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Owners Content to Breed a Lack of Familiarity

More top horses are being sent to stud while in their racing prime, creating a shortage of big names in Breeders' Cup and other events.

October 24, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

To run or to breed, that has been the question for many of the thoroughbred owners who had horses eligible for the Breeders' Cup, U.S. racing's richest day, on Saturday at Santa Anita. Millions of dollars' worth of horseflesh will be competing for millions of dollars in purse money at the Arcadia track, but an overriding theme for this year's races concerns the horses that aren't showing up.

Breeders' Cup officials are putting on their best faces for the eight races worth about $14 million as the event comes to Southern California for the sixth time in 20 years, but there was a lot of frowning in recent weeks when Mineshaft, Empire Maker and Candy Ride dropped out, and owners and trainers of four of the best 2-year-olds in the country -- next year's Kentucky Derby prospects -- also announced they weren't coming.

One more setback for the Breeders' Cup occurred last Monday, when a tendon injury waylaid Azeri, last year's horse-of-the-year winner. The only celebrity horse left is Funny Cide, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness -- two-thirds of the Triple Crown -- in May. He is winless since then, and will be a longshot in the richest race in North America, the $4-million Breeders' Cup Classic.

Mineshaft, the best older horse in the country, and Empire Maker, who beat Funny Cide in the Belmont Stakes to deprive him of a Triple Crown sweep, were supposedly retired because of minor injuries, but cynical horsemen and fans have suggested that potentially lucrative breeding careers were behind the decisions to defect from Santa Anita. Both horses will be introduced to more than 100 mares next year -- and for many years after that -- at Kentucky farms that will be charging one-time stud fees of $100,000.

Empire Maker is owned by Khalid Abdullah, a 66-year-old Saudi Arabian prince who will be at Santa Anita, with an entourage of about 20, to watch three more of his horses run.

Without Arabian investors, U.S. horse auctions and racetracks would have suffered badly in the last two decades. An influx of Japanese money has also had an impact. But the Arabs, despite Croesus-like wealth, still have an affinity for the bottom line, both here and abroad. They too must balance their breeding and racing operations.

Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, made an appeal several years ago in England, where he has been horse racing's leading owner.

"I am not exactly down to my last camel," he said, "but it is important that my horses have the chance to run for higher purses."

In the U.S., Bob Lewis, a 79-year-old Newport Beach man who recently retired as the head of a lucrative beer distributorship, buys, sells and races horses, quite frequently hitting home runs in big races. But he says his thoroughbred business doesn't thrive on purse money alone.

"We need to keep selling horses to keep the business going," said Lewis, who has twice won the Kentucky Derby as well as two Breeders' Cup races.

Orientate, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint for Lewis and his wife Beverly, was quickly retired to stud, but the Lewises have been known to race their horses much longer. Silver Charm, their 1997 Derby winner, raced into his 5-year-old season.

"We have to make a lot of economic decisions," Bob Lewis said. "When it comes time to make a determination about a horse, it depends on who's buying and what they're paying. The biggest financial gain comes when you sell a horse after they come off the track."

In 1995, Lewis sold a stallion prospect named Hennessy for a reported $9 million, although he would not confirm the figure. Hennessy ran second to Unbridled's Song in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, was beaten again in the Hollywood Futurity and was taken off the Kentucky Derby trail because of a bruised foot. He never raced as a 3-year-old, having had his best wins as a 2-year-old in sprints. But he was a well-bred son of Storm Cat, and John Magnier, the Irish breeder, and his partners made Lewis an offer he couldn't refuse.

"I'm sure they're happy too," Lewis said. "They've already quadrupled their investment with stud fees."

Empire Maker, who would have been one of the favorites in the Classic, was retired when his trainer, Bobby Frankel, told Khalid Abdulla's Juddmonte Farms manager, John Chandler, that he couldn't get the colt ready in time for the Breeders' Cup.

"They say this is the sport of kings, but it's also a business," Chandler said. "If a horse is a hot stallion prospect, like Empire Maker, we weigh what they might earn as a 4-year-old at the races and what they can command at stud. Waiting to start a horse at stud can sometimes be a costly mistake. You have to strike when the iron is hot. Fans can turn off the TV after a horse's last race, pop open a can of beer and say we've done the wrong thing, but it's not their investment."

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