Barry Irwin & Political Ambition

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The very first horse I syndicated in the first stable I set up to race horses owned by a group of racing partners was Political Ambition, the latest in This Is Horse Racing’s Horse Who Changed Everything feature, presented by EMBRACE THE RACE. 

In February 1987, I headed a group that formed Clover Racing Stable in Southern California. The idea to form a business to syndicate racehorses with customers I had never met was not my idea, but that of four guys previously employed by a fellow in a similar venture.

This earlier company apparently yielded a significant profit for the owner, but gave the investing racing partners little to no value, as the couple of horses syndicated by the entrepreneur were bought for peanuts and sold for many, many times more than they cost. Both horses proved to be complete washouts.

I referred to those fellows as the “boiler room guys,” because they basically worked the phones like telemarketers to raise funds. The environment in which they worked was similar to the scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street” where salesmen manned phones in an office that was a converted garage.

While the “boiler room guys” detested their boss and loathed having to sell a worthless product, they came to understand that a tremendous market existed for newcomers interested in embracing the idea of racing a horse in a partnership. They figured that if they could hook up with a reputable horseman in the industry, they could help to develop a viable business.

I knew of Cot Campbell of course, but in California there was no outfit remotely resembling a Dogwood Stable. I was operating a bloodstock agency at the time and the climate for dealing in horses had become depressed following an oil crisis with OPEC and runaway inflation. So I was all ears when the “boiler room guys” showed up to my Sierra Madre office to present their idea of forming a partnership.

Within a short period of time, Clover Racing Stable was formed. None of us had any available cash to fund the start-up costs of an office, let alone buy a horse. But we were game if nothing else.

ETR box2My partner Jeff Siegel and I set out looking for our first horse. The qualifications were simple: it had to be an athlete, it had to be cheap and it had to be able to be bought “on the cuff.”

Neil Drysdale already had trained a horse or two for me, so we went to see if he could help us. Neil pushed us to buy an unraced 3-year-old that Kentucky breeder Brereton C. Jones had named Political Ambition, which accurately depicted his current position as a candidate for Lieutenant Governor for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Neil told us that Jones had the colt for sale in order to raise money for his campaign.

So we watched the colt walk, jog, gallop and breeze. We were impressed with the colt’s obvious athleticism. He was a fantastic walker and his feet never seemed to touch the ground. When he galloped he was extraordinarily light on his feet. When he breezed, he showed a great rhythm.

We struck a deal to buy him for $60,000 plus $3,000 (representing a 5 percent commission for Neil). Best of all, the seller was extremely generous in his terms, giving us some time to pay for him.

The “boiler room guys” were very happy to learn that we had quickly located a horse and had struck a deal to buy him. Each to a man, however, was apprehensive about buying a horse with such plebian parentage after having spent the previous two years pitching a pair of Kentucky bluebloods. The colt was by Kirtling, a Group 1 winner in Italy who proved to be a bust at stud.

I explained to them that if we were going to go into business together, they had to trust our judgment. I told them that we had decided to spend 100 percent of the purchase price of a horse on its talent and zero percent on its pedigree, which turned out to be the basic tenet on which our acquisitions would be founded.

Immediately after the salesmen reconciled themselves to accepting our core principles, they swung into action. I met one of them shortly afterward at the association gate just outside the Santa Anita backstretch with a prospect in tow. Hank Shuman previously had participated in one of the failed ventures with the guys. I hit it right off with Hank, as he lived in the neighborhood of Los Angeles in which I grew up, he was an ace handicapper and he was a very optimistic guy.

Hank was taken back to Neil’s barn, he watched the colt take a few turns outside in the ring and told us that he was “in.” He wrote us a check right on the sport. We were in business.

Political Ambition was duly syndicated in short order. When Political Ambition took hold late in a one-turn dirt sprint and put in a “million-dollar move” to come from far back to finish fifth in his debut at Hollywood Park May 29, 1987, we partners jumped up and down like maniacs, because we got a true glimpse of what was to come.

The colt won three of his initial six starts, but flopped in his stakes debut, the day before the stock market went into the tank on Black Monday, which to this day represents the single biggest one day loss on a percentage basis in the history of the New York Stock Exchange.

The “boiler room guys” panicked and sold us their interest in the company, choosing to eschew the risk of corporate ownership in exchange of becoming employees of the firm.

A month later, Political Ambition rebounded big time, winning the Hollywood Derby on grass to provide us with our first Grade 1 victory and set us on a course of action that continues to this day at Team Valor.

Political Ambition won half of his 18 starts (including the Grade 1 Hollywood Invitational in 1988 and the Grade 3 Col. F.W. Koester in 1989), earned more than $625,000 and firmly planted me in the syndication business, so I consider him to be the horse that changed my life.

Editor’s Note: Political Ambition and other horses who changed everything for Barry Irwin are in the new book, Derby Innovator, The Making of Animal Kingdom, available on Amazon.