few people in attendance. Preference will be given to the welfare of the animal, as it should be, and horses will be trained and raced at state-of-the-art venues designed with the well being of the horse in mind. I unfortunately will not be alive to see this and I envy those that are.

You created a stir among Kentucky commercial breeders with a commentary in The Blood-Horse when I was still there, criticizing them for altering conformation through surgeries and veterinary procedures. Do you still hold the belief they are damaging the breed long term?
Yes and this practice has grown legs and is now practiced world wide and has started to negatively impact horses in such faraway places as South Africa.

Does your pursuit of getting drugs out of racing have more to do with how you think drugs are affecting the breed or are you more concerned having clean competition?
Competition. Racing is about competition. I am a big Track & Field fan and drugs have all but ruined this sport. In this world, there are “sharps” and there are “squares.” There are infinitely more squares than sharps, which is what the sharps rely on to survive. They cheat because they lack a moral compass. And the squares live in denial that they are being cheated because facing this realization would be too difficult to deal with. So they live like an ostrich. I don't suffer from this malady.

What are the telltale signs of cheating in racing?
Horses that tire less than they are supposed to.

What do you see as the strongest argument for no race-day medication?
There are two types of drugs: legal therapeutic meds and illegal or designer drugs. My issue with the first category is that they mask weakness in an athlete that has less chance to survive the rigors of racing if his brain is unable to receive signals of stress and cannot compensate. My issue with the latter is that they create a playing field that is not level, thereby poisoning the entire purpose of having a contest.

The book ends on something of a hopeful note. that “the ranks of those insisting on integrity of competition, continues to grow.” Do you honestly believe we will see the day when – as you first proposed – we will have an independent agency like USADA governing the drug regulations in all racing states?
Yes I do. I only hope that it does not come too late because once we lose our fans we will have nothing left except for a couple of rich guys getting together in a big field in Kentucky or Texas and racing one horse against another to find out which one is best, which is basically how it all started anyway.

“Derby Innovator: The Making of Animal Kingdom,” was published by Xlibris and is available at Amazon and other book sellers.

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