The thrill of victory: Syndicate lets little guys play the Sport of Kings
You can go to the casino and sit by yourself, feeding coins into a slot machine. Or you can go with 15 to 20 of your buddies, pool your resources and play craps and roulette.
In both cases you're likely to lose money. But in the latter scenario there is camaraderie. You and your friends are going to be either celebrating or drowning your sorrows together.
This is how we begin the story of Billy Koch and Little Red Feather Racing. Basically, if you are the guy who prefers to play the slots alone, and you're thinking of getting into thoroughbred racing, Little Red Feather (LRF) is not for you. But if you're part of the group at the craps table? Game on.
"Look, we understand how hard it is to make money in this business, so we really focus on the experience," says Koch, 44, a former Northwestern baseball player. "When you’re at a race, and your horse is storming down the homestretch and you’ve got 20 people sitting next to you, all screaming and yelling for your horse, it’s a much different feeling than if you’re standing and screaming by yourself. It’s that sense of fun and community. That's what we sell here."
And Koch has sold the concept well, building a thriving business that has captured the interest of actors and athletes. He started LRF in 2001 to have some fun with his horse-loving friends, and his stable is now among the most successful racing syndicates in California. And LRF isn't the only operation of its kind. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, the owners of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, first met when they were partners in a syndicate.
When asked to name LRF's breakthrough moment, Koch does not hesitate: "The 2004 Breeders' Cup Mile at Lone Star Park," Koch says. "A horse named Singletary, named after the Chicago Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary, won and put us on the map."
Koch and his partners purchased Singletary in 2002 for $30,000 and won more than $1.7 million before retiring the horse to stud in '05. Along the way, LRF turned into something more than a hobby for Koch. Since the colt's Breeders' Cup victory at odds of 16-1 -- it is still considered one of the most remarkable upsets in the history of the series. -- he says that he has been on a constant search for what he calls, "Breeders' Cup horses."
"Other than the obvious goal of winning the Kentucky Derby, or any Triple Crown race for that matter, we look to the Breeders' Cup," Koch says. "These races are our championships. Every time we buy a horse we ask the question, Is this a Breeders' Cup horse? The Breeders' Cup gave myself and [my] partners the biggest day of our lives. We'd love to have a few more of those days."
Singletary, who was purchased in Ocala, Fla., as part of a three-horse deal, helped Koch create the blueprint by which his syndicate still operates. Every LRF horse is its own Limited Liability Corporation, and it's up to Koch to round up the ownership team.
"We’re into fractional ownership," Koch explains. "People can [own] a part of a very nice horse at a fraction of the cost of owning one their own. When you come with a group like ours you get first class treatment. You're surrounded by like-minded people. The social aspect of what we do is amazing and inspiring. Along with seeing the horses early in the morning, it’s what makes my job worthwhile. It’s a real family. And it’s a lot of fun. I absolutely love what I do."
"Billy is a very hard worker, first and foremost," says Terry Finley, the president of West Point Thoroughbreds, a racing syndicate based in Saratoga, N.Y. "His partners clearly see his passion for the sport."
Koch's inherited his love for the track from his late grandfather, Hollywood producer Howard W. Koch, who lists Airplane! and Ghost among his credits, and who was also a horse owner. The name Little Red Feather comes from a fictitious Indian character in a bedtime story that Howard used to tell to Billy. When he was five, Billy would tag along with his grandfather to Hollywood Park to cheer on a horse named Telly's Pop, which his grandfather owned along with actor Telly Savalas. When Billy began LRF, part of his plan was to attract celebrities and athletes into the business. Almost immediately, Koch got Jay-Z, LeBron James and Tom Brady to buy into horses.
"Right now, we have a few Hollywood directors, but no real A-list celebrities," Koch says. "Kenny Mayne from ESPN works with us. We have a bunch of NHL guys. [Denver Broncos receiver] Wes Welker was in a partnership with us. We were responsible for bringing [sports talk-show host] Jim Rome into the game, and he’s had tremendous success on his own. We are almost a breeding ground for new owners. And I’m fine with that. They come into the game, dip their toes in the water, hopefully learn from us, and go out on their own. If they’re successful, we feel like we’ve played a part. This game is infectious. Once you get the bug, you want to be successful. There’s something to be said about owning a piece of something."
Typically, a LRF horse is owned by 10 to 15 people, with shares priced as low as $5,000. Koch describes his role as "manager and salesman." What he loves most is traveling to yearling sales in Kentucky and 2-year old sales in Florida, studying pedigrees with his bloodstock agent, Tom McCrocklin, and dreaming of finding a few special horses.
"When you see a horse like California Chrome, garnering that kind of attention for winning the first two Triple Crown races ... ," Koch says. "I'd just like to find one like that for our partners."
Currently, the best horse in the LRF stable is a Chilean colt named Salto Del Indio, who is scheduled to run in the Santa Anita Gold Cup on Saturday. The race is part of the Breeder's Cup's Win & You're In challenge series -- a victory on Saturday would qualify Salto Del Indio for the 1¼-mile Breeders' Cup Classic, the marquee event of thoroughbred racing's world championships. Horses from all over the globe are vying for spots in the Classic and 12 other Breeders' Cup races, which will be run at Santa Anita Park on October 31 and November 1.
"We have a couple of other young horses we are just starting to run that we think can be Breeders' Cup-type horses," Koch says. "We dream of getting back into the winner's circle. There's just no better feeling than celebrating a victory with the partners. It's the best."
|Date||Network||time (ET)||race||track||winner qualifies for||post times (ET)|
|June 28||NBCSN||7:00 p.m.||The Gold Cup at Santa Anita||Santa Anita Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||7:45 p.m.|
|July 5||NBCSN||5:00 p.m.||Belmont Oaks||Belmont Park||Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf||5:45 p.m.|
|July 27||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Haskell Invitational||Monmouth Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||5:45 p.m.|
|August 2||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Whitney Handicap||Saratoga Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Classic||5:45 p.m.|
|August 23||NBC||4:30 p.m.||Ballerina Stakes||Saratoga Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint||5:08 p.m.|
|August 24||NBCSN||8:00 p.m.||Pacific Classic||Del Mar Thoroughbred Club||Breeders' Cup Classic||8:44 p.m.|
|August 30||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Forego Stakes||Saratoga Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Sprint||6:45 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Jockey Club Gold Cup||Belmont Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||6:08 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||TBD||Santa Anita Park||TBD||6:30 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||TBD||Santa Anita Park||TBD||7:05 p.m.|
|September 27||NBCSN||6:00 p.m.||Awesome Again Stakes||Santa Anita Park||Breeders' Cup Classic||7:45 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Jenny Wiley Stakes||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf||4:35 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Breeders' Futurity||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Juvenile||5:08 p.m.|
|October 4||NBCSN||4:30 p.m.||Shadwell Mile||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Mile||5:45 p.m.|
|October 5||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Bourbon Stakes||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf||5:08 p.m.|
|October 5||NBC||5:00 p.m.||Spinster Stakes||Keeneland Racecourse||Breeders' Cup Distaff||5:45 p.m.|