To Preakness and beyond
Panthers owner Viola looks beyond Triple Crown.
BALTIMORE— When American Pharoah followed his historic Triple Crown run in 2015 by racing three more times and ultimately closing his amazing 3-year-old season with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, owner Ahmed Zayat put untold millions at risk to give more horse racing fans the opportunity to see the sport’s newest superstar.
The co-owners of Always Dreaming — Vinnie Viola and Anthony Bonomo— aren’t ready to look that far beyond Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, but both hinted that they also expect their Triple Crown candidate to continue racing beyond the Triple Crown series.
Minutes before his horse drew the No. 4 gate at Pimlico’s post position drawing, Viola talked about the responsibility he and Bonomo feel to keep the horse in front of the racing public for the good of what he thinks is a rebounding industry.
“The duty that Anthony and I have to manage Always Dreaming and give him the best chance to win the Triple Crown, we really, really take that seriously,” said Viola, who also owns the Florida Panthers. “One of the things we always spoke about is that we were blessed by serendipity. We would have to think long and hard about giving him a 4-year-old season, for the fans ... we really would.”
Bonomo has been around horse racing a long time and he served as chairman of the New York Racing Association. He said that during his tenure it always troubled him that the sport’s biggest stars usually were retired to stud at the height of
“In most sports, [the stars] stick around. ... In horse racing that doesn’t happen. So your stars disappear and every year you’re looking to create the next star.” Anthony Bonomo, Always Dreaming co-owner
“Part of the things I’ve been saying about racing is, the stars don’t stay around long because of the pressure of money and things like that,” Bonomo said, “and I think that’s the disconnect with people because people get connected to a horse and then he’s in the breeding shed.
“I don’t think there’s a rush to do that with this horse. I think that if we can attract a fan base to followhim it’s good for racing.”
Of course, there are cautionary tales such as the tragic story of Barbaro, a budding superstar who broke down in the Preakness in 2006 and eventually had to be destroyed. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be about the millions and millions in stud contracts the most successful thoroughbreds can command, but it’s an expensive sport.
Bonomo and Viola, the billionaire founder of trading firm Virtu Financial, probably can afford to take that risk, and both seem committed to expanding the reach of a venerable sport that is struggling to attract new and younger fans.
The onlyway to do that is with star power and the only way to increase that is to keep the stars on the track instead of swapping them out every Triple Crown season.
“People really don’t know who owns them,” Bonomo said. “They really get attracted to the horse and its name. In most sports, [the stars] stick around. Derek Jeter had a great career, right? In horse racing that doesn’t happen. So your stars disappear and every year you’re looking to create the next star. I think it’s good for the sport ifwe can let the horses stay around and not get enticed by the rewards that lay ahead. He’s going tohave a long history and a long career at that [stud], but why not give him one more year if we can.”
Viola said he’s convinced the horse racing industry is entering a renaissance and he’s bullish on the future.
“I consider myself a value investor,” he said. “I like to think I’m able to identify when situations are at a point of turnaround, and I said to my close associates about five years ago ... I said if horse racingwas an equity— a stock— I’d be a huge, huge buyer of it. I think this sport is going to eclipse, by every measure, its former glory.”
That’s a tall order and it will depend onthe horse racing industry reaching out to a new generation of fans by refashioning a centuriessport for a 21st-century audience.
“It’s going to come in a different form and utilize different mediums to distribute the experience,” Viola said. “The athletic elegance that is required to get a horse — these majestic animals — to perform hasn’t changed. People appreciate achievement that is grounded in hard work and excellence. It’s really what this country is all about and has always been about.”
Vincent Viola checks in on Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming at historic Stall 40 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore before the horse’s exercise session.