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Horse racing might have the reputation of being a game for old men, but one doesn't have to look any further than Shared Belief -- last year's juvenile champion and one of this year's biggest Kentucky Derby hopefuls -- to see that simply isn't true.
If Shared Belief makes it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, he will be a popular choice. He was a perfect three-for-three in 2013, including victories in the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity and the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue Stakes. What especially caught everyone's eye is the fact he won his three races by a combined 19½ lengths.
"His efforts also led to him being named champion juvenile male at last month's Eclipse Awards. When Shared Belief's name was called, co-owner Jim Rome (yes, that Jim Rome) collected the trophy on behalf a group of friends who are enjoying every moment their talented gelding provides, even though they didn't purchase him until after his first start.
It wasn't planned out. I gained experience as I went, and it instilled a love for the game. I was very lucky." -- Alex Solis II, bloodstock agent
Shared Belief originally raced for his breeders, Marty and Pam Wygod. They told trainer Jerry Hollendorfer they were sending the gelding his way after that first start, but that he was for sale. With the help of bloodstock agent Alex Solis II, Hollendorfer decided to purchase Shared Belief. Solis, and his business partner, Jason Litt, retained an interest, and Kevin Nish, George Todaro and Rome also got in on the gelding.
"Just to be involved with him, to have a horse at that level, has been such a privilege," said Solis, who is the son of the well-known jockey. "He reminds you that the good ones do things so much easier. We leave his window open at the back of his stall, and his favorite thing to do is stare out that window at the track. That is what he likes to do. That and sleep. If you want to mess with him, he will play with you. He has a lot of personality. Having the whole group involved with him has been a lot of fun."
Growing up in the game, Solis has had a unique view on the sport. Originally he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, but he outgrew that particular dream. He then considered being a trainer or a veterinarian, but changed his mind.
Now, at the age of 29, he and Litt run a successful bloodstock company that prior to Shared Belief was best known for its efforts with champion Mizdirection.
"I wanted to do the horse thing as a hobby," Solis said of his career path. "I learned a lot from [trainer] Richard Mandella. I started buying horses and dabbling a little bit and working in the stock world. I met clients that way and it all kind of worked out. We had a couple really successful horses from the beginning and they kind of pushed me to stay in the game. It wasn't planned out. I gained experience as I went, and it instilled a love for the game. I was very lucky."
In the weeks since the Eclipse Awards, Shared Belief has made headlines for what he hadn't been doing -- training. The gelding had a hoof issue that is under control and is once more stretching his legs over the track.
"We are dealing with a foot here," Solis said. "I would like to tell you it is all rosy from here, but we can't see the future. The ride has already been amazing. I am not expecting it to end right now, but taking care of the horse is always the priority."
Solis, though, knows that racing is far more than one emotional day in May.
"I don't buy a lot of colts, so I didn't realize the magnitude of it," Solis said. "It is certainly a goal to win the Kentucky Derby, but it's not my main focus in the game. It blows my mind how important it is. The Derby is the focal point of our sport's year.
"I would love to win the Derby, but I am still pretty happy with Breeders' Cup and Dubai World Cups. Beyond just the first Saturday in May, the places theses horses can take you as an owner is amazing. The opportunities and experiences are unique. You can spend very little money and end up having a super star. One of my favorite parts of the game is that value is definitely out there for you to find. This game really can be played from every level, and it really is like hitting the lottery when you get a good one."
Solis is far from the only kid born into the horse racing industry who has decided to stay in it. In recent years, Claiborne Farm, which is more than a century old, has been experiencing a Renaissance of sorts. In 2010, the farm watched homebred Blame defeat Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Orb, was born and raised at the farm for longtime clients Stuart S. Janney III and the Phipps Stable.
Owned by the Hancock family, Claiborne also looks like it will be in good hands down the road.
"It is such a broad business and there are so many aspects you can get into, from selling to breeding to racing," said Walker Hancock, who is 24. "That's why I love it. I was born and raised on the farm so it was in my blood, I guess, and I love every bit of it. There are so many opportunities in this game, and it's our job to spread the word that it is a lot of fun."
Exposure to the game from birth is a good way to fall in love with it.
Exposure to the game from birth is a good way to fall in love with it. Bret Jones, 33, grew up on his family's Airdrie Stud in Midway, Ky. His father, Brereton C. Jones, served as governor of the state from 1991 to 1995. At the tender age of 10, Jones the younger decided he wanted to have a career in the horse industry.
"I was surrounded by these beautiful animals, and my father would take me out in the paddock and tell me about each mare and each foal," he said. "Early on, it was just as much about bonding with him as anything. At some point, though, you either get that bug or you don't, and I got the bug. I started working on the farm, doing manual labor. My dad paid me $1 an hour, and I loved it. It was either that or an NBA career, and when I was 11, I realized that probably wasn't going to work out."
In 2008, Jones got to experience victory on the sport's most heralded weekend when his family's Proud Spell took the Kentucky Oaks. Run the day before the Derby, the Oaks is the biggest race of the year for 3-year-old fillies and has become a huge day in its own right. Proud Spell would go on to be named champion 3-year-old filly that year.
"If you ask me 75 years from now who my favorite horse of all time is, my answer will still probably be Proud Spell," Jones said. "She was really the first horse that had taken us on a run like that on the racetrack. We have been lucky enough to breed some really nice horses, but when you have one that you bred, you raised and then wears your colors in the winner's circle of the Kentucky Oaks, that is beyond special."
One might automatically assume that being born into horse racing carries an expectation from your family that you have to stay in the game, but that isn't necessarily true. It is a hard game, and it is rare to hear someone, no matter how young or old, say otherwise.
"Although I grew up in the horse business, my parents, especially my father, were never too keen on me coming into the game," said 22-year-old Conrad Bandoroff, whose family owns Denali Stud. "I think this stemmed from the fact that the thoroughbred industry is an incredibly competitive business, and my parents worried that I would see their success and not realize just how difficult it was to obtain."
Denali has been a successful venture for the family, and in 2011, the Bandoroffs got to experience winning the Kentucky Derby for themselves when Animal Kingdom charged to victory. The colt raced in the name of the racing syndicate Team Valor, and Conrad's father, Craig, was one of among 20 partners in on the colt. Even sweeter, Animal Kingdom was born and raised at Denali.
"My desire to pursue a career in horses is simple: I love the animal," said the younger Bandoroff. "I can't imagine doing anything else and being fulfilled at the end of the day. When it is all said and done, this sport and business is about the horse, and if you aren't passionate about them, then I think it is very difficult [to] succeed and do well."
Bandoroff, who is currently studying abroad for six months in Australia, is well aware that the sport can intimidate young people who weren't lucky enough to be born into it, but hopes that perception can change.
"I think in the past horse racing has been an exclusive sport -- the Sport of Kings -- but nowadays it is possible for anyone to own a horse through racing ventures and partnerships," he said. "Leaders in our industry have realized the need to bring in new blood, and young people interested in getting involved would find that there are many people who would be there to facilitate it. Our generation holds the future of racing and the sooner you get involved the better."
That concept of getting involved is something Jake Ballis, who will turn 34 this month, has taken to heart. His family was involved with racing in the 1980s but ended up getting out of the game. It was too late for Ballis, though, who had already fallen hard for the sport. In 2008, he convinced his family to return to the industry.
"I think it is the most exciting sport there is," he said. "I have been around sports my whole life -- I have been to the Super Bowl, the World Series, every big event -- and the Derby is the most fun of any sporting event I have ever been to."
In addition to bringing his family back to racing, Ballis has also recruited a goodly number of his friends. Most notable among those friends, perhaps, is Miami Heat forward Rashard Lewis.
"I played on the summer league team in high school with Rashard, and we stayed real close," Ballis explained. "When he bought into the first horse, we went to Saratoga. That is the first time he had ever been to the track. He saw Rick Pitino in the paddock and they started talking. He had an easy connection with somebody there. Since then, he has fallen in love with it."
Lewis is far from the only well known athlete who owns race horses. The list also includes the likes of the Denver Broncos' Wes Welker and the New Orleans Saint's Drew Brees, just to name a few.
Ballis has a pretty sound theory about why sport stars are drawn to racehorses.
""Athletes enjoy the sport because they can comprehend what the horses go through as far as working out, getting massages, and having a training regime like they are involved with," he said. "But it is not just athletes. When you go to the big races like the Derby, there are young people everywhere, but the perception is that it is all old people. I have gotten a lot of young people into the game, but you can't get them in unless you bring them to the tracks."
Athletes enjoy the sport because they can comprehend what the horses go through as far as working out, getting massages, and having a training regime like they are involved with." -- Jake Ballis, horse owner
It may seem like Ballis is fighting an uphill battle, but he is far from alone in his efforts. Anna Seitz, the marketing assistant and client coordinator for the sales company Fasig-Tipton, has taken up putting together racing partnerships in her spare time, including one that is for women only.
"I find that it is the most thrilling sport," said Seitz, 33. "It doesn't matter if you are 15 or 80, if you have a nice horse -- whether you own the horse or just bet on it -- there is nothing better than seeing your horse leading the way at the top of the stretch."
One horse Seitz owns in partnership is the graded stakes winner I'm Already Sexy, whose name and talent has made her a popular runner on the track.
"She is very special, and we have all grown very attached to her," Seitz said. "That is the whole reason I started doing this. The afternoons can be disappointing, but that's not what it is all about. It is also about the mornings and the friendships and the socializing.
"With 'Sexy' we have what I call a redneck champagne brunch. We go to the barn, drink champagne, eat Panera and everyone comes. We hang out and it is really cool. The camaraderie is a big part of it, and that thrill is a feeling you can't get anywhere else."
That feeling is what keeps every owner in the game, and in a few months time, some lucky soul or group is going to experience what it is like to win the biggest race of them all, the Kentucky Derby.
Will Shared Belief's championship form from last year carry through to spring? Or will it be a horse no one is talking about in February that wears the roses in May?
The only way to find out is to stay tuned.