Brian Hurst is my kind of horse owner. He understands the nature of the game, and he knows how to deal with the press.
Most owners and trainers take it personally when a writer says anything bad about their horse. You're safer saying something vicious about their mothers. When Roger Laurin was reading in the papers this winter that Chief's Crown looked sore or lame, he became hostile and withdrawn -- a typical response.
But Hurst understands that racing is a game of opinions. He didn't get mad when he read in The Washington Post that his colt, Eternal Prince, was "unimpressive" winning the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. He didn't get sullen when he read that Rhoman Rule was going to turn the tables decisively and beat Eternal Prince in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
Instead, he walked up to me at a cocktail party the other night and said, "I understand you like Rhoman Rule. I'll bet you horse for horse, Eternal Prince against Rhoman Rule."
It was the perfect response to journalistic criticism: Put your money where your mouth is. I wouldn't have had an ounce of self-respect left if I didn't accept the challenge, although I did enlist a like-minded friend to take a piece of my action. After all, I didn't collect nearly $3 million in the last month, as Hurst did, for selling pieces of a colt who is going to get caught in a murderous speed duel and get trounced in the Kentucky Derby.
It's been quite a month for Brian Hurst, who started playing the horses at Miami's Tropical Park when he was 16 and never lost his taste for action. He had a business as an automobile broker in Richmond, but his office was always piled high with Daily Racing Forms. "You couldn't get rich in the car business," he said, "but it gave me enough money to buy a few horses."
Hurst bought his first one for $6,000 at Pimlico in 1981, and he has been buying and selling, wheeling and dealing with thoroughbreds ever since. He says he has made a profit every year, but he'll never make a purchase like the one he made in Florida last winter.
Hurst and trainer Butch Lenzini were having a drink together at the Hialeah sale of 2-year-olds when a son of Majestic Prince came into the auction ring. Hurst knew this colt was going to be out of his price range and he said, "Watch this one light up the board, Butch!" When the bidding stalled around the $10,000 level, Hurst ran into the pavilion and made a successful bid of $17,500 for the colt.
"I'll lose that much on a football game," he said, "so I figured I might as well take a shot with a well-bred horse."
After Eternal Prince won last month's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, Hurst sold 37.5 percent of him to George Steinbrenner for a sum in the vicinity of $1 million. After the colt won the Wood Memorial Stakes -- however unimpressive The Washington Post thought the performance was -- Spendthrift Farm paid around $2 million for a 20 percent share.
It's been the coup of a lifetime for a wheeler-dealer action guy like Hurst. Too bad his profits are going to be whittled down on Saturday.