After inheriting a couple of hundred million dollars, Dolly Green telephoned her old friend, Leslie Combs, the wily Kentucky breeder. "Leslie," she said, "I want to get some horses."
Combs made a mock attempt to dissuade her. "Dolly," he said, "you come down here and they'll take you like Grant took Richmond."
A few days later Green called back. "I guess you'll just have to take me," she said. She flew from Los Angeles to Lexington on a Sunday, just in time for Spendthrift Farm's annual bash on the eve of the Keeneland Yearling Sale. To Combs, that party was an essential part of his business. "People like to come to parties," he said. "You've got to build them up."
Combs presumably poured on the charm, and the next night he sat right next to Green at the Kenneland auction. When the session was over, she was the proud owner of $2.5 million worth of Spendthrift Farm yearlings.
To most of the people in the breeding industry, especially old-timers, this is the essence of the game: showmanship and salesmanship, hustle and hype, the skillful care and feeding of wealthy clients. Combs virtually founded the American commercial breeding industry, and to do it he had to find customers who didn't previously exist.
Often, the customers seem eager to be hustled. "A lot of people check their brains at the door when they get into this business," conceded Arnold Kirkpatrick, Spendthrift vice president. "They come looking to get taken. People who wouldn't think of hiring an unqualified guy to operate a $50,000 machine will give a guy $500,000 to buy horses because they met him at the bar. But you can't sustain an industry with people spending $250,000 gratuitously."
The hustlers and sharpies never will disappear from the breeding world, but they are becoming almost an anachronism. Customers don't have to be hustled any more. Paying big money for thoroughbreds may once have been viewed as imprudent, self-indulgent, insanely risky. But in an era when our economic perceptions have changed so much, when putting money in a savings account has become the height of foolishness, horses have become an investment.
Ever since inflation became a fact of economic life, investors have been trying to take their assets out of paper money and put them into commodities -- real estate, art, antiques, coins, stamps. It was an Englishman, Robert Sangster, who first recognized what an extraordinary investment American thoroughbreds could be.
Sangster startled the industry when he bought $10 mnillion worth of horses at yearling sales in 1974, then came back the next year and did it again. He hit the jackpot with a couple of his investments; Alleged and The Minstrel were European champions and came back to Kentucky to by syndicated for $9 million and $13 million, respectively.
But Sangster's genius was to recognize he could make money on his failures. There was such a strong worldwide demand for American pedigrees that he could sell an unsuccessful racehorse to South America or Tasmania or New Zealand, where a son of Northern Dancer or Hoist The Flag would be highly prized. "Horses are an international currency," Sangster said. "With inflation, we can usually sell them for at least what they cost originally. We make a profit on 90 percent of our horses."
What Sangster discovered on a grand scale, other owners found on a modest scale: thoroughbreds were a remarkable hedge against inflation. In 1977, a filly named Benderette was sold as a yearling for $22,500. The owners might have had occasion to regret this purchase, since Benderette didn't have much ability. She never won a race, and earned a paltry $4,300 in her career. Last fall she was put in another Kentucky sale, this time as a potential broodmare. Her price: $160,000.
Increasing numbers of smaller investors are being attracted by the appreciation of thoroughbreds' value. And unlike other investments that are inflation hedges, horses offer tax advantages that are a very important source of the industry's boom.
"Since Congress changed the tax laws in 1976, there are very few tax shelters left," said Barry Goldstein, an accountant for the New York office of Ernst and Whinney. "About the only things avilable now are real estate and leasing, and they're not very appealing today. So there's a lot of money sitting around. I'm getting calls every day from tax shelter promoters who are interested in racing.
"The key to all tax shelters with depreciation is to get a disproportionate deduction compared to the usefulness of the property. "You can buy a 14-year-old broodmare and write her whole cost off over two years -- but she can still produce four or five foals. You can buy a 2-year-old filly for $200,000, write off $150,000 of that while she's racing through the age of 4. Now you've got almost all the tax benefits and you've still got a broodmare with her career ahead of her.
"There's going to be an enormous amount of money pumping into this game," Goldstein said."Since you've got a fixed number of foals and more money chasing the goods, the prices have to go up. It is an investment that has a good chance and besides, it's got a little zing to it."
Indeed, buying horses has more than a little zing. "Not everybody can buy the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Rams," said Ted Bassett, president of the Keeneland Association. "But horses are an opportunity to get involved in the national sports scene and rub elbows with the elite."
"Horses," said John Finney, the head of the company that conducts the Saratoga Yearling Sales, "are a masculinity symbol for the men, a sex symbol for the women, a teddy bear for the kids. They give a sense of participation that you don't get when you're buying gold. This is the world's most exotic product."
Because of the special nature of the product, it is difficult to make a pure dollars-and-cents calculation of horses' value. But given their record as an inflation hedge, their tax advantages, their viability as international currency, their limited supply and the seemingly insatiable demand, thoroughbreds may continue for a while longer to be America's great growth industry.