Weekend Interview: Barry Irwin

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Barry Irwin wrote a book, and you’re in it. OK, maybe you’re not but it probably made you take a brief pause. Irwin, head of the Team Valor racing syndicate, once said trainers lied to him – on national television – and has unabashedly spoken his mind for decades in the business. And now he’s written a book? Look out. TIHR’s Joe Clancy caught up with Irwin to discuss the book (Derby Innovator, The Making of Animal Kingdom), Kentucky Derby winner turned dual-continent stallion Animal Kingdom, Team Valor, racing and more.

TIHR: Why write a book?
IRWIN: There are a few different reasons. I knew a lot of interesting stories just from my time in the business and being in the positions I’ve been in. Stories I was involved in, in which people behaved in a manner that I think, when people read these stories, they will be very surprised and sometimes shocked. Those stories are in there. People have always said to me, “You going to write a book? Why don’t you write a book? You should really write a book.” Four years ago, I wrote four stories. The most volatile stories I knew (in racing). I sent them out and every one of the people I sent them to said, “You can’t do that. They’re too crazy, it’s too much. You can’t do it.” I put them away. A year and a half ago, I said the hell with it, rewrote them, changed the style to fit the book and they’re in there.

TIHR: What kind of book is it?
IRWIN: It’s a memoir. It’s not a tell-all. It’s not written to show the underbelly of the industry. People want to know how I came up with Animal Kingdom and by the time they get to Animal Kingdom in the book, they will know what formed me to be the guy I was. Anybody’s going to like it: a newcomer, a hardened guy in the business. It’s written to be entertaining as well as provocative. People are going to be entertained and I guarntee you they never have read anything like it in terms of an insider’s look at racing.

TIHR: How long did it take to write?
IRWIN: It took me about five months to write and another seven or eight to rewrite. My daughter Chloe worked on the Kenyon Review (Kenyon College’s international journal of literature) and she edited it for me. She read the book and she was loathe to really bring up the idea. It got to a point to where she said, “Dad, you’ve got to let me edit this thing.” In the first month, it was a strain on the relationship. After awhile she got the better of me. It wasn’t easy. She grew up in a household of people talking about horses all day long, and she rebelled against it. She gravitated in a different direction. When we got Animal Kingdom, she got into the thing big time and since then has become a fan. Not a big fan, but she enjoys it. She got a real kick out of the book.”

TIHR: Where does Animal Kingdom fit?
IRWIN: A fourth of the book is about Animal Kingdom. You know how there’s a prejudice about racehorses if they turn out to be duds as stallions? I wanted to get his story out there in case he doesn’t make it as a stallion.

TIHR: He was a $100,000 buy-back by Team Valor at Keeneland September in 2009. We’ve always wondered, was there a dollar figure where you would have sold him?
IRWIN: I have thought about it a lot. We did it at a hundred, and I explain the whole thing in the book. I’m sure there was a figure where he would have sold, but I’m one of these emotional kind of guys in the moment, so I can’t answer what I would have done then. I have had so many great horses slip though my fingers over the years so I understand it and how it happens. One that kills me is (champion and $3.5 million earner) Victory Gallop. I loved that horse. He had a misshapen sesamoid. I showed the X-rays to guys and I couldn’t get one to tell me it wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t mind selling a good horse but you would at least like to get something for it or have it for a while.

TIHR: How has he been received as a stallion?
IRWIN: I was cautioned when he went to stud (at Darley in the United States and Arrowfield Stud in Australia) that he would get over a hundred the first year, the second year he won’t, and the third year you’re in trouble and you’ll have to drop his stud fee. He’s been the exact opposite. He’s gotten more mares each year, his stud fee has stayed the same. He’s more popular now than when he went to stud. The reason is his babies look so good. People have seen them and sent more mares to him. He’s not as popular (in Australia) as he is here. You’ve got to prove yourself down there if you’re an American horse. Our horses don’t look like their horses. The scenario there is more like a normal horse. His stud fee was lowered, he didn’t get a hundred mares this year. He got 80 something. His first crop in Australia are late yearlings. They could run by end of the year. His first crop in America are yearlings. It will be interesting to see how they sell.

TIHR: Will Team Valor race some Animal Kingdom foals?
IRWIN: We have 45 mares worldwide. Of those, close to 20 we bred to Animal Kingdom, not all here, some in Australia. We formed a lot of partnerships on mares that I bought. He’s got quite a book.

TIHR: Team Valor is five years removed from Animal Kingdom’s Derby win and has been in business more than 20 years. Now what?
IRWIN: Last year, it was our first kind of crappy year (33 wins from 228 starts, $1,813,374 in earnings worldwide counting partnerships – the lowest earnings figure since 2004). I spent a lot of time on the book and spent a lot of time pushing the Barr-Tonko Bill. We had the lowest win percentage we’ve ever had. Since November, we regrouped and it’s gone better. We got rid of a bunch of duds. The stable is having a good year. We’re looking forward to even more.

TIHR: You brought it up, how are things with the bill (federal legislation proposed to have the United States Anti-Doping Agency oversee medication reform in Thoroughbred racing)?
IRWIN: This is going to be a difficult year because it’s an election year. We’re going to make some momentum and we’re going to try as hard as we can. We have a plan and we’ve got some maneuvers afoot. I think we are fine-tuning it right now. Personally, just me speaking: the racing community has not really understood the kernel of the whole thing, the essence of why we want to do this. They’re treating it like we’re trying to get the federal government to take over horse racing. We want to get USADA to oversee drug testing, that is all.