Wednesday, 22 June 2022 09:00

Racehorse ownership groups growing at North American tracks

Written by Curtis Stock
Group photo of Kelli Hemmingson's new all-female ownership group at Century Mile Group photo of Kelli Hemmingson's new all-female ownership group at Century Mile Coady Photo/Ryan Haynes

Kelli Hemingson had an idea. For years she had wanted to own a thoroughbred racehorse. But financially it just didn’t make sense. Then, Hemingson, who is the manager of Pari-Mutuels for Edmonton’s Century Mile and Calgary’s Century Downs racetracks and casinos, and her best friend, Jentry vanBaal, who is the assistant marketing manager at Century Mile, came up with an idea.

“If we can’t own a whole horse how about buying a part of a racehorse,” Hemingson said to vanBaal. “Let’s put together a group of 20 of our friends and share the costs.” Quickly, Hemingson made up a list of 30 women to approach. When she got a lot more neighs than yahs, Hemingson turned to social media posting her idea to the world-wide web. Still, the idea didn’t get much traction.

“It was hard in the beginning to get members — it was a new concept, and a lot of people took the ‘wait and see’ approach. At one point we stalled at 8 members and I almost refunded money,” Hemingson recalled of the $1,000 initial investment and then just a $250 monthly fee for training costs and vet bills.

But then word began to spread. One person who joined the syndicate told someone else and that someone else told someone else again. “Basically it all happened by word of mouth. It was friends telling friends. It was very organic.”

Soon Hemingson, who got interested in horse racing in 2005 when she took a job as a mutuels teller at an off track betting location, had 15 interested parties. But to make the fractional ownership group viable Hemingson needed 20 shares to make her numbers work. Already having a horse – trainer Carson Frey had bought an unraced two-year-old named Estifraad at last November’s Keeneland sale in Kentucky for $5,000 – Hemingson still needed five more partners.

“I was convinced I would have to rework the numbers.” Hemingson and the other 14 parties who had agreed to participate, then set a hard deadline of – you are in or you aren’t – to paddock time for Estifraad’s first scheduled race on May 20.

The plan would come down to almost the final hour. “Estifraad was in race 9 that night. I think we sold the last share around race 4,” said Hemingson. The Tornado Racing stable – 18 all-women members (two people bought two shares) - was born.

Estifraad – known around the barn simply as Freddy – could only finish sixth in his debut but he had excuses getting squeezed at the break and forced to race from far behind. In his next start, on June 10, Freddy finished a much improved fifth – defeated by just over five lengths for it all.

But there is still plenty of hope. After all, Estifraad is certainly well bred. His sire is Mohaymen, who finished fourth in the 2016 Kentucky Derby after winning the Grade 2 Holly Bull and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. Last year Mohaymen, who won just short of $1 million, was a top 10 Freshman sire with 20 two-year-old winners.

Out of Eqtiraan, Estifraad is deep on his dam’s side too. “(Eqtiraan) was unraced, but is a half sister to Alwajeeha, a Grade 1 winning mare who made over $486k USD in purses at the track,” said Hemingson, who grew up around quarterhorses and the rodeo. “She won stakes at Keeneland, Belmont and Saratoga.

“Freddy is still running very green - hasn’t had a super clean break, on and off the bit, wide on turns… so we are waiting for the lightbulb to click,” said Hemingson. “He’s still figuring out what he’s supposed to do.”

A week after Estifraad made his first start, Tornado Racing got a second horse claiming Blackberry Lisa, a five-year-old mare, for $6,250 on May 27 off of Tom Rycroft. “She has a solid record of 33-10-2-8,” said Hemingson. “She is a very capable and solid mare. She has only started once for us, but was in a tough field and again she didn’t get a good break.” Blackberry Lisa is entered to run again this Saturday.

Ironically, of the list of 30 women Hemingson originally put together only three joined the syndicate. Furthermore, of the 18 members in the ownership group, Hemingson only met seven of them prior to putting the group together.

“Most of the women didn’t know each other; they've never met.” The partners are from all age groups ranging from late twenties to retirees. Some have young kids; others have grand kids.

Hemingson said the thrill of owning a racehorse is wonderful. “A day at the track with your friends is a lot of fun. But now imagine your friends are a group of 18 fun loving, horse crazy, strong beautiful, independent women who own a horse running in the races.

“I have been told by numerous owners there is no bigger thrill than to watch a horse you own win a race which we are still waiting for. Until that happens we’re still having a lot of fun.”

Hemingson said fractional ownership is the way to go for newcomers and is a great way to introduce new fans to the sport. Relatively new to Alberta it is happening with regularity in North America and is really huge in Europe and Australia.

“I believe we need to find new ways to create ambassadors for our sport — to find new owners and encourage on — track visitation. That said, I’m super excited to launch an all-women ownership syndicate.

“I’ve sat through so many meetings of ‘we need to introduce new fans to the sport — and we need more owners,’ and really believed that if someone could see it through my eyes, they’d get involved,” said Hemingson.

Being owned by 18 women, Hemingson said both horses are incredibly spoiled. “They both love peppermints and get so many visitors. When one of their two horses run, Hemingson said they usually have 10 to 12 owners out to Century Mile.

“And then they bring friends and family too. They invite people to the track to watch their horse so it’s good for the industry. I think it is a great way to learn the ins and outs of owning a racehorse. I hope that this group works as a proof of concept and every year we see more syndicates. I’ve already started a waitlist for next year – for both men and women.

“It’s such an exciting sport. I’m hoping that by doing this more people will do something similar. It’s a great way to grow the industry. “We haven’t gone to winner’s circle but that will come,” said Hemingson.

Another fractional ownership group in thoroughbred racing is Skin In The Game stable – a group of seven friends heavily involved in chuckwagon racing. They partnered up to own 25 per cent of Ankara with Everblack Cattle Co., Stetson Enterprises and Ryan Stetson. “I pitched the idea and everyone jumped on board,” said Dustin Gorst, of two women and seven men.

“It wasn’t a huge initial investment and we’re having fun,” said Gorst, whose brother, Logan, won the 2019 Calgary Stampede aggregate. That year Century Mile bought Logan’s tarp.

Another way for individuals to get into horse racing at a minimal price is the Century Horse Racing Club. For just $250 you get a share of two thoroughbreds and two standardbreds. They are capped with 130 members.

Established in 2016 by Century Casinos, Paul Ryneveld, managing director of racing for Century Mile and Century Downs racetracks and casinos, said the Club is designed to give members the opportunity to go from horse racing fan to race horse owner.

“Club members have gotten money back each year,” said Ryneveld. It looks like that will happen again given that one of the Club’s horses is Joy in Grace, who last weekend finished second in the $50,000 RedTail Landing stake.

“Lots of other tracks around North America are doing it,” said Ryneveld. “But I don’t think there is another Horse Racing Club that has both breeds. That’s a very unique aspect of the Century Horse Racing Club.

“We’re full this year but we’ll be pushing it as a novel Christmas gift later in the year. “It’s a great way to introduce new fans to the world of horse racing.”

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