CHERRY HILL, N.J. — The initial in Robert E. Brennan's name stands for Emmet. But maybe it should be changed to Everything. Many Marylanders would say that it stands for Evil.
Since Brennan bought his first horse in March of 1980, the 41-year-old Wall Street wunderkind hasn't just entered racing, he's turned the game topsy-turvy.
Buying horses at million-dollar prices. Rebuilding a race track that burned down. Buying a race track that was already there. Trying to buy still a third race track and making overtures to take over New York's hard-pressed off-track betting system. Offering purses to horsemen as though he were dealing in Monopoly money and then, two weeks ago, the coup of coups: Brennan, waving $1 million of bonus money in each hand and smiling his choir-boy smile, lured Spend a Buck, the winner of the Kentucky Derby, away from the Preakness, the second race in the Triple Crown series, and got him to run Monday at Garden State Park in the Jersey Derby, which was a $1-million race even without the bonus.
"This will be the most exciting day of racing in the history of New Jersey," Brennan says of the Jersey Derby. If it is, it's not because of the quality of the field--mostly leftovers from the Triple Crown wars--but because of what Spend a Buck can accomplish. In about two minutes, the time it will roughly take to run 1 miles, the 3-year-old colt may earn $2.6 million, by far the largest single payday in the history of racing, easily topping the $1,350,400 that Slew o' Gold collected for his win and $1-million bonus in last fall's Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
Of the $2.6 million, the race's $600,000 winning purse will come out of Brennan's pocket and the $2-million bonus would be paid by a Texas insurance company. A company, by the way, that might have a few actuarial openings after Monday, because Brennan has paid only $75,000 for the premium.
That's the Brennan style, taking the grandiose route with somebody else's money. He bought Garden State Park, the 287-acre Cherry Hill track that burned to the ground from a kitchen fire in April of 1977, for $15.5 million, only $1 million of which was cash. The balance--and the additional $160 million or so it cost to rebuild--has mainly come from 66,000 shareholders in International Thoroughbred Breeders, Brennan's New Jersey-based company that previously consisted of only a bloodstock operation and horse insurance business.
In February of '84, about 14 months after the Garden State purchase, Brennan announced that ITB had bought Keystone, another race track in the Philadelphia area, for $37.5 million.
Since then, Brennan has been thwarted in an attempt to buy Monmouth Park, a track on the New Jersey shore not far from New York. Monmouth was sold instead to the state-run New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, an agency Brennan is not comfortable with because it also runs the Meadowlands track and receives financial concessions not available to private track operators.
Brennan planned to sue over the Monmouth sale but dropped litigation when Atlantic City Race Course received permission by the state to run a 34-day season each summer at Garden State.
"I'm still sorry that we don't have Monmouth under our umbrella," Brennan said, "but in the long run what we wound up with will be better for our stockholders. It could mean $100 million to them over the next 10 years."
That's if business gets better at Garden State. The first night of the first season at the self-styled "Race Track of the 21st Century" was marked by a turnout of 27,000 fans--with Brennan flying himself in via helicopter from his Wall Street offices and signing autographs as he made his way through the crowd--but attendance and betting have not been bullish since then. An average crowd runs about 11,500 and bets in the neighborhood of $1.2 million, a per-capita wager of $104. The national per capita last year was about $147.
Brennan, who started First Jersey Securities, one of the country's leading brokerages with reported sales of $3 billion last year, on $300,000 in borrowed money in the late 1960s, is not discouraged by the Garden State figures.
"We've built the track with the best bricks and mortar and we treat the purses (16 races worth $100,000 or more) as a capital expense," he said during an interview in his New York office, which has a 14th-floor view of the Hudson River. "You start with mediocrity and you find that you never dig yourself out of mediocrity. Lee Iacocca wouldn't start out by building junk cars and asking people to buy them so he could accumulate enough money to build better cars.
"We hope to develop new racing fans the way the Meadowlands did. And it took the Meadowlands six months before it hit a $100 per capita. We're over that in less than two months."