All eyes are on Justify at the second leg of the Triple Crown after an impressive win at the Kentucky Derby. He’s the favorite for the Preakness Stakes on Saturday as he attempts to become just the 13th horse to win horse racing’s ultimate prize. Behind Justify, of course, is Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, the man who trained the last Triple Crown winner, American Pharaoh, in 2015. Behind Baffert, however, is something else: A tangled web of partnerships that jointly own the horse.

One thing that needs to be understood: Horse breeding is a giant industry that supersedes horse racing itself. Partnerships and syndicates are becoming more and more common. According to The Baltimore Sun, as an example, nine of the 20 Kentucky Derby horses were owned by partnerships. Raising horses these days is a bit more like “Moneyball” than “Seabiscuit,” and these partnerships reflect that.

Justify, for example, is owned by China Horse Club, WinStar Farm, Head of Plains Partners and Starlight Racing. But what does that all mean? According to the Sun, China Horse Club and WinStar Farm are the two most forward-facing owners of the horse, and they bought the horse initially. WinStar is a 2,700-acre operation smack in the middle of Kentucky horse country, run by an old-school horseman in CEO Elliott Walden. China Horse Club plays the business side of the track, buying in on potential big-money horses at the ground level. The two partnered to buy Justify for $500,000 in 2016.

Later, Sol Kumin, a Boston-based hedge-fund guy who played on the lacrosse team at Johns Hopkins, got in on the second floor, as did Starlight Racing, a Louisville, Ky., syndicate that includes Giants executive Chris Mara. 

“I think people’s appetite to buy million-dollar yearlings has changed,” said Walden, per The Sun. “And I think the only way they’re doing it now is through a partnership.”

The China Horse Club, meanwhile has a slightly less nuanced outlook on raising horses.

“When you’re buying and selling colts, everyone knows there’s an element of risk to it,” Michael Wallace, racing and bloodstock manager for China Horse Club, said, via The Sun. “To some degree, it’s a numbers game. You feel you’ve got to buy a certain amount of horses — somewhere between 20 and 25 — to make the model work. By having partners, it just allows you to spread your capital farther.”

The relationship, therefore, is a symbiotic one. On the one hand, you have WinStar Farm seeking out that million-dollar horse that may not even exist in today’s market, and on the other you have China Horse Club looking to pick out the strongest horse from a veritable litter.

More often than not, horses don’t pan out. These partnerships reflect that. They’re OK with having 19-24 horses fail, because they have another one waiting in the wings.

As you may expect, Baffert’s main connect is Walden, the CEO of WinStar Farm.

“There’s a point man, and it’s Elliott, so I just basically talk to Elliott, and he talks to everyone else,” Baffert explained, via The Sun. “It’s pretty easy and simple, really. I just tell him the way it is, and he understands everything. We have mutual respect.”

That mutual respect is transitive. China Horse Club founder Teo Ah Khing is Walden’s connection.

“I like Teo,” Walden said. “He’s a very nice man who has a lot of class, and we share a lot of the same values. It’s not just about the dollars and cents of it. Because there’s nothing worse than owning a good horse with a bad partner. It makes everything difficult.”

To call it a fragile ecosystem would be doing it a disservice, it’s just a group realizing that nuance is required to raise a horse in today’s racing climate. With so many people breeding and so few horses succeeding, you can’t just hope a horse won’t bust — you have to assume it will. Justify is the exception to the rule. But the group that bought Justify also understands that they got the impressive colt in a bunch full of horses that didn’t quite make it. It’s a cynical side of the business, but an inevitable one.


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