New York media magnate Stuart Subotnick belongs to an elite group: he's one of America's 500 richest people. He also belongs to a more exclusive clique of the super-wealthy who own Thoroughbred racehorses. Seated 29 floors above midtown Manhattan in a conference room with a view of Central Park and decorated with original modern artwork, Subotnick wonders aloud why racing has not attracted more of his business colleagues.
"I'm an example of what racing ought to go after," Subotnick, dressed smartly in dark blue pinstripes with a yellow power tie and matching handkerchief, said. He looks every bit the part of vice chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Metromedia, a general partnership made up of about 20 public and private companies.
Subotnick, 59, did not grow up around a racetrack, and he's not a gambler. He got into Thoroughbred racing at the urging of a friend and found the game intoxicatingly competitive as well as financially challenging.
"I looked at this as a way to have your own athlete, non-union and no strikes," said Subotnick, who also co-owns the New York/New Jersey MetroStars of Major League Soccer. "We were not into racing at all, and now we love it."
Subotnick and his wife, Anita, are the "we" he continually refers to while detailing their expanding involvement in Thoroughbred racing. Like many owners, the Subotnicks began by buying a few 2-year-olds, which launched their Anstu Stable in 1992. Now they own a 330-acre farm near Millbrook, N.Y., midway between Belmont Park and Saratoga, where they stand New York-bred champion Mellow Roll at stud, keep a herd of 10 broodmares, and break and train around a half-dozen homebreds annually. They have 10 horses racing with trainer Todd Pletcher, including graded stakes winners Balto Star and Irving's Baby.
Stuart Subotnick readily admits he knew nothing about Thoroughbreds or racing in the beginning. Horses were as foreign as hayrides to the Brooklyn, N.Y., native who grew up in a federally subsidized housing project in Williamsburg. His father pressed ladies' coats during the day and worked in a bakery at night to support Stuart and his brother and sister.
"We could not afford anything in Brooklyn, let alone betting on horses," Subotnick said.
Anita Subotnick, who grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, had some awareness of racing. Her father, Irving, was a horseplayer who loved going to the racetrack. She, however, never went with him.
The Subotnicks met in 1959, and 20 years of hard work and lucky breaks would pass before investing in racehorses became possible. Stuart Subotnick began his ascent in the business world at Baruch College, within the City University of New York, where he earned a bachelor's degree in accounting. He had a head for numbers, but dreaded a career in accounting, fearing he would be bored. Subotnick got a job with the IRS, but on a lark took the Law School Admissions Test.
"If you never get up to bat, you never hit," he said. "The big problem was that they accepted me. I thought I would get rejected."
Subotnick spent the next four years attending classes at Brooklyn Law School four nights a week and in study groups on the weekends. He continued working for the IRS in the meantime.
One of his lucky breaks occurred in 1967 when a blind newspaper ad led to a tax accounting job with Metromedia, a communications company owned by John Kluge that controlled several television and radio stations at the time.
Subotnick had become a vice president within Metromedia's tax office by 1980 when the company's chief financial officer, Clemens Weber, died suddenly of a stroke. Kluge picked Subotnick, then 39, to fill Weber's position. The move surprised many people within the company, including Subotnick. Kluge, however, said he had seen something of himself--a self-made German immigrant turned billionaire--in the young tax accountant.
"He put himself through night school and implemented his career while he was married and had two children," Kluge told Forbes magazine in 1994. "That took a lot of doing. We both come from modest backgrounds. We know what a dollar is all about."
Subotnick's promotion came right before a family vacation to Florida. They were driving because they could not afford to fly.
"I went out and bought books to read on the trip about what a CFO does and what a COO does because I had to learn about this job," Subotnick said. Kluge's new executive turned out to be a savvy and loyal partner.
Several national business publications have credited Subotnick with negotiating virtually all of Metromedia's deals, including a 1984 leveraged buyout that took the company private. He reportedly liquidated Metromedia's television and radio assets for a $3.3-billion profit and the cellular assets for a $3.4-billion profit by 1992. Metromedia also sold its stake in WorldCom in 1995 for $1.2 billion.
Subotnick's wealth is estimated by Forbes to be just below $600 million.
"I love challenges," Subotnick said. "To me, that is what horses are all about. You plan, you plan, you plan. Then the weather screws you up. The horse gets injured. You face one challenge after another."
The late Tommy Valando, a Broadway producer, music publisher, and a close friend, introduced Subotnick to Thoroughbred racing. One of the first horses Valando bought on his own was Fly So Free, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and 2-year-old champion male of 1990.
"Tommy kept telling me, 'You gotta do this. I bought a horse for $80,000 and he has earned $2.3 million,' " Subotnick said.
Valando's enthusiasm for racing was infectious and soon he had introduced Subotnick to his trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, and his bloodstock agent, Mike Ryan. Through Ryan, Subotnick began buying 2-year-olds at Fasig-Tipton's select sale at Calder Race Course.
Success came quickly. One of two horses Subotnick bought at auction in 1992 and the first to race in Anstu Stable's colors was Irving's Girl, a $68,000 daughter of Badger Land out of Card Table who won the Monmouth Beach Stakes, placed in five other added-money races, and retired from racing with $272,077 in earnings.
"In the beginning, I thought, 'This is easy,' " Subotnick said. "I've got a great bloodstock agent and a great trainer. We're winning our share of races. I didn't know why people were complaining about how hard this business is."
"That was the beginning. As the years began to settle in, I realized how lucky we were with the first couple horses."
Anstu Stable's winning streak cooled in 1995 and the Subotnicks started looking for a change. Ryan recommended Pletcher, a young trainer who was ending his apprenticeship with D. Wayne Lukas and going out on his own. Early in 1996, Subotnick sent Pletcher 10 horses and let him handle all their buying. Subotnick said he wasn't unhappy with Ryan as his bloodstock agent, but he felt he was getting lost among Ryan's growing list of clients.
Slowly the Subotnicks and Pletcher began building a winning stable. They had six winners, two stakes winners, and earnings totaling $211,728 that first year together. By 1998, the Subotnicks had won enough races to cover their training expenses, and their earnings have continued growing.
This year was their breakthrough year. They've won their first three graded stakes races, started in their first Kentucky Derby (gr. I) with a legitimate contender, and have earned more than $1.8 million in purses.Continued...