Clif Hickok: The Elements of Value, Luck, and Hard Work in Racing
I attended the Ocala sales (OBS) twice this year. If you’ve never attended a horse sale, especially a 2-year-old in training sale, you've missed one of the great spectacles in sports. It’s the horse lover’s version of the NFL draft that is ongoing as I write this. Teams and highly-dedicated individuals are all looking for the future stars, often with success, more often not. Just the atmosphere alone makes it worth attending, but the possibilities and probabilities are especially what I enjoy. Try visiting the Keeneland sales or Ocala when you can. Great comradery, very relaxed and unpretentious considering the money being infused.
This OBS April sale had over 1,100 horse in the catalogue. As is typical, from the printing of the catalogue up to the sale, at least 10% - sometimes many more - of the horses drop out. Injury, poor performance in the breeze show, and numerous other elements cause this level of withdrawals. Welcome to Thoroughbred horse racing! Welcome to the roller coaster ride of your life!
Consider this: If you are looking for the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner you will be wrong every time except once, barring the first-ever "dead heat." No guarantee that winner will even come from the sales, any sales. Nor is it a lock it will be a colt, or a horse bred in the USA, or one with a spectacular pedigree. With this as background I started thinking of the concepts of value, luck (good and bad) and simply hard work. Having been around West Point Thoroughbreds for almost 19 years now I've seen all those elements time and time again. As they relate to the horse sales please consider this;
Value: I watched a horse sell for $220,000 and then the very next horse sell for $10,000. Doesn't a Hyundai sometimes outlast a Ferrari? I think a Hyundai Sonata is one of the best values in the automobile world. Maybe, just maybe, this $10,000 horse will beat the $220,000 purchase in a race six months from now.
When 2- and 3-year-olds run, the past performances will show the purchase price of the horse, if bought at auction. Every novice bettor says to me, watching a maiden race with multiple first-time starters, "Well, they paid much more for this horse than any other one in the field, so I'm going to place a bet on him." I remind them that Seattle Slew cost $17,500 at auction. He didn't know that statistic, I presume, when he won the Triple Crown.
It might seem obvious, but a strong component of the WPT decision-making process is to anticipate and calculate what a horse looks to be worth, in other words what he should sell for. Case in point, there was a horse we loved but from a relatively obscure stallion that we hoped we could obtain for around $50,000. At the hammer drop he sold for $135,000. At that point we were long gone. If that horse wins a Grade One race we made a bad decision. However, the process of understanding value is critical in running any business. The next day we "stole" a Sharp Humor colt for what we believe was a great price point, so it goes both ways.
Luck: If investors don't believe the element of "luck" is in play, they should watch the movie about Secretariat and the famous coin toss that resulted in the coin toss winner making one of the most unlucky choices in Thoroughbred history. The winner chose the other horse and Secretariat went on to not only win, but dominate the Triple Crown races.
How about yours truly heading out to Belmont Park, on a beautiful mid-week spring day in May 1974 to try and win a few bucks with my slowly improving handicapping skills. I have no idea if I won or lost that day, but, something happened that I will remember forever. In a two-year-old maiden special weight race for fillies a horse named Suzest was being touted around the grandstand. When the gates opened up an almost black first time starter came flying out of the ten post and never looked back. Suzest was fifteen lengths behind her in second place. The filly who tied the track record was of course Ruffian. On a Wednesday afternoon, with nothing to do, I witnessed greatness. Lucky, for sure! Luck appears in so many forms and places in horse racing.
Simply put, Hard work: When a much younger Terry Finley purchased Big City Bound on his own, his selling point was (slight paraphrase): "She has a great rear end." I jumped in thinking, I guess that's a good thing. She became the first WPT stakes winner and was one of the fastest fillies in the country up to four and a half furlongs. The question always was, will she hang on for five or six furlongs? She often did!
Fast forward about 16 years and consider the expertise within the organization which now easily exceeds 100 years, as opposed to the three or four years when Big City Bound was the star of the stable. What has changed? Obviously experience level, size of the business, and an eclectic group of people working hard every day on every aspect of the game. Now, heart scans and stride analysis open up avenues that other buyers, with less means or willingness to make the effort, don't support. In this most recent sale Terry Finley personally took charge and worked tirelessly with Erin Finley to narrow the enormous number of offerings down to a very low number of serious candidates, maybe 20, then 12, then to the final "value" purchases of three beautiful horses. Hundreds of hours, physical inspections, conversations, and data analysis resulting in three more occupants of WPT stables. I like to think of this as my investment dollars at work. To say our trainers are excited with the 13 total sales purchases made this season would be the understatement of the year. They are thrilled across the board.
I am the longest-tenured WPT partner and very proud to be able to say that! Best racing luck to those reading this. Remember WPT offers considerable value and will always be committed to hard work. See you at the races!