Success in the centuries-old sport of horse racing usually comes very slowly. Even if you’re backed by a lot of money, you still need smarts and, more importantly, you need luck.
The ownership group China Horse Club has plenty of the former and, apparently, a lot of the latter. It has become a major force in thoroughbred racing in just a couple of years.
In only its second year of racing horses in the United States, it found itself with three potential starters in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. That number is down to two, but it’s a formidable pair: the presumptive favorite, Justify, and Audible, winner of the Florida Derby.
It also had Quip in the race, but with him coming off a second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby leaving only three weeks to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, it was decided he would skip this race and point to the Preakness Stakes two weeks after the Derby.
“It’s not lost on us for sure, the enormity and difficulty of it,” Michael Wallace, the New Zealand-born head of racing and bloodstock for the China Horse Club, said of the sudden success. “Of that crop, we started with 23, 24 horses, somewhere in those numbers. … We’ve gotten very lucky to get this [many horses in the Derby].
“[To win the Derby] means everything. It would mean the world. Everyone knows how difficult it is to win a race like this. It would be far reaching.”
The China Horse Club’s model is to not go it alone. Most of the horses it owns are in a partnership. Justify and Audible have the same ownership group that also includes Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm.
The partnership with WinStar, based in Versailles, Ky., seems to be one of the most important. It all started when Tom Ryan of SF Bloodstock told Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar, that China Horse Club wanted to get involved in racing.
What came out that collaboration was a mini-equine think tank involving Wallace, Ryan, Walden and David Hanley, also of WinStar.
“One of the keys to the partnership is the ability to have the horses at our training center and have them all winter and to get to know them,” Walden said. “We see them right there and watch them grow and develop. That’s a big part of the success; you get to know their characteristics as individuals, and when to send them and who to send them to.”
When Justify won the Santa Anita Derby, his trainer, Bob Baffert, joked that he was lucky that his name was drawn from a hat to get the colt and that Justify didn’t go to rival Todd Pletcher. The East Coast-based trainer gets many of the group’s horses, including Audible.
Clearly, it’s more complicated than that.
“Justify needed a little time to mature,” Wallace said. “He’s a beautiful, masculine horse with a big frame. He needed time to develop into the kind of powerful animal that Bob loves. Once you’ve been given all that [information], it was understood that Bob would get him to see if he could run or not.”
It was not the first success China Horse Club has had with Baffert. Last year, in its first major win in the United States, the Club won the Kentucky Oaks with the filly Abel Tasman.
Baffert got the horse after a very public firing of trainer Simon Callaghan. It came after the China Horse Club had bought into the horse and jockey Joe Talamo was supposed to wear the silks of the new 50% partner, not Clearsky Farms. But Talamo said he couldn’t find the new silks and had no choice but to wear those of Clearsky.
Shortly after that the horse was transferred from Callaghan to Baffert.
Even a year later, Wallace is unwilling to talk about that incident.
“We haven’t spoken about this and won’t talk about this,” Wallace said. “We’re very appreciative of the job that Simon did with her and the job Bob has done.”
After winning the Oaks, the China Horse Club’s founder and chairman, Teo Ah Khing, had his big moment on the dais, a position he has been finding himself in more often this Derby prep season.
He brought some gasps when he said the group started with about 100 members and each had to put up about $1 million dollars.
“They had to put their money where their mouth was,” Teo said at the time.
The group has grown to almost 250, according to Wallace.
Teo’s love of horse racing started when he designed the Meydan Racecourse and accompanying entertainment complex in Dubai.
“I kept seeing how much enjoyment owners had from the sport and I knew I had to experience this,” Teo said last week while traveling in China. “I enjoyed my first experiences and I wanted to share this joy with my family, then with my friends and then with other people as well. So, I created the China Horse Club.”
The Club is not just about racing. It has a robust breeding component, which includes interest in horses such as California Chrome, Exaggerator and Pioneerof the Nile, sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
“I hoped the China Horse Club would be as successful as it has become,” Teo said. “The mantra of the CHC is to [introduce the] Chinese to racing [of] the world. This means experiencing great racing like the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup and to have horses competing in these big events.”
Since the group was formed in 2013, it has won more than 350 races worldwide, including 20 Grade 1s.
Still, anyone who gets into this business has the same Holy Grail — winning on the first Saturday in May.
“For the Chinese, winning a Kentucky Derby would be the equivalent of an Olympic gold medal,” Teo said. “A gold medal is a sacred endorsement and celebrated and respected in the Middle Kingdom. To [achieve] that level of recognition in China would be very fulfilling.”
There’s little doubt that this group will achieve that sometime in the future. The question is will it be this year?