Give Us Our Due

By Billy Reed -- Since the days of Secretariat, or so it seems, national Thoroughbred racing leaders have been moaning, arguing, and wringing their hands over what can be done to attract new fans and tap into the youth market. The age of the average racing fan seems to be somewhere between Bob Lewis and Bob Hope, meaning racing may die from hardening of the arteries unless it gets a massive transfusion of new blood. So far the solution remains elusive, even though the industry has spent untold millions on consultants, surveys, studies, ad agencies, marketing geniuses, focus groups, and high-level round tables.

But then along comes a terrific idea that addresses the problem, at least in part, and guess what? Many in the racing establishment view it as a nuisance, that's what. I'm talking about ownership "syndicates" that can include five, 10, 20, or more partners. Heck, I belong to one that has an estimated 200 members. Racing purists may look down their noses at us, but track photographers love us.

The colt's name, Sky Terrace, comes from one of the VIP seating areas at Churchill Downs, our home track. I got involved through my longtime pal Bill Malone, a prominent Louisville CPA who has been putting together syndicates for trainer Vickie Foley for about 15 years. They bought Sky Terrace, a son of 1986 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Skywalker, for $67,000 at last year's Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s March sale of 2-year-olds. Louisville businessman Tom Thieneman bought 10% to become the single biggest investor, and the other 90% was purchased by what Louisville Courier-Journal Turf writer Jennie Rees called "half of Jefferson County and southern Indiana."

She was only half-kidding.

So far this year our colt has finished ahead of War Emblem in Louisiana; won the Derby Trial, making Vickie the first female trainer to capture that grade III race since its inception in 1924; and posted one of the fastest winning miles in Churchill history (1:34.87) while defeating the highly regarded Stephentown in an allowance race. By finishing third to Danthebluegrassman and Stephentown in the Northern Dancer Stakes, then running fourth in the Kesaey Island Stakes, he boosted his career earnings to $216,244, more than three times his purchase price.

Whenever Sky Terrace runs, the owners show up en masse. We bet so much on the colt that his odds always are lower than they should be. We also buy lots of beer, soft drinks, and hot dogs, and many of us bring our children or grandchildren in the hope that we can pass our love of horse racing on to them. After the Derby Trial, we literally overflowed the winner's circle.

It's too bad somebody didn't send the photo to People magazine or racing fan Katie Couric at NBC.

However, not everyone regards us as a warm-and-fuzzy story. We've heard complaints about the way we pack the paddock before races and create added problems for track security with our stampedes to the winner's circle. Track bureaucrats also fret that it's impossible to get background checks on so many owners (we don't have any undesirables, unless you count sportswriters) and complain that our group gets parking passes and other perks that should be allotted only to those with a bigger stake in the game.

Well, to quote Scarlett O'Hara, I say, "Fiddle-de-dee." Instead of treating syndicates as if they're second-class citizens, the establishment should embrace them as the wave of the future. They allow ordinary people of modest means the chance to live out their fantasies and feel, at least for a few fleeting moments, that they're almost important enough to sit at Dixie Carter's table at the Barnstable-Brown Derby-eve bash.

Until somebody comes up with a better way to bring new fans (and their money) to the track, while also encouraging kids to become lifelong fans, I'll say only this about syndicates: "Go, baby, go!"

And in case an Arab oil sheikh or billionaire tycoon is wondering, my 1.4% interest in Sky Terrace is definitely NOT for sale.

Longtime Turf writer Billy Reed is based in Louisville, Ky.