Viscovich knew this would be a bad gamble on behalf of his 2-year-old Aotearoa. Stanco had a reason for concern bigger than the entry fee. His runner, Princess of Sylmar, had virtually clinched the 3-year-old filly championship. There was one way she could blow it: compete in the Breeders’ Cup and lose.
Both men weighed their options, chose to gamble and run and then awaited their fate at Santa Anita on Friday afternoon.
Viscovich, a software company operator with a lifelong interest in racing and betting, got his first taste of significant success as an owner and breeder when Aotearoa won a minor stakes race at Santa Anita last month. He immediately started thinking about the Breeders’ Cup — and the financial calculations involved.
The Cup funds its large purses principally from nomination fees for stallions and their foals. To encourage breeders to pay these fees, the price to run a non-nominated horse is discouragingly steep. The humbly bred Aotearoa wasn’t eligible, and the cost to run him was $120,000.
Viscovich is a man who understands odds, and he recognized “financially it doesn’t make sense at all.” The winner’s share of the Juvenile Turf is $550,000, minus the $110,000 the owner has to pay to the jockey and trainer. If Viscovich risked $120,000 to collect $440,000, he would be getting worse than a 3-1 return on a horse who wound up going off at 17 to 1. A lousy bet, indeed.
While he was contemplating the decision, fate intervened. Viscovich regularly plays the Pick Six at Santa Anita, and on a day with a carry-over jackpot, he made a $1,200 investment, standing alone with two solid favorites and using at least five horses in each of the other races. His favorites won, he hit long shots in other races and he wound up holding a perfect ticket worth $130,373. “I thought the Pick Six was an omen,” he said. He quickly decided to enter the Breeders’ Cup, knowing this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Aotearoa sat a few lengths behind the leaders, and in mid-race Viscovich heard track announcer Trevor Denman call, “Aotearoa is making some headway!” But as the leaders maintained a strong pace, Aotearoa couldn’t keep up.
Outstrip, carrying the colors of the world’s most prominent horse owner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, rallied to win the Juvenile Turf over two rivals from world-famous stables. Against such heady company, it was probably a moral victory for Aotearoa to finish in the middle of the pack — seventh place. It was not the ending Viscovich had dreamed of, but he said, “It’s a happy ending just to have a horse in the Breeders’ Cup.”
Like Viscovich, Stanco and his partners in the King of Prussia Stable have a modest operation — they own seven thoroughbreds. Stanco has been a racing fan since he was growing up near Saratoga, N.Y., but he also is a pragmatist; he is the CEO of an insurance business and an actuary, i.e., a numbers guy, and one of the rules for the stable is “to get the economics to work.”
The economics have been delightful since Princess of Sylmar won four straight Grade I stakes and established herself as the top 3-year-old filly in the country. Her supplementary entry fee of $100,000 is a pittance compared to the $1.6 million she has already earned.
But there is another issue involved, as Daily Racing Form columnist Mike Watchmaker wrote recently: “The risk-reward ratio for Princess of Sylmar feels all wrong. . . . No horse in this Breeders’ Cup has more to lose and less to gain than Princess Sylmar.”
If she stayed in her barn Friday, Princess of Sylmar would have been a cinch to win the Eclipse Award as the champion 3-year-old filly. She narrowly defeated the second-best filly, Beholder, in the Kentucky Oaks. But if Beholder — the winner of three Grade Is this year — won the Distaff over Princess of Sylmar, she could wrest away the title. And the title is more than a piece of hardware — a 3-year-old championship significantly boosts the value of any horse in the marketplace. “We thought a lot about that,” Stanco said. “ ‘What’s her value? What’s the Eclipse worth to us?’ But we decided that the value of the Eclipse is secondary in this situation. She’s racing for history here, and we’re not giving up that opportunity.”
The Distaff shaped up as an exceptional confrontation involving the two 3-year-olds and 5-year-old Royal Delta, winner of this event in 2011 and 2012. But it didn’t materialize the way most people had expected.
Royal Delta and Beholder chased a lightly regarded front-runner, but Royal Delta faded midway on the backstretch as Beholder surged to the lead. All eyes at Santa Anita were watching for Princess of Sylmar’s big stretch run — but it never materialized. Princess of Sylmar struggled home a badly beaten last.
The horses had barely crossed the wire when national TV commentators were speculating Beholder had taken away the 3-year-old filly title.
Racing fans always deplore the tendency of many owners to shield their horses from risks instead of risking their reputations. Everybody in the game applauded the sportsmanship of Stanco and his partners. But as Viscovich had demonstrated early in the afternoon, sporting gestures do not necessarily produce happy endings.
For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.