BY JOE CLANCY
There’s magic in winning the Belmont Stakes
Last October, Aron Wellman went to Belmont Park to watch a horse in his Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners group race, and made sure to stop by the second floor of the racetrack’s clubhouse. That’s where winner’s photos from the Belmont Stakes, the track’s signature race, hang just outside the Belmont Room.
Wellman grew up on the West Coast, but has come to Belmont for years and the history is not lost on him – especially after he and Eclipse became a Belmont Stakes winner with Tapwrit in 2017.
“I always sort of made a point to walk by the Belmont Room where all the winner’s circle photos are posted on the second floor,” said Wellman, who founded the racing partnership in 2011. “Just gazing at those horses, the famous connections, the people I’ve admired and horses I’ve admired for so long. And to think we are up there in that fraternity of Belmont Stakes winners is really cool. Nobody will ever be able to take that away from any of us. I saw it in October and I was like, ‘Wow.’ I took a picture next to it. It’s a surreal experience in the moment when it happens and when you have little experiences like that it allows that historical nature of the achievement to sink in a little bit.”
That same experience could await Jack Wolf and his partners in Starlight Racing, which owns part of 2018 Belmont Stakes favorite Justify. Wolf is from Louisville, Ky., home of the Kentucky Derby but spends three months of the year in Saratoga Springs and bases most of the Starlight horses with New York trainer Todd Pletcher. Starlight has run two horses in the Belmont – finishing ninth with Purge in 2004 and seventh with General A Rod in 2014. Justify could take those New York connections to a new level after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and therefore bidding to become racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner.
“It would be real special to do, not only the Triple Crown but the whole Belmont thing,” said Wolf. “I really like the people at NYRA (New York Racing Association) and the races we’ve won up there. Things like this finally sink in when you see a picture or something, though I’m not sure these other two races have sunk in on me quite yet.”
It’s been said that owning a Thoroughbred racehorse gives one a reason to dream. And you might as well dream big. And the Belmont Stakes is as big as it gets thanks to its $1.5 million purse, its past dating to 1867 and its spot as the closing leg of the Triple Crown. Compare it to Game Seven, The Masters, Daytona, the Boston Marathon or any iconic sporting event in the world so with all of that come thrills that don’t compare to many others.
Starlight Racing and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners are commercial ventures that involve several individuals owning all or part of a racehorse. Such entities are part of a growing trend in racing. The business models vary, but put simply shareholders buy pieces of a racehorse or racehorses. Managed by a centralized office, the scenario provides buying power, spreads the financial risk and creates somewhat of a team approach.
Wolf said Starlight’s involvement with Justify, and another Derby runner Audible, came about somewhat by accident. The group’s normal model involves buying yearlings and raising them to be racehorses. When its 2018 crop of 3-year-olds (purchased in 2016) didn’t produce a precocious Derby type, Starlight took a different approach and looked to buy into a horse heading that direction. Wolf struck out early – “thank goodness” as he put it – then had a discussion with Tom Ryan of SF Bloodstock, one of Justify’s co-owners. Long story short, Starlight bought 15 percent of the racing rights to Justify (at the time a winner in his only start) and Audible (who had just won the Holy Bull Stakes in Florida).
“We negotiated a price that was fair to us and them,” Wolf said. “It was an opportune time for SF to try to monetize some of the racing revenue and if either of the horses hit they would still have the tremendous upside on the breeding rights. They look very smart.”
So does Starlight. Some 10 people own the 15-percent stake in Justify, whose racetrack earnings since the purchase are $2.9 million. In addition to Starlight and SF Bloodstock, Justify’s co-owners include Kentucky’s WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Head of Plains Partners.
“It’s been a home run for our partners,” said Wolf. “It’s been a lot of fun. The other partners have been fun to do it with. Elliott Walden (of WinStar) has been very helpful in trying to work with the numbers that we have. I think it’s been a win-win for everybody.”
And now they get to try to make some history in the Belmont. Tapwrit didn’t win the Triple Crown, but the horse still delivered on a big stage for Wellman, the Eclipse partners and co-owners Bob LaPenta and John Malone’s Bridlewood Farm.
“It’s an emotional experience,” Wellman said. “You do your best to try to take a step back for a second and appreciate the magnitude of what is happening in that moment. But it’s sort of an out-of-body experience. It goes by so fast. I grew up watching the telecasts and there I was on the podium and being interviewed by Bob Costas.
“There are a lot of layers to winning the Belmont Stakes. It’s such an incredible thing. It’s a staple in American sports, that’s what it is.”