MLB filled with horse owners, race lovers
Players, managers and others involved in Sport of Kings
LOS ANGELES -- When the gate opens Saturday and the field for the 141st Belmont Stakes is sent on its way, Dodgers manager Joe Torre will be paying attention.
Tampa Bay senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker won't let pre-Draft meetings keep him from seeing if Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness Stakes runner-up Mine That Bird can win the 1 1/2-mile marathon leg of the grueling Triple Crown for 3-year-olds.
Boston starter Brad Penny will have at least one Fenway Park clubhouse television tuned in. Recent All-Stars Moises Alou and Paul LoDuca won't miss it either.
All own thoroughbred racehorses. The George Steinbrenner Family, better known for running the Yankees since the early 1970s, has been equally active for just as long with its Florida-based thoroughbred breeding and racing operation named Kinsman Stable. Now operated by son Henry and daughter Jessica, Kinsman has had six starters in the Kentucky Derby.
But you don't have to own a team to own a horse, or at least a piece of one. Dodgers utilityman Mark Loretta purchased a percentage of one horse through a Southern California-based partnership called Little Red Feather Racing.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland bought a yearling with a high school buddy at last year's Keeneland Sale and points for a summer debut. Colorado catcher Yorvit Torrealba owns a half dozen horses in his native Venezuela. Texas pitcher Vicente Padilla breeds and races in his native Nicaragua.
What is the common thread that connects the national pastime to the Sport of Kings?
"It's the competitive nature that comes with being an athlete," said Billy Koch, managing partner of the Little Red Feather partnership that won the 2004 Breeders' Cup Mile with Singletary and also lists St. Louis Blues defenseman Barret Jackman, talk-show host Jim Rome and ESPN personality Kenny Mayne among its partners.
"They are in the battle every day and now they see horses on the backstretch, seeing all the work that happens behind the scenes, just like in their game," said Koch. "Take them to the backstretch and they get blown away by the size and power of the thoroughbred and they realize the athleticism of the equine athlete."
Hunsicker, as executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Rays, has a full plate as next week's First-Year Player Draft approaches. But the former general manager of the Houston Astros also is passionately involved in the thoroughbred horse business.
Robert McNair, owner of the NFL's Houston Texans, mentored Hunsicker in the breeding side of the business, matching bloodlines of stallion and mare. Now Hunsicker has transitioned to racing through another racing partnership, Kentucky-based Woodford Racing, run by Bill Farish, son of Will Farish, former U.S. ambassador to England. Farish, with partners like Hunsicker, pool funds to purchase between 20-25 yearlings each Fall, then turn them over to top Canadian trainer Mark Casse.
"The little guy like me, if you want to have some fun on the racing end, this is the way to go," Hunsicker said of partnerships. "For the first time, it allows me an opportunity to participate at the bigger tracks with better quality horses and a chance to experience the racing end of the game. Racing is where the competition is. For somebody who's been in the sports business all my life, that's part of what drives you, the everyday competition and the thrill of the game. The racing end of the horse business is the counterpoint to that.
"One thing that fascinates me is I see so many similarities in the two sports. You have the treating of injuries in the training of high-performance athletes. You have different personalities. You deal with different mental issues with horses just like their two-legged counterparts."
Speaking of which, Penny currently races a handful of horses, the most accomplished being California-bred Synnin and Grinnin, a yearling filly he bought for $105,000 out of the Barretts October Yearling Sale in 2005. She reeled off five consecutive wins last year and has earned $171,714, but has also battled assorted injuries.
Penny was around horses as a youth in Oklahoma, went to the track with his father as a teen and got the owner's bug while pitching in Miami, just blocks from Calder Race Course. Marlins beat writer Clark Spencer led Penny to California-based trainer Howard Zucker after the pitcher was traded to the Dodgers in 2004, and he's owned horses since.
Penny -- dubbed "Big Brown" by former Dodgers teammates after last year's Kentucky Derby winner -- said winning a classic race like the Derby or Belmont is an obvious goal.
"But I'd get too nervous. I don't know if I could take it," he said. "I get more nervous when my horse is racing than when I was pitching in the World Series."
Alou is one of the leading breeders and owners in his native Dominican Republic. LoDuca has dabbled in racing and breeding, at one time partnering with former Major Leaguer Rob Murphy on a high-end foal share.
While the winner's circle is usually the primary goal, racing also has a financial component that can reach dizzying heights. Last year, Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel included Torre and Louis Lazzinnaro in a partnership that paid $250,000 for Vineyard Haven, an unfashionably bred 2-year-old who won his debut in July. Three months later, they sold him for a windfall $12 million to the Godolphin Stable of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president of the United Arab Emirates, prime minister and ruler of Dubai.
Sheikh Mohammed is determined to win a Kentucky Derby. When he can't develop contenders, he buys them. Oh, it's good to be sheikh.
"I always said to Bobby, find us a Derby horse. So last year he calls and says he's found a horse, didn't say Derby horse, but he says he's found a horse and he's only letting me and Louie in, are you interested?" said Torre.
Torre said yes and didn't ask how much. Frankel retained 60 percent, Torre and Lazzinnaro 20 percent each. In Vineyard Haven's second race for the partnership, he won the $250,000 Grade I Hopeful Stakes. Then he won the $400,000 Grade I Champagne Stakes hours before Torre and the Dodgers clinched the first round of the playoffs. A champagne daily-double.
It also was the last time Vineyard Haven would race in Torre's name. The sheikh called. Frankel turned down $8 million, then $10 million. But Sheikh Mohammed doesn't take no for an answer.
"We weren't thinking of the money, we were thinking of the excitement of the Derby," said Torre. "Then they offered $12 million and you start thinking how much money that is. Bobby sold him. The next day, he had seller's remorse."
Torre was re-introduced to racing by bench coach Don Zimmer in 1996. A $300 "investment" became a $600 profit and "that was the end of my life," Torre joked.
Through Zimmer, Torre met the trainer Richard Dutrow Sr., then his son, Richard Dutrow Jr. (Big Brown's trainer) and through him, Frankel. Torre said he has a "comfortable friendship" with Frankel, who visits Torre whenever and wherever the baseball and racing schedules intersect. Both were reared in New York and are only one year apart in age.
The first horse Torre owned was in partnership with Mercedes dealer Bernie Schiappa. He claimed in partnership a horse for $50,000 (Sis City) who became a Grade I winner. He won the Queen's Plate, Canada's most prestigious race, in 2005 with Wild Desert.
As for Vineyard Haven, he was shipped to Dubai to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, but finished fourth in a February prep race and hasn't been seen since.
Which, to Hunsicker, raised another similarity between baseball and horse racing as he prepared for Tuesday's Draft.
"You can spend millions of dollars on an amateur ballplayer with no history of performance at this level," he said, "and the same thing in the horse business, when we pay millions of dollars on a yearling that's never had a saddle or anybody on his back."
That's why Koch, grandson of the late filmmaker and racehorse owner Howard W. Koch, said he never refers to buying thoroughbreds as an investment.
"It's a life enhancement, a diversion, something else to focus on," he said. "The highs are so high, and the lows are so low. But the highs are an adrenaline rush like nothing else in the world."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.