In the early morning hours at Santa Anita Park when most Thoroughbred owners are still in their beds, Arnold Zetcher can often be found observing the progress of his horses in training at the Southern California oval. It was from this vantage point that Zetcher became personally acquainted with his Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) hopeful and dual grade I winner Fashion Plate.
"She's a very easy-going kind of gal, and pretty much does whatever is asked of her," said Zetcher, the former chairman, president, and CEO of the women's apparel company Talbots, who co-owns Fashion Plate with Michael Tabor. "I get out to the stables on some mornings, especially when she's working. She doesn't use anything up...that's why I think she runs so well."
Zetcher, who got his first taste of racing at Cahokia Downs during his college years Washington University in St. Louis, is often asked if he can draw similarities between his involvement in retail and the Thoroughbred industry. He believes the common thread is the focus on quality rather than quantity.
"In retail, if a dress doesn't sell, you've got to mark it down, and in horse racing, if a horse isn't performing, you've got to move them along," Zetcher said. "Just because he's not performing at the upper level doesn't mean he can't perform at another level."
With that philosophy in mind, Zetcher typically only invests in top-notch pedigrees and physicals at auction. The case of Fashion Plate was a bit different, however, since her sire, Old Fashioned, was an unproven stallion. But Zetcher trusted the judgment of trainer Simon Callaghan, who bought the filly for $340,000 at the 2013 Ocala Breeders' Sale Co.'s spring sale of 2-year-olds in training.
"Simon liked the way she looked and was high on her from the beginning," said Zetcher, who was contacted by Callaghan after the auction to see if he wanted to partner with Tabor on the filly.
Bred in Kentucky by Springland Farm and Fox Hill Farms out of the Citidancer mare Miss Puzzle, Fashion Plate broke her maiden by 6 1/2 lengths in her third start last year at Santa Anita. This season she posted impressive back-to-back victories in the Las Virgenes Stakes (gr. I) and the Santa Anita Oaks (gr. I), the latter by 1 1/4 lengths over adjudged Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) winner Ria Antonia, a fellow Kentucky Oaks contender. She enters the May 2 Oaks at Churchill Downs with earnings of $459,250.
Fashion Plate's name derives from her sire, as well as Zetcher's involvement in the fashion world. While he has been retired for more than five years, Zetcher still has many ties to fashion in cities across the nation, and many of his former associates have expressed enthusiasm in Fashion Plate's rise to success.
"There will be a lot of interested parties in (Fashion Plate) because of Talbots," Zetcher said. "We'll have people rooting her from around the country."
Since Zetcher left the fast-paced fashion business, he has increased his day-to-day involvement with his Thoroughbred outfit.
"I don't look at is that I've retired; I've just moved on to the next thing," Zetcher said. "There's a lot involved with managing the whole operation...especially when you have homebreds. But it's my passion and my wife, Ellen, loves it as much as I do. It's fun to have the same interest like that."
Fashion Plate is the latest stable star in a long line of talented fillies owned by Zetcher. Another one of his best female runners, Gabby's Golden Gal, was also a dual grade I winner and brought $1.25 million at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton November sale. Zetcher bred that filly and other stakes winner, Always a Princess, from the Ashkalani mare Gabriellina Giof. Gabriellina Giof was his first black-type earner; she captured the 2001 Manhattan Beach Stakes at Hollywood Park.
Fashion Plate already has enough credentials to become the next member of Zetcher's elite broodmare band at Don Robinson's Winter Quarter Farm near Lexington, but her racing career is far from over.
"It's just the first half of her 3-year-old year, so we hope there's still a lot of running in her," Zetcher said. (Keeping her as a broodmare) is something we'll talk about eventually."
Zetcher's current broodmare band includes the aforementioned Always a Princess, grade I winner Zardana, and Midnight Kiss, the dam of grade I-winning homebred Midnight Interlude. He also has a sizable racing stable, with around 20-25 in training, including eight 2-year-olds. While he is actively involved in choosing matings for his mares, Zetcher admits his favorite part of the business is seeing his horses on the track.
"The most fun is watching your horse win," said Zetcher, who will bring his wife and a couple friends with him to Louisville for Fashion Plate's Oaks attempt. "You go through stages (in the horse industry)...you have some really strong periods and some bad, but you have to stick with it. You look at it as a lot of fun, but you have to look at as a business also."
This blend of business and pleasure has created a wonderful second career for Zetcher that may just result in his most exciting triumph yet.