Honaker with his wife, Sarah, at Saratoga prior to Keen Ice's Travers win. (Photos courtesy of Eliot Honaker)
A few years ago, Eliot Honaker started contemplating what it would be like to have racehorses but he could’ve never imagined that his first venture into ownership would’ve turned out like this. On Saturday, Honaker, a 37-year-old from Louisville who works in institutional investment sales, made his first trip to Saratoga Race Course. He was there as part of Donegal Racing, the ownership team behind Keen Ice, the colt who upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to win the Travers Stakes.
In this Q&A with America’s Best Racing brand ambassador Dan Tordjman, Honaker talks about the life-changing experience of horse ownership and what it was like to beat Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Honaker also shares his thoughts about everything from his favorite meal at the track to what he thinks racing can do to attract and retain new fans and owners, like himself.
1. Eliot, let's start off with this past Saturday. Describe what it was like going into the Travers, having a horse in the race, facing American Pharoah, and then winning the race?
It was absolutely incredible. First off, I was really impressed with Saratoga as this was my first time at the Spa. I thought all along that Keen Ice had a really good shot, he was improving in every race and I thought AP was vulnerable after flying across the country.
KEEN ICE BEFORE BEING SADDLED AT SARATOGA
2. How did you feel leading up to the race? Did you really think American Pharoah was beatable?
Absolutely, Keen Ice didn't get a lot of respect after his finish in the Haskell, everyone was saying AP had just let up. Keen Ice had the pedigree to go a mile and a quarter and others didn't. Plus, I thought the #7 hole Keen Ice drew in was my lucky number. (My birthday is the seventh, I was born in 1977, my seven-year wedding anniversary is this Saturday.)
3. At what point during the race did you start thinking to yourself, this is actually going to happen?
On the final turn, I could see American Pharoah was in a duel with Frosted and I grabbed my wife (Sarah) and said (Keen Ice) is going to win, he's going to win! I will never forget this! I have watched the replay of the race over 15 times.
KEEN ICE IN THE SARATOGA PADDOCK
4. Describe the celebration after the race.
It was unreal. It was very silent except a few people screaming (Donegal folks). My wife and I ran to the winner's circle and it was a mob scene to get in, but we ultimately made it. I was in shock and trying to soak it all in. I didn't want it to end! Random people were high fiving us and telling us congratulations. My wife said she felt like a celebrity! My phone was blowing up with texts and calls, as I think others were in shock too.
5. This was extra special for you because you haven't owned horses your whole life. In fact, Keen Ice was part of the first group of horses you invested in. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in horse ownership?
I sent a simple email that I was interested and I met a few partners and Jerry Crawford out at Churchill Downs a few months later. Then I met with Conor Foley (Chief Operating Officer) and he introduced me to some horses. I remember one of them being Finnegan's Wake (another Donegal great). It's like buying anything: trust your gut and if you feel comfortable, go for it.
THE TRAVERS WINNER'S CIRCLE
6. Did you grow up around horses? Did you always want to own horses?
No, I didn’t, but when I went to the University of Kentucky I loved going to Keeneland. I actually worked for Turf Catering there which allowed you to have access to the nice rooms on the upper floors at Keeneland. Another summer job in college had me working for a guy whose family had an equine insurance business and I always enjoyed talking horse racing with him. Also, I would actually sneak into the Keeneland sales and was in awe.
7. Why did you decide to get into horse racing when you did?
I just thought it would be really neat to do it and I did some internet research which led me to Donegal. Their model and success ratio was very appealing as you own an equal share in each of their horses that they purchase that given year (every year they raise a fund called Derby Dreams). Thus, you aren't "all-in on one or two horses,” which isn't very appealing to a first timer. Donegal is led by Jerry Crawford, who has a "money ball" approach to buying at the sales. I met with Conor Foley, Donegal Racing COO, at Churchill Downs and he convinced me that this was the right group and the rest is history.
KEEN ICE AND JOCKEY JAVIER CASTELLANO AFTER THE WIN
8. How difficult was the process of becoming an owner?
It was very easy. There are a few different approaches out there, but this one made the most sense for me. I work in the investment business and this approach was consistent with the golden rule of diversification.
9. What would you tell anyone who has thought about owning horses but for whatever reason - the cost, overall risk, other perceptions about the complexity of ownership - have not gone through with it?
Honestly, I went in for the experience and didn't view it as an investment. Another advantage of Donegal is their goal is to run in the classic races. I wanted to shoot for the big time and they give you the best chance, in my opinion. Donegal does a great job of communicating with the partners via email. The stable email updates combined with the Equibase virtual stable emails provide constant communication about workouts and upcoming races.
10. I understand that the Travers was your first time visiting Saratoga. What did you think of the track and the town?
Everything was perfect. My wife and I had to stay in Albany as we couldn't get a room in Saratoga. Saratoga had very little traffic and little to no lines for most things. I was prepared for Kentucky Derby-like crowds and lines, but we were pleasantly surprised. A huge credit to NYRA as they put on quite a show. From the food trucks, to the Shake Shack, the bands, to the historical feel of Saratoga race track, it now ranks as my favorite track (and I said this before the actual Travers!).
KEEN ICE KENTUCKY DERBY MEMORABILIA
11. How does Saratoga compare to Keeneland?
Both have a historic feel, but the paddock area at Saratoga is what it is all about. It was almost like a football tailgate like atmosphere. There is tailgating at Keeneland but not inside the track in the paddock area (only in the parking lot). Keeneland should expand the paddock for more space, have picnic tables, food trucks, bands, etc.
12. Travers weekend has been pretty good to you for the past few years, now. Tell us about what you did last year on Travers Day?
Travers Day has indeed been special, I won the online National Handicapping Championship qualifier on Travers Day in 2014 when V. E. Day won.
13. How long have you been handicapping for? What do you enjoy most about it?
Probably three years. I have read a lot of books and I enjoy the fact that is like solving a puzzle in each race. It keeps your mind sharp - that’s at least what I try to tell myself. There is always something to learn and I am always up for a challenge. I really like handicapping contests too!
14. What was more unexpected - think about this one for a second - making the NHC or winning the Travers?
Winning the Travers with Donegal. I would have never imagined this a few years ago.
15. OK. A couple of rapid-fire, and some slightly off the wall, questions...
Who's your favorite horse of all time, aside from Keen Ice?
Charismatic. My first Kentucky Derby infield experience was 1999, I literally lost my shirt and had to sign up for a Churchill Downs credit card. They gave out a free T-shirt to sign up on the way out!
SARATOGA SCENE ON TRAVERS DAY
16. What's your favorite racetrack?
17. Favorite food at the track?
Burgoo at Keeneland.
18. Gin and tonic, vodka tonic or neither? Smirnoff Ice is not an acceptable answer.
Ha, vodka tonic.
19. Fedora or Boater?
20. Traditional tie or bow tie?
21. Finally, as you know, America's Best Racing does a lot of work to get new fans involved in racing. From your perspective, as a relatively new and younger owner, what can racing do to attract new people to the sport? Moreover, what can the industry do to turn new fans into regular racetracks, bettors and, ultimately, owners?
My Saratoga experience was eye-opening. Create more environments like Saratoga! Get the people out to the track, first and foremost. Make it a family affair. It was like a big giant picnic at Saratoga with the food trucks, music and festival-like atmosphere. Invest in educating people in the sport. Most people that go have a great time, you just have to get them there! Tracks need to invest in the younger generation. Look at Del Mar, Keeneland and Saratoga.