They call it the sport of kings, but Jerome Aiken knows better.
Born in Baltimore, raised on Hayward Avenue - just blocks from Pimlico Race Course - Aiken was conditioned to believe horse ownership was affordable only for the wealthy. But he has shown what can be accomplished at the racetrack with diligence and a little cash.
Aiken's full-time job is systems engineer for Raytheon, but he was all horse owner yesterday. Appearing on the Preakness Day card for the first time since he became a horse owner, his 4-year-old colt, Crypto Prime, ran eighth in the 10-horse, $35,000 Deputed Testamony Starter Handicap.
Aiken, 47, is one of the few African-American horse owners in the industry. Running a horse yesterday represented another milestone for the self-made horseman who says he has earned almost $300,000 racing the past two years. Last year, his Five Star Magic won an allowance race at Pimlico the day before the Preakness.
"Just being here is exciting," he said yesterday. "It's a big crowd, the big time. Winning would have been a great ending."
Crypto Prime is typical of Aiken's investment in racing. Aiken paid $2,500 for him in 2006 and has gotten back $85,220 in earnings, including two victories.
"He's always been a horse I can count on," Aiken said.
Growing up on Hayward, Aiken held the dream of owning racehorses. Now he's living it.
"Jerome used to stand on the outside looking in at Pimlico on his way to school and watch the horses do their morning gallop," Marsha Aiken, his youngest sister, said last week via e-mail.
"Now he is on the inside of the paddock hoisting the jockey onto the horse when they say 'rider up.' I am so proud of him. I know my dad is looking down smiling. The only regret is that he is not here to be a part of it."
Jerome grew up listening to his father, James, who worked at Bethlehem Steel, tell stories about the great Maryland horse Native Dancer. Although the family never went to the track, Aiken stopped to watch races through the fence after school. On Saturdays, he'd take in morning workouts and afternoon races.
"The impression you have when you're young, it's only for the rich," he said. "[But] the meat and potatoes of the industry are guys like me."
It wasn't until Aiken went to South Korea as a computer programmer for the Department of Defense that he considered owning horses. He was particularly inspired by a story in The Sun about Xtra Heat, a Maryland sprinter who was originally sold for just $5,000 but earned almost $2.4 million in her career.
Working in Florida in 2001, and buoyed by a $5,000 line of credit, Aiken bought his first horse, Star City Dancer. When he turned the filly over to his new trainer, Tony Aguirre, there was a sense of wonderment.
"When you looked at the legs, they were beyond crooked," Aguirre said, laughing. "They were so crooked, when she walked, she tripped the hot walker."
Still, Aiken paid just $1,500 for Star City Dancer. She earned $1,800 on the track and then was claimed for $10,000. Not a bad return on his investment.
Since then, with Aguirre's help, Aiken has learned enough about the business to trust his judgment. "He's to the point where I don't need to be here," Aguirre said last week in Timonium, where he and Aiken were surveying this year's Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old crop.
Aiken operates on the low end of the horse scale - "I look for cheap speed," he says - and he is not alone. Dennis Huie, whose father owned and raced horses in Jamaica, is another local enthusiast dabbling in ownership.
Huie, a medical technologist with Kaiser Permanente, is in partnership for two horses and owns another outright.
"There are not more minorities on the owning end because they think it's such a prohibitive, expensive sport," Huie, 48, said. "But it's not. ... You don't have to go over the top like the sheiks of Dubai. We're on the low end, but we still enjoy the sport. Every now and then, we score one."
Dr. E.J. Colvin, who has owned horses for 35 years and was a member of the Maryland Racing Commission for 27, used to work cashing winning tickets at Charles Town before he started buying horses. Cost is the major factor in the diminished number of minorities who own horses, he said.
"At one time, there were quite a few, maybe eight to 10 years ago," Colvin said. "Hank Allen, Norman Johnson, Willie Richardson. Now, the industry is kind of bad. It's hard to own horses now. You just don't have many blacks coming into racing."
In an effort to draw more people into the business, Aiken is 14 chapters deep into a book he's writing about investing on the low end. He also maintains a Web site, starhorseracing.com, that details some of his strategies.
"I'm hoping to hit that nice horse, just so I can say this is what could happen if you put money in and apply yourself," he said.
"I'm making money. I haven't hit that home run yet, but I feel like it has to happen soon. Every owner is defined by one horse. I'm waiting for mine."
Aiken believes his best chance rests with Princess Quatorze, a yearling he bought in 2007 who finished third in her first race a week ago. "She might be my first stakes winner," he said.