Barry Irwin, above addressing the media at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., before the 2011 Preakness Stakes, took time for a Q&A with America's Best Racing in anticipation of the release of his memoir. (All photos, except book cover, by Eclipse Sportswire)
Barry Irwin is the founder and chief executive officer of Team Valor International, perhaps best known as the owner of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner and champion Animal Kingdom. Irwin put together his first partnership in 1987 with his good friend Jeff Siegel and is viewed as one of the pioneers of racing partnerships.
Irwin, who has been vocal in his support of eliminating race-day medication, wrote a memoir detailing, among other things, his career in horse racing. The memoir, “Derby Innovator: The Making of Animal Kingdom” is set for release on April 7 in hardcover, paperback, and e-book formats by Xlibris.
Irwin, never one to pull punches, took some time to chat about the book, his life, Animal Kingdom, Team Valor and the sport of horse racing.
Dave Hill: A lot of times when someone writes a memoir, it means they are hanging up their guns. Is this a sign that you are retiring from the sport?
Barry Irwin: Not really. I got to a point where, I just know a lot of interesting stories and I didn’t want to wait until Animal Kingdom is too far away from happening and we’re still somewhat fresh in people’s minds. And there is also just kind of a selfish thing of mine — there’s certain people, their mentality is such that they cannot separate their horse being a racehorse versus a stud, and he had such a good reputation as a racehorse, I wanted to write this book while he was fresh in the minds of people, and if he didn’t pan out as a stud, I didn’t want that to taint his reputation.
Hill: I thought about Animal Kingdom recently because I was watching California Chrome run in the Dubai World Cup, and I thought, ‘Wow, what a treat to see a Kentucky Derby winner racing at five!’ That doesn’t happen a lot, especially with horses that aren’t gelded, and Animal Kingdom was the last time we saw that. Why did you keep racing him?
Irwin: Well, it was partially economic and partially selfish. I thought he would be better with age and maturity. And, I also just thought we hadn’t really seen what he could do yet. I was as interested to find out what he could do as anything else. We toyed with selling him when he got hurt when he was four, and I just thought about it for a very brief time and I said, ‘I don’t really wanna do this. And I think if he’s as good as we think he is, we can make a lot more money with him.’ And we wound up selling him for more than twice what we could have gotten if we had just packed it in like most people would have done. So, I wanted to see what he could do myself and I wanted to make him into a more valuable animal.
ANIMAL KINGDOM WINNING DUBAI WORLD CUP
Hill: It’s interesting you say that because often people who don’t race their horses when they’re four and five argue that they have an economic reason to take them out of racing. But that wasn’t the case with Animal Kingdom?
Irwin: Let’s say he didn’t run any good either in the Breeder’s Cup [Mile] or the [Dubai] World Cup, his value would have shrunk to half of what it was when we could have sold him. Let’s just use round numbers. Let’s say that I could have sold him for $3 million. Well, if he had gone on and run and did poorly, he would have been worth say a million and a half. As it was, he went on and won and was worth more than $6 million. It was a gamble, but I couldn’t have done it just on my own. I have partners and they are game as can be, and they’re all guys and women that want to race and have fun. They’re sports people. Some of them are extremely rich, some of them are middle class, and a couple of them are just regular people. And all of them wanted to keep winning.
Hill: You’re sort of a pioneer in the horse-racing partnership business. When you started your first partnership, they weren’t nearly as everywhere as they are now, right?
Irwin: When I started, the pioneer, the guy that gets credit for being the pioneer and deserves it is Cot Campbell [founder of Dogwood Stable]. He started out a long time before I did. And then, I once wrote something about Cot and I got a note from George Steinbrenner, the guy with the [New York] Yankees. And he said, well, I was actually the first one. I had a thing called the Kinsman partnership — which wasn’t really true, it was just a bunch of his friends. Cot was the first guy that went out and reached out to the public. And then, after him there were a couple of other stables. There was maybe two or three at the time. Now, there are literally hundreds.
Hill: And it seems like today they cater to all different levels of the sport. There’s partnerships where people can buy in for a pretty small amount or partnerships that are a lot of rich people putting their money together to share the risk. Do you think that partnership model has been good for the sport? Do you think it has any other advantages other than the obvious one of bringing in new people to the ownership side?
Irwin: Well, as popular as it has become here, we still have a long way to go to catch up with Australia. So many horses down there are owned by partnerships. It’s very odd or unusual to see a Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid al Maktoum] down there. He’s in the minority … and that’s just part of their culture. They’re fine with that. There’s 10 guys names on every horse, and they’re in it together and they share the perks. And Americans, there’s a certain amount of snobbery involved. It’s something that’s sort of supported by the auction companies and the trainers, where they are forced to deal with partnerships now but they would prefer not to because it’s much easier to work with somebody one on one. And if there are 10 guys in the partnership, a lot of people would say, especially trainers and sales companies, that if there’s 10 guys instead of one guy owning a horse, that’s nine other people that would have had to go out and buy their own horse. Then, there would be more owners and more people involved and the sales company would be able to sell more yearlings. But that’s not really how it works, because most of the people that go into partnerships do it because they’re uncomfortable with the risk of owning a whole horse if they don’t have the expertise.
So, what a partnership really does, the main thing, it allows people to spread the risk. That’s the biggest factor. And you also are able to have less expense money involved. You’re paying five percent in training, not 100 percent. That’s a very significant thing. If the general manager of the partnership is talented, he’s going to be able to find horses and keep them going better than an individual would. So I think those are the main good points.
People used to make fun of my partnerships when we started out. I remember once we had an older guy, he was our first partner, really nice guy. And his mother was still alive. She was in her 90s at that point. And no matter what the weather was, she would wear a long coat like it was winter. This is in Southern California. She had a long coat and she always had this gigantic bag, like a sewing purse. And so, I remember once we won a race and a trainer, I won’t mention the person’s name, said, ‘Look at this Barry Irwin, he’s even got bag ladies involved.’ So, people would always try to find a way to make fun of us. I remember one other time some guy said, ‘I don’t want to get too close to that horse because I might step on the tail. Which guy owns the tail?’
IRWIN AFTER WINNING THE KENTUCKY DERBY
Hill: When you take a company public, one of the things people often say about a company going public and selling shares is that the transparency and accountability to shareholders is better for the business. Do you think that’s true also with this partnership model?
Irwin: I think it depends on who the partner is. I look at my job as being a liaison between the trainer and the rider. A lot of times the trainers aren’t as forthcoming with their owners as they should be and one of the biggest reasons is just fear by the trainers that if they say anything negative at all to the owners, that the owners are going to freak out and not be able to handle it and maybe take the horses away or not buy anymore horses. And I understand that. However, there is point where the guy that owns the horse needs to know what’s going on with that horse, because it’s an investment and it’s part of his family. So, part of my job is to make sure that the trainer lets me know what’s going on so that I can relay it back to the client. So, I think if you own a horse with us you’re going to have as much communication about the horse as if you owned the horse yourself and just employed that trainer as an individual.
Hill: You’ve talked a lot about how when you were starting out you didn’t have a lot of money, so you had to relegate pedigree to the bottom of the list of your criteria. Now that Team Valor has more money, is pedigree still on the bottom of your list of criteria?
Irwin: The answer is, it’s still pretty much the same. When I started, a normal book for a stallion was about 60 mares. Stallion syndicates were 32 shares. Well, the 90s came and went and then as the 2000s came, you’d see books as big as 200-plus. There are so many well-bred horses around now that finding a horse that has a decent pedigree isn’t nearly as tough as it used to be. It’s tougher with fillies, because everybody wants those good ones. But with colts, we’ve got more colts now by good sires than we ever would have had in the past. I still really don’t care who the sire is that much or the family, but if I’m buying a filly and if I have a choice, obviously I’d rather have a nice pedigree than not.
There’s three components to me for value. One is talent, the other is pedigree and the third is conformation. If a horse has great conformation and can really run, I’m not going to worry about the pedigree. A perfect example is Euro Charline. Not a good pedigree either on the top or the bottom, but she makes up for it in spades with her body. She has got awesome conformation. She is built like a tank. She is as big and strong as any colt. And I think when it comes time to sell her, we won’t get as much because her pedigree isn’t great. But I think her body will make up for a lot of that.
Hill: Do you feel more confident in your view on pedigree after your experience with racing in different countries around the world? Or have you found that in other countries people are even more pedigree obsessed than they are in the states?
Irwin: The worse the pedigrees in a location, the more the pedigree is prized. South Africa is a good example. I buy horses there because they raise fantastic physical specimens. They have pastures there that are literally thousands of acres. They have pastures that are bigger than any farm in Kentucky. So, they have the ability to raise great horses. But they kind of semi-discount that a little bit and they always concentrate on pedigree because their pedigrees aren’t really up to snuff. You can’t shovel horses into there because of African horse sickness (AHS) disease. So, therefore they concentrate on pedigree. But the best horse I ever got from that region was a horse, once again, with a lousy pedigree. A filly called Ipi Tombe. Even though she was, I would say her pedigree was a D, D-plus, something like that. Her sire was terrible. And even her conformation, it was OK. It wasn’t anything special, but she was such a good racehorse that she topped the Newmarket December [breeding stock] sale. So if the horse has enough going for it and talent, it’ll save the day. The body helps, and I understand that pedigree is good and that you would rather have a good pedigree than not, but for my purpose as a guy who is trying to win as many good races as I can and get value for my money, I am still not convinced that I need to get that pedigree.
ANIMAL KINGDOM WINNING 2011 KENTUCKY DERBY
Hill: So you were a fiction writer once upon a time?
Irwin: Yeah, I started writing short stories when I was in college. And I sold some of them to a literary magazine that, unfortunately, lost its funding. And after that happened, I just kind of lost my heart and I quit.
And you went from there to looking to write for racing publications? What was that jump like? How did you find your way from the world of small literary publications to writing for the Daily Racing Form and Blood-Horse?
I don’t want to reveal too much of it, because it’s in the book. The bottom line is while I was in my early 20s, I discovered the Blood-Horse and I read it every week. I tried writing a story about a stallion and I showed it to a guy who was the local correspondent for the Blood-Horse in California, and he kind of discouraged me from trying to do it, saying you should just keep it as your hobby and don’t try to make anything professionally out of it. Anyway, at one point I went back to Kentucky just because I wanted to see what it was like, and that kind of sparked my entry into the game.
Hill: Has that desire to write been with you your whole life? Is this memoir that you’ve written, is it something you’ve been planning in your head all along? Have you thought about the events of your life as scenes in your future memoir?
Irwin: I think I did start thinking like that in the last dozen years, but before that, no. Having been a writer for the Racing Form and various magazines, people would always say, ‘Hey, you’re going to write a book, right?’ And I’d say no, but I’d hear that all the time. And then, at one point I decided to just write a couple of chapters about the craziest things that have ever happened to me, with some very prominent people. So, I wrote about four chapters, and I showed them to about a half a dozen people to see what their reaction was. About half of them said, ‘You can’t possibly allow something like that into print. It’s not going to go over well. You might hurt people’s families.’ It pretty much discouraged me from writing it. So, I put those stories away for a couple of years, and then when I decided to write this book, I went back and rewrote those stories and included them.
Hill: What do you think will be the appeal of this book outside of the natural audience of people who are familiar with you, Animal Kingdom, or just the horse racing faithful?
Irwin: I think there’s a lot of people that are curious and are intrigued how somebody went from being what I was when I first got in the business to what I was able to achieve. I think there’s a lot of people that aspire to do something not exactly like what I did but something similar, and they’d like to see how that occurs. That’s why I read biographies; I always like to see how somebody went from A to Z and what the journey was like. That’s one reason. I have met a lot of very famous, prominent people and interacted with them, and I had some pretty unique interactions with them. I guarantee you; no one is going to have read any of the kinds of stories I have written in this book in a horse book … that much I would guarantee. And I think if people are at least somewhat familiar with some of the characters, when they see how these people interacted with me, they are going just to be in total disbelief.
JUBILATION AFTER THE 2011 KENTUCKY DERBY
Hill: So this book is going to cover your entire life?
Irwin: Yeah, some part of it is about my upbringing and my early life with racing. I used to be an athlete. I used to high jump and run the hurdles, and I write about that a bit. I think my formative years as a fan and participant in track and field has really help me to achieve what I’ve achieved. Because basically, horses and people competing in races are very similar. And to this day, I’m still a major track and field fan. I went to the Olympics in 2012 and I might go to the U.S. Olympic trials this year. I go to three track meets a year in Oregon. I love it. There’s a big correlation between human runners and equine runners, that’s the first part of it. Then, I go to my whole career as a writer … very funny stories in there. I was lucky to have been around at a time when there was such great horses — Secretariat and Affirmed. I was very close to a lot of those horses. I was close to Laz Barrera and some of that stuff’s in the book. Then, I go through, in detail, the careers of some of the horses I’ve had like Prized, Star of Cozzene. Then, the last quarter of the book is mostly about Animal Kingdom. And then the end of the book is, there’s this one chapter on my continuing fight to end cheating in horse racing by the use of illegal drugs.
Hill: Do you see this book as being a useful tool to help further carry the banner for that cause?
Irwin: I think so. I hope so.
Hill: What is next for you in Team Valor now that you have written your memoir? And you’re saying it’s not over. This isn’t your retirement. So, what’s next for you?
Irwin: Last year was our first kind of substandard year, and part of the reason was I wrote the book. That took up a lot of time. It is one thing to write a book, it is another thing to then go back and re-read, edit it, and re-read and edit it again — very time consuming. And also, I spent a lot of time last year on legislation. I went to Washington a couple times, I went to a lot of different meetings and, basically, I didn’t put a lot of time into my racing enterprise, as I should have. Last November, I said I’ve got to stop doing this and pay attention again. And since then, the stable is back, firing on all cylinders, and we’re doing really well.
Hill: It’s good that that stable is firing on all cylinders. What about your efforts around that bill and the issue of race-day medication? Where do you see that going?
Irwin: We had a couple of structural issues in the writing of the bill itself. There was one part that, possibly, could have been argued that it was not constitutional. So, that portion and another portion had been rewritten, and we’ve also taken some steps to be more inclusive of other elements of the horse industry. And basically, what we’re all trying to do is form as strong a coalition as possible so that when we have hearings in the Senate and the Congress, we’ll be able to make some headway. Basically, we have mobilized the opposition and they are now fighting back very hard. I think it’s a testimony to how effective we’ve been raising the issue that we have these other guys feeling like they have to mobilize.
Being a track and field fan, I saw what cheating with drugs did to that sport and how it just really lowered it several pegs to the point where now it’s like a boutique sport, except for the Olympics. You can go to a high school track meet in Texas and you’ll see more people than will show up to a big track meet in the United States, because the sport’s lost a lot of its fan base. Nobody wants to become a fan of some athlete and cheer them and be proud of them and then find out that it was all drug infused. Just like Lance Armstrong and how he wiped out the cycling sport for quite a while. My main emphasis in racing is, I don’t want to see this sport that I’ve put my entire life into go down the tubes because there’s a couple of dozen guys in this country that cheat and there’s very few state regulators that have any appetite to stop these guys from cheating. And so, until we’re successful on one level or another, I’m not going to stop trying. There’s a strong group of us, and I think that at some point we will prevail.
Hill: If there’s only a couple dozen guys that are cheating, where is the organized opposition coming from?
Irwin: There’s confusion on the part of the racing commissioners. There’s confusion on the part of horsemen and fans between therapeutic, legal drugs and designer illegal drugs. They’re thrown together and just referred to as medication. And [the Association of] Racing Commissioners International, all they want to talk about is how 99% of the testing on horses comes back negative, and I agree with them. I’m sure they do, and I don’t think this country has any real major issues with the known therapeutic drugs. What we have a problem is with guys that are importing drugs from other countries like Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, Australia, Europe, and using that stuff on horses here and continuing to refine other things that we already know about but that they keep changing. A designer drug has a molecular structure that is changed just a little bit from what the natural structure is. So, guys are continuing to cheat and the people that can do something about it don’t care.
Hill: And this is different than the race-day Lasix (furosemide) issue that you’ve been outspoken about in the past.
Irwin: I don’t want to see any horse race on any drug on the day of a race. I’m all for using medication, therapeutic medication, to help the horse recover from a race. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when they have that in their system on race day, that is something I don’t want to see. If Lasix stays or goes at this point, I don’t really care. I am more interested in getting rid of the drugs people use to really cheat with. In the best of all possible worlds, yes I would like to see Lasix banned, because if we need to have virtually every horse running on Lasix, you don’t have a viable sport. If you have to drug on a animal just to get it to race, that’s inhumane, you can’t support that. And I could see PETA, or whoever it is, if they want to make a case against getting rid of Lasix because we can’t run horses unless they are drugged, I think they would be 100% correct. I would be on their side.
Hill: So, what do you think the future holds for this fight?
Irwin: I think its going to be something that will come to a head either later this year or next year. I think we will get something done. Whether it’s everything we want done, I don’t know. That’s one front that we are working on. And then, what we really need is, there’s a guy called Travis Tygart, he is the one who single-handedly eliminated Lance Armstrong being able to continue to participate in bicycle riding. He is the head of USADA, United States Anti Doping Agency. I want to see Congress install him as the main overseer of drugs in racing in America, and I am confident that if he gets in there, with the budget that we have proposed with his investigators and his enhanced testing, he will eliminate the illegal drug problem in racing. That’s what I want to see, that’s what I am working for; and I think we will at some point we will get him in there.
Hill: I thank you for the work you’ve done and for writing this book. It’s right in my wheelhouse and I’m excited to read it.
Irwin: Thank you very much; I appreciate it.