Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Incongruous Behavior

(CHICAGO, IL – March 28, 2001) It seems inconceivable that anyone who witnessed the $26 million spectacle at Meydan this past Saturday could have watched the lavish proceedings on television without reflecting, at least for a brief moment, on the incongruity between them and the manner in which most people live.

As Japan’s Victoire Pisa was earning $47,619 a second for his billionaire owners in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, revolutions were occurring in nearby Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, Yemen and Libya where folks had their fill of self-appointed despots. Meanwhile, the USA was borrowing feverishly to finance the new insurrections while neglecting to repair its infrastructure, looking askance at climate change, firing teachers and public workers, letting pensions disappear in thin air and allowing millions of unemployed to fend for themselves as the greatest recession in 80 years persisted.

Never mind that 81,000 devout Maktoum family beneficiaries jammed the grandstand and cheered as Godolphin triumphed three times before the night was out. At latest count, nearly 14 million Americans are jobless. Those that have work are working for practically the same pay they received 30 years ago. The richest 10 percent received 100 percent of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007. The richest five percent claims nearly 65 percent of the nation’s wealth; the bottom 80 percent, merely 13 percent. Are the same out-of-whack circumstances bearing their weight on the purse structures at racetracks?

Well, the good news is that horse racing, at least on this continent, is considerably more equal-minded than life elsewhere. Although 18.5 percent of all purses were won by the top 100 owners in 2010 – up from 17.3 percent in 2009, the distribution of wealth remains reasonable. The top 10 owners in 2010 shared more than $37 million in comparison to slightly more than $50 million in 2009. But there were 81 owners that earned more than $1 million in last year and 87 owners the previous year. Being counter-cultural, alas, is a blessing.

Granted, the accounting may be flawed because several of the top 100 earning owners participate in partnerships. But the leader board reveals clearly that dominating the sport economically has a serendipitous component. The 2010 leader Winstar Farm, for example, won over $5.1 million, almost $1.4 million shy of Michael Gill’s ill-gotten 2009 total. Gill and the other two owners in the top three - Juddmonte Farms and Zayat Stables - each earned more than $6 million. Furthermore, Gill’s operations were severely curtailed in 2010, causing him to disappear from the list entirely. Juddmonte fell to sixteenth, earning 40 percent of what it earned when finishing second to Gill, and Midwest Thoroughbreds leapt the same distance Juddmonte fell, jumping from fifteenth to second.

“Everybody’s trying to buy a horse that can compete in the big races,” said Joe Santanna, the national president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, indicating that optimism runs high in all barns, no matter how fancy they’re decorated. “There will always be a dilemma for how you allocate purses for stakes races versus the overnight program,” Santanna added, noting that the bulk of the people who populate the stalls on the backside of a racetrack depend on the latter. “But I don’t believe tens of thousands of owners, initially, or even after a while, believe winning a stakes race is elusive,” he added.

Santanna, in free market sync, believes that the biggest rewards should go to those who become deeply invested. He cited Mike Repole (number five on the 2010 list with earnings of $3.75 million) and Bobby Flay (number 90 at $970,000) as representative of new names in the game that were able to find success amid the establishment because of commitment. Despite his reluctance to accept that purses have suffered least as a category in the sport’s recent economic downturn, they have stayed at nearly the same level throughout the century’s first decade – making it good for all parties.

At just over $1 billion in 2010, purses were off less than $100,000 from 2000. In comparison, overall handle has fallen nearly $3 billion or 20 percent from $14.3 billion to $11.4 billion. Nevertheless, if the money earned by all starters was divided by the number of starts, each start would be worth $15. Ninety-five PGA golfers, averaging fewer than 22 tour starts, made more money than the top 81 horse owners last year, averaging more than 198 races.

“Every racetrack should have allocated from its purse account an amount that goes to the stakes program to attract better horses for the sake of the fans and for the sake of marketing the product nationally and for the sake of having the opportunity to attend live racing instead of staying at home and watching it on your TV or computer,” said Santanna, in contrast to what you’d expect from a guy whose primary responsibility is to the many instead of the few.

This opinion conflicts with the problem that too many old stakes worth six figures attract fields of a half dozen horses or less, of a caliber far below those that should have been in them, had not they retired prematurely. An owner could work his way up the earnings list by keeping a fast runner in training instead of sending him to the breeding shed. Yet, the math doesn’t favor that decision. Horse racing’s sport and breeding is business. At least, that’s the sum of it.

Lest readers think that any owner seeks fiscal equality, consider the structure of the business. A nation of horse owners with similar wealth would be as anti-American as communism. “I don’t begrudge the guy who spends $10 million on horses because he’s helping our breeding industry. He’s helping those folks in Kentucky with continuing to price their stallions at reasonable fees,” said Santanna, a right-minded, wide-eyed and unrealistic capitalist elected to serve by the democratic process.

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