Is racehorse ownership about thrills, making a profit, breaking even, or all three?
Based on comments made Dec. 6 at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing & Gaming in Tucson, the answer is all three. But with costs of training and racing far exceeding available purse money, you had better be prepared for some disappointment.
Karl Broberg, a trainer who owns 40-50 horses in his 100-horse stable based in Louisiana and Texas and is fourth in the nation in victories in 2011, said it gets “tougher and tougher each year” to make a profit. Primarily a trainer of claiming horses, Broberg said he tries to enter horses in the right spots for the most money, but makes some sacrifices in the process.
For instance, Broberg said he likes to race in Texas, but with the smaller purses there, most of the horses he enters are his own. He seeks higher-class horses for his clients so they can race for more money in neighboring Louisiana.
Broberg said he tries to energize clients by winning races for them but acknowledges the challenges of the economic model. He said if a horse can’t run for a purse of at least $15,000 in his region, it’s hard for owners to justify staying in the business.
Bill Wright, a longtime Standardbred owner from Illinois, said racehorse ownership is predicated on passion and competition.
“If you’re not excited about getting into the winner’s circle, you probably should invest more in the stock market than the horse business,” said Wright, a former Caterpillar executive who had a trotter run second in the Hambletonian, the sport’s most prestigious event for 3-year-olds. “In the last 15 to 20 years I’m probably close to break-even, but I can’t say the vast majority of horse owners made money the past 15 to 20 years.
“You have to love this business to be in it.”
Wright used the panel discussion to offer a proposal for certification of trainers and owners. He calls it “Certified Professional Horseman”—a title that would identify those who adhere to the rules and work with professionalism.
Certification would be voluntary but require a written test. It would operate independently of existing licensing programs, he said.
“I believe we have an image problem,” Wright said. "We should continue to identify and penalize (offenders), but we also should vigorously and publicly reward the good guys. It would be an honor to have CPH after your name. It would be a distinction.”
As for repeat offenders, Wright said owners shoulder blame for continuing to use their services. Broberg said horse owners could be better ambassadors for racing and introduce new people to the racing business.
The two men also touched on veterinary care. Broberg said that before he got a trainer’s license, his vet bills could amount to $1,700 per horse each month. Currently his vet bills are $200 a month, he said.
Broberg said reliance on vets sometimes stems from losing streaks and the need to remain competitive with other trainers.
“Fear feeds on itself, so a trainer may let a vet run his barn,” he said. “It’s hard to stop after you’ve accepted that and start to run your stable in that manner.”
Said Wright: “I think the trainers need to manage veterinarians, not just let them run loose.”
Broberg and Wright said horse racing could make progress by continuing to push for uniformity in all aspects of the game, stepping up efforts to promote racing and ownership, and bringing all breeds under one tent when pursuing racing-related legislation.