SAN DIEGO — It's a long way from the center of the walking ring to the center of the winner's circle. Just ask Caesar Wackeen, who owns thoroughbred horses. On this day at Del Mar, he paces around the center of the walking ring with other horse owners before the fifth race. His mind is far away from the automobile dealership he owns in Los Angeles.
Instead, he's dreaming--of the winner's circle. A horse that he owns, Gayiole, is running in the fifth race. Gayiole is Wackeen's ticket to the winner's circle.
Meanwhile, outside the walking ring, bettors crowd around hoping to get a close-up view of the horses. Wackeen and the other owners are not the only people with dreams.
People, from $2 betters to millionaires, know the thrill of betting on a thoroughbred horse. They know even better the thrill of winning.
Wackeen has experienced this feeling before. Now, he's imagining another kind of thrill--seeing his horse win . . . his own horse.
It's a dream similar to the one shared by millions of $2 bettors.
What would it be like to own a thoroughbred horse?
"For a young person, it's extremely tough," said Mel Stute, an owner and trainer, who is probably best known as the trainer of 1986 Preakness winner Snow Chief. "You're taking quite a risk. It's better to make your money first and then get into the business."
Nevertheless, owners and trainers alike say that this is a great time to buy a thoroughbred horse. Prices are down and purses are up. It's a buyer's market.
At the most recent Keeneland Yearling Sales this past July in Kentucky--the Super Bowl of yearling sales--the average sale price of a yearling was $408,160. In 1985, the average sale price was $537,384.
But for the $2 bettor that may be pushing it a bit. Not too many casual fans have that kind of money.
"My advice to the casual horse player would be to make their money first," Wackeen said. "You don't want to risk your entire future on anything as risky as owning a horse."
Horses can be purchased by two common methods--buying or claiming.
To claim a horse, a prospective owner can sign up with the California Horse Racing Board. The fee is $200 for an open claiming license. For someone starting out, this must be the first step. The buyer merely fills out a financial report.
Even the most casual fan has probably noticed those races designated as claiming races. This means a prospective buyer can claim one of the horses entered in that race for the claiming price. At Del Mar, the claiming price will normally range from $10,000 to $15,000. There are even $100,000 claiming races.
A buyer has until 15 minutes before a claiming race to claim the horse he wants. Once he claims the horse, it's his, regardless of how it runs that day. If more than one person claims the same horse, they put the names in a leather bottle and shake it. The winner is the prospective owner whose name pops out first.
According to Del Mar stewards, about four horses a day have been claimed at this year's meeting.
More horses were bought at the recent Del Mar yearling sales. Buying a horse at a sale of this nature is a buyer's other option. It's the same as an auction. Horses are brought out and people bid. "It's just like anything else," Stute said. "If you buy a cheap horse, you're taking a larger risk. Of course, there's always that chance a cheap one can turn into a pot of gold, but the odds aren't good."
It's almost time for Wackeen to live out his dream. Trainer J.E. Tinsley Jr. has saddled up Wackeen's horse, Gayiole, and jockey Laffit Pincay has jumped aboard. Gayiole is 3-1 on the tote board. Post time is 12 minutes away.
For the new horse owner, post time is probably still quite a way off. Because once a horse is purchased, there's still plenty of time and money to be spent.
The going rate to stable a horse with a trainer is about $50 a day and doesn't vary much.--The Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn., which has an office at Del Mar, will--at no cost--help owners find the trainer they want.
The cost will work out to about $1,500 a month. That doesn't include the fees to pay a veterinarian.
Also, owners should realize that their horse is not going to enter the winner's circle the next day. In fact, there's a chance the horse will never get there.
"I bought five horses at last year's (1985) Del Mar sales," Stute said. "Three of them have run and only one of them has won (Windy Triple K.)."
For Carl Grinstead, the time was right to buy a horse 26 years ago. A friend of his was ill and in need of something to take his mind off his problems.
"Three of us got together and claimed a horse for $10,000," Grinstead said. "We got lucky and doubled our money in a couple of months. Then, our horse got claimed. I bought the other two guys out and got some more horses. I fell in love with the races."
Twenty-three years after he purchased his first horse, Grinstead fell in love again, with a horse named Snow Chief. You know the rest.