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By Ron Mitchell

Some aspects of Thoroughbred ownership, from buying a horse at auction to knowing how to select and deal with a trainer, can be daunting.

And while there are no hard and fast rules about how to carry out these activities, the experiences of those who have been there and had success can prove beneficial to others, as those attending the Thoroughbred Ownership at Keeneland found out Oct. 14.

During the four-day conference's second afternoon, one panel discussion shed light on what an owner can expect when buying a horse at auction, while another session delved into the intricacies of trainer selection and offered tips for communicating with that trainer while trying to achieve success on the racetrack.

While there are many different approaches to buying horses at auction, there was a consensus among panelists that a business plan, a budget, and patience are vital. Also, they concurred that assembling a team to assist in the process is an asset.

"Without a plan it's a rudderless ship," said Lexington-based advisor and horse owner Pete Bradley.

Mike Ryan, also an advisor and owner from Lexington, suggested allowing four to five years to see if an ownership plan is working, noting not to expect success in one year.

"Do it right and be patient and you will be rewarded," Ryan said.

Terry Finley, who founded the West Point Thoroughbreds partnership group, said having a system, a process and "good people that follow that process" are important.

"You have to buy good ones and put them in good hands. It's an incredible and exciting experience," he said.

As far as what they look for in a racing prospect, the owners and agents tended to agree that conformation is key, but that what each individual looks for can vary.

"Finding athletes is an art, not a science," said owner Aron Wellman, noting that there are many scientific tools offered to owners and agents. "For me, there's no question that physicality and conformation trumps pedigree."

Ryan looks for horses that exude intelligence and class, saying "I have never seen a good horse that wasn't classy. And smart."

Bradley said the first thing he looks for in a horse are "balance and frame; you want the angles to be right," followed by the horse's presence—"movement, demeanor, and attitude, this whole group of things that experience tells you."

Dr. Jeffrey Berk, a veterinarian who works with owners and agents at sales, said his role is advisory only and that he never says "buy this horse" or "don't buy this horse."

After examining the horse, including a scope of the individual's airways, and reviewing the radiographs on file in the sale repository, "I basically assemble all that information and then we talk," Berk said. "That is the most important part of the process." Being the successful bidder at auction can be an exhilarating experience, the owners and agents said.

"It's a great feeling when the hammer is dropped," Ryan said of the auctioneer's signal that a horse has been purchased. "It's a good feeling when you've got it right and got it under budget.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said an owner's goals are important in deciding how much to spend for a horse. For example, a horse being purchased as a stallion prospect would be more expensive than one bought as a racehorse because it would have a more fashionable pedigree.

"If you are just looking for a racehorse to have fun with you should stick in the $50,000-100,000 price range," Mott said. "Will you have a good stud prospect? Probably not."

In dealing with clients, Mott said the perfect owner is "anybody that I can speak to frankly, openly, and honestly. I want to speak to somebody that I don't have to sugarcoat it. If you want sugar, go somewhere else."

Dr. J. David Richardson, an owner for whom Mott trains, told the owners "I think you'd better to be able to handle the truth" and be realistic about a horse's potential.

Richardson said there is a good likelihood that an owner with many horses will also have more than one trainer, since some conditioners have certain types of horses in which they have more success and because they race in different jurisdictions.

Owner Brent Johnson advised other owners to figure out their goals and "seek out a trainer that matches up with those goals. They are not all alike."

Trainer Joan Scott said she considered the perfect owner to be "one that has confidence in you."

Making a special appearance before the afternoon panel sessions began was Penny Chenery, the "first lady" of horse owners who managed her family's Meadow Stable that raced Secretariat and Ridge Ridge, both winners of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).

"We spent 30 years in the business before we were an overnight success," Chenery told conference emcee Tom Durkin. "We bred 680 horses and we came out with two Derby winners... You go through a lot of bad horses improving yourself and refining your bloodlines."

Chenery said owners are "ambassadors for racing," adding "we have the obligation to share our excitement, our love of the horse with the fan so they'll become invested with us."

The conference, sponsored by industry groups including The Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Association, and OwnerView, among others, continues through Oct. 16.

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