“In the Paddock” is an occasional feature showcasing an interesting person or persons in racing, be it regional or national. Our first guest “In the Paddock” is Tom Bellhouse, COO of West Point Thoroughbreds. Tommy, as he prefers to be called and befits his gregarious nature, was at Canterbury Park to speak to a Minnesota Thoroughbred Association’s owners’ seminar. Tommy was generous with his time, sharp, open and insightful. We hope you enjoy this first installment of “In the Paddock”.
MWPR: In your talk this morning you talked about Twilight Eclipse and how special he is given his workmanlike career and finally breaking through with a big win. Were there other horses you’ve had in the past that maybe weren’t as accomplished but you couldn’t help but love?
BELLHOUSE: I think back to the horses that I was involved with before I was with West Point as a partner. None of the horses I owned really achieved any real level of success. The 2nd horse that I owned was a filly name Precocious Penny. She was a Mr. Greely filly. She had bad ankles but she showed glimpses of being special. She finished 3rd in a maiden race and the first two finishers finished 1st and 2nd in the Black Eyed Susan eventually. You knew, in hindsight, that she was really good quality to be able to run with them. We sent her up to Woodbine, she won a couple of races and was eventually entered in a small stake so I drove from Saratoga to Woodbine, which is about a 7 hour drive, and the morning of the race she kicked her stall and had to scratch.
I always tell people that if you ask an old-time trainer who the best horse he ever had was and he’ll tell you, “you never heard of him.” That it was one that was special and just didn’t get there.
In my time at West Point we had a horse that was named Its My Honor. She was a big, beautiful Indian Charlie filly. She just had a hard time staying sound. She was absolutely beautiful and you knew that if she ever got it together she would do well. Sure enough, in her debut she went up against an eventual graded stakes winner, but you knew that she was one that was maybe destined for greatness and never quite got there. So those are the ones that when you think about horse that you’ve been affiliated with.
With West Point, every year you have the groups and you can’t help but have one or two favorites. Just Whistle Dixie was one of the kindest animals. You go from the racehorse part of it to being in the barn giving tours and she made me remember why I fell in love with horses as a boy. She was just so gentle and when she got on the racetrack she was a tiger.
MWPR: Someone can’t really get into racing with the expectation of profit, though we all try hard to make one. How do you balance selling the hope of racing while intertwining the realities and risks involved?
BELLHOUSE: I look at this like asking myself this question today as opposed to asking myself this question seven or eight years ago when I started. Now I have a confidence level with our company that there are enough people who want to get involved in our sport that I know I can sell my inventory. It is living breathing inventory, I go to a sale, I buy it, I own it. And I don’t raise the capital in advance. It’s not really a brilliant way to do business, that being said, I think I try to qualify people more now.
You occasionally get the phone call. “Hey I want 10% of that horse” and you don’t know who they are. At least now before I say “Oh gee, thanks, send a check to here” it’s more, “Tell me about yourself. Tell me about your goals of horse ownership”. And you get people who are just really busy and they’ll say, “No, no this is cool and I know what I’m doing. I’ve always wanted to do this and I’ve been watching you for years” and this and that. And it’s not qualifying them financially, but trying to qualify people emotionally. Is this a good fit? And be willing to say “maybe we’re not a good fit for you”, which I may not have said 10-years ago. There are a lot of other opportunities out there and maybe I can help steer them to the right one.
The people who come in and ask you right away, “What’s your ROI and what’s you percentage of horses that make money?” I tell them point-blank, “If that’s the question you’re asking then don’t buy horses with us.”
I can give them numbers but they are always going to be skewed because I get the ‘home runs’. The home runs happen and they are going to skew the averages and the median. The real answer to that is, well, I have a couple of partners that talk about the “lifestyle ROI”. “The ROI I get out of this is my wife is happy, this is something that we can do together.” Some people get really into naming the horses, other people have other hot buttons. The sooner you can figure out the folks’ hot buttons the sooner you can go about trying to make their experience successful.
Everybody who works for me knows that the number one thing that we’re in business to do as well as win races is to make sure that our partners are having a good time. That the people who are writing the checks, the people who are paying the bills, are having a good experience.
We don’t own the horses, we manage the horses. Year over year, though, we own 6 – 8 percent of our class. I had someone who didn’t want to do business with us because he felt that our interest weren’t aligned with his because we didn’t keep a portion. I get that. My point to him is that if I own them all or at the end of the year I end up owning 6-8% due to injury or lack of marketability, what’s the difference?
We’re a for profit business. I think for the first 10-years that I was involved with West Point as a partner and then an employee I don’t think we were (he laughed). We were younger, we were happy, we were in horse racing, we get to go to the races! As we’ve matured, we’ve gotten better.
People constantly want you to apologize for your markups, for making money. This is a lot more fun when you’re profitable. I always tease Billy Koch of Little Red Feather, one of the truly great guys in racing. A really, really good guy. But his situation is totally different from mine. I’m not wealthy, I work for someone and they’re wonderful and generous but I have a boss. Everybody that works for my company, this is how we make our living.
Most people don’t really realize that this is a business. There are K-1s, and CPAs, filings, tax returns for multiple jurisdictions, licensing but people don’t really want to hear about that, and I totally get that…to a degree.
MWPR: Tracks are closing and multiple track owning companies are rising. What is your take on the conglomerates and the future of racing?
BELLHOUSE: When I was growing up there were circuits whether it was harness racing from Roosevelt to Yonkers or Aqueduct to Belmont to Saratoga with NYRA. My folks in the Chicago area had Hawthorne, Arlington and Sportsmen’s, I think it was. It reminds me a lot of the airline business. All the mergers taking place and fewer companies owning more. I think it was in the 80s that the airline industry deregulated and the government didn’t tell you where you could fly and it was like “banzai!” and all of a sudden people were going out of business left and right and the running joke was that maybe deregulation wasn’t such a great thing.
I look at the Stronach group. I remember the old Gulfstream and the first time I went back after all the renovations. I was a little taken aback. The Meadowlands with Jeff Gural has done the same thing. They are building racetracks that fit the size of the crowds they are getting now. The New York tracks…Belmont Park, my favorite track growing up, was built to handle 100K people and we don’t get that type of attendance anymore. The world has changed. It used to be that racing was the only gambling game in town. Now there is the lottery, casinos, you name it.
I’m not as concerned about the conglomerates dominating racing except you look at a couple of them are clearly are not race motivated. I look at places like here [Canterbury] and Tampa and they’re solid and have a tremendous niche. The alliance here with the Tribe is a huge benefit. The plans for the future are exciting. The fact that this is viewed as an entertainment facility like Paul [Allen, track announcer] said earlier is great. The fact that you get good crowds here is great. The more time that people spend at the racetrack, the more likely they are to get more involved. Getting this many people to a facility is great for the game in general.
They got 170,000 people at Churchill for the Derby. Whether you like them or not, that’s still 170,000 people….that’s two Super Bowls! And it’s not cheap.
MWPR: How do you view the breezing of the younger horse at the early 2-year old sales?
BELLHOUSE: Terry [Finley, West Point President] has been on the forefront with a coalition of consignors to eliminate things like excessive whipping, the run up to the pole, hard breezing of youngsters. This will sound crazy, but very, very, very rarely do we ever buy the fastest [breezing] horses. The best horses we have ever bought at 2-year old sales, Lear’s Princess went 10.4 and Awesome Gem went 11.2 and you wouldn’t have bought him in a million years off of that breeze; he looked like he was all over the racetrack.
You hear the phrase with us all the time, “How did they do it?” We bought a City Zip at OBS April and we’re watching how he’s hitting the ground and sure enough, one of our experts looks and says, “His shoes are all wrong”. You could see the way he was hitting the ground he was shod wrong. The guy that shod him wasn’t really a farrier and the horse wasn’t shoed right. We bought him and the first thing we did was pull the shoes off him, just let his feet grow out a little. This horse was a May foal and went 10 flat and had bad shoes on him. He went fast for us, we usually don’t buy that fast but he went that fast with bad shoes.
The ones we get really tantalized by usually don’t work anyway. After a while you can tell which ones were sales horses, the ones that go :44 for the half and then look like they’re tied to a pole.
The other part, and I touched on this in the talk, is the institutional knowledge of knowing who you are doing business with. You know, you buy from this guy, you know what he does and doesn’t do, how the horse was prepped, you know who turns the screws on young horses and you know who just doesn’t. We bought a Cape Blanco in March from Ian Vickers, he had a 3-horse consignment and they were schooled up in the old European way. They weren’t all gussied up. He brought them out and they looked like he put them through their paces and they were shined up for the show, but they weren’t overboard. He doesn’t show his horses that way. It’s almost like those breeze up shows in Europe where they bring them in from the fields and their coat is real thick, you know? You just trust in the natural horsemanship of the guy you’re buying from. He kind of over-communicated, “well, he had a little cherry splint and if you look right there you can kind of see where it was”. The vet would have told you that but he was just over-communicating. Then there are other guys that we just say “hi” to and keep walking.
We buy a lot of horses. We’re probably the biggest buyer of 2-year olds and you want to have a good relationship with the leading buyers. Maybe we’re not dollar-wise – we’re not going to buy a million dollar one – but in terms of number of horses there are few that may have bought 18 or 19 2-year olds.
I worked in the car business for a long time with Chrysler and in a way it’s kind of that car dealer mentality that your bad car dealers are just like “let’s just sell this car there are plenty of other customers out there.” Whereas in the horse business there isn’t always another customer. It’s a pretty finite group of people who are going to those sales.
I’d say we have pretty good relationships. There was this one guy a few years ago, there was a film that our vet took that didn’t match the film in the repository. Though there are films in the repository at the sales we hire our own vet after we buy the horse to go over it. The films didn’t we took didn’t match the film in repository. We were going to turn the horse back and he was all “No, no, you don’t have to do that.” And he was trying to strong-arm us!
I told him, “No, no, this isn’t how it works. This isn’t our first sale. No one is saying you did anything, it’s just that this is not the same.”
We don’t buy from this guy at all. Let me give you an example of a good consignor.
We bought an Eskendereya filly at April auction. We saw her and loved her but there was no film in the repository. We went back and told the consignor and said, “I don’t know what happened to the film but I fully guarantee her 100%. If you buy her and film her and see something that you don’t like, we’ll take her back, no questions asked.” We bought the filly. That’s the way you’re going to do business.
MWPR: There has been focus the last few years turning to racehorse retirement. West Point operates at the upper levels of racing so there has to be some breeding opportunities, but how about sharing your view on retirement?
BELLHOUSE: The breeding game has changed so dramatically in the last ten, I’ll say even five, years where a horse like Flashy Bull won a grade 1 and was sold for $1 million to Airdrie Stud and stood there and got a chance to prove himself as a stallion. Just a few years later, Macho Again, who did arguably twice as much on the racetrack than Flashy Bull ever did, we couldn’t get him a domestic stud deal. The game had changed dramatically in that part of it. I think that the mare side of it has also changed a little bit. Your graded stakes mare and your stakes winning mares, they have value but the drop off to horses that didn’t have that kind of caliber, there isn’t any kind of financial reward there.
To assist placing horses after retirement and placing horses that may have one time ran for us and you see them plummeting through the ranks, we created something called the Congie Black and Gold Fund. It was named for our first company employee, Congie DeVito, who passed away. He, with Erin Burkenhauer, our Director of Communication and Racing Manager, have been the ones that would doggedly follow our horses when they left us. It’s like the old saying it does take a village because you have horses that were in the NY circuit or wherever and then all of a sudden they go to smaller tracks and places that you don’t know the trainers and you don’t know the connections.
I don’t know if it will ever be a perfect system. You look at people like Graham Motion and Nick Zito who are putting on the foal papers that this horse was meant to race and if not used for racing please call us and we will provide transportation and people just doing everything they can to try to make sure that horses don’t end up with a bad demise. We’ve bought at least, without exaggeration, 15-20 horses privately horses that were running in two and three thousand claimers and the horses weren’t competing well.
I don’t ever want it to come across that I’m against claiming. I’m a race fan and claiming races make up the majority of races in our country and I’m not one to say what the appropriate price might be for a horse, but if a horse has run 10 times in a row, hasn’t hit the board, clearly isn’t making any money and clearly doesn’t want to compete; these are the type of horses that we want to make sure end up in a good home and not end up with a bad demise.
It’s upsetting because I don’t think that the outside world knows how hard…there are a lot us working hard to make sure that things go well. It almost becomes a gotcha mentality. A “60 Minutes” mentality where they can say “AHA! There’s one.”
That part of it is the upsetting part. I know how hard we work at it, the man hours involved in tracking our ex-racers and all the phone calls, unanswered phone calls, to owners and trainers. We’d leave messages: “We used to own this horse, do you think he’s about ready to retire? We’d be happy to help you with a placement or pay for a van to come get him.” Yet many of those calls don’t get returned. Then you reach out to the stewards and try that way.
I understand that there are bad people in every industry but I don’t think the outside world understands just how hard we’re trying as an industry. There are a lot more good people in our industry that are trying very hard to place them properly.