Going to See a Man about a Horse -- no, Really
One of the challenging aspects of being a parent is anticipating future problems your children my face before they arise. In the not too distant future my daughters, nearly 6- and 8-years old, will surely be confronted with the challenges of peer pressure. In anticipation, I’ll try to arm them with the confidence to think for themselves and stress the importance of responsible decision making. Still, I strongly suspect at some point I’ll be sternly lecturing one of them saying, “You knew your friends were pressuring you to do something you didn’t want to do. For years we’ve talked about thinking for yourself and not taking action just because all your friends were doing something.” And that’s when I envision my daughter looking into my eyes and replying “You mean like the time you bought a horse?”
All I can do is hope that this conversation doesn’t take place at a bail hearing, because I will have no response for that retort.
* * *
Nearly two years ago, in the summer of 2010, I accepted a job trading stocks for an investment bank that required me to relocate from San Francisco back to New York. I spent my first twelve years on Wall Street working for Lehman Brothers and on the trading desk I worked on for the majority of my career, not only was the level of talent unsurpassed, so was the intensity of the camaraderie. Understandably, at the time I didn’t realize the uniqueness of this chemistry between co-workers as I had nothing else to compare it to. But after moving to California and leaving Lehman after the bankruptcy, I recognized how special the culture was at Lehman. So when offered the chance to reunite with more than a dozen of my former colleagues in 2010, I jumped at the chance.
Shortly after we all started at a new bank where we were with building an equity trading business from scratch, my boss suggested that a good morale booster would be for all the senior members of the team to buy a horse that would become the “desk horse.” Citing his “horse guy”, he said sometimes the animal shows enough promise to become a race horse and enter a race or two. “How cool would it be” he asked us all, “for the entire desk to go to some track in upstate New York or Maryland to watch our horse?”
I’m no stranger to desk schemes having led a few myself, but this suggestion struck me as ludicrous. Having successfully fended off a decade of pitches to invest in New York City restaurants and clubs, I viewed buying a horse even further up the scale of stupidity. Probably due to the OTB near my apartment that I used to walk past regularly on Park Avenue South, I had a strong aversion to anything related to horse racing. You’ve never seen a less attractive or depressing destination than the OTB; my friend Matt and I used to make bets on the chance of seeing a woman in there. No one ever lost that bet; you had a better chance of seeing a woman on the first tee at Augusta than at the OTB.
However, the rest of my colleagues seemed to think this was a good idea. While the rest of us sat around thinking up trading-desk themed names for the horse (“Take a Nothing Done” was the consensus favorite) my boss called his “horse guy” and within a week or two he was passing out partnership agreements and collecting five figure checks. I was annoyed at myself for letting my assumed participation get this far but I couldn’t back out with everyone else on the desk so fired up. Fortunately, at the last minute I found one other reluctant investor on the desk and he and I were able to get away with splitting the cost of one entry into the partnership. It turned out to be a great decision.
Not cutting my investment in half. That part was stupid. The smart part was succumbing to the peer pressure.
* * *
The so-called Golden Age of Sports in America encompasses the pre-Depression era of the 1920’s. Having given birth to legendary sportswriters Grantland Rice and Damon Runyon, the period can also be considered the Golden Age of Sports Writing. One thing that always amazes me about the accounts of sporting events in America during that time period is the number of people who would throng to horse races and boxing matches. In Seabiscuit, there are accounts of entire railroad routes being altered so that hundreds of thousands of spectators could get to a horse race while tens of millions more listened on the radio.
I’ve only known one true horse fan in my life and he traded biotech stocks with me at Lehman around the turn of the century. On the surface Chris was just like every other baseball and football fan on the desk – in his case loyal to the Mets and Giants – but unlike every other sports-obsessed guy I’d met under 60-years of age, Chris loved horse racing. Since I know nothing about horse racing I had to content myself with making age-related jokes until about a decade ago when a horse named Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness Stakes.
I don’t remember the details of his back story – maybe the horse had been discovered while giving pony rides at children’s birthday parties or maybe he was a former model for merry-go-round sculptors – but something about Smarty Jones’ popularity annoyed the horse racing cognoscenti. I, of course, used this as an opportunity to needle Chris. During the five weeks between the Derby and the Belmont Stakes in New York, everytime Smarty Jones appeared in the paper or on TV, I’d lean back and muse “there goes the greatest horse that ever lived.” As if that didn’t annoy Chris enough, another member of our team, Steve, and I nearly sent him into a seizure when he came in one morning and I said to him, “Chris we need a horse expert to settle a serious argument here. Steve and I are having a disagreement as to how much better Smarty Jones is than Secretariat. Can you settle it for us?”
I didn’t think I’d ever have as much fun again if the topic was horse racing.
* * *
Just a few months after we invested in the horse partnership, an FDNY ambulance plowed through an intersection in which I was a pedestrian in Lower Manhattan effectively ending my career on Wall Street and sending me down another career path. While writing my book in the summer of 2011, I got a call from my old boss informing me that one of the horses in the partnership was showing real promise and that his trainer had decided to enter him in a race. He finished second, so two months later he entered another race, this time at Belmont Raceway and won that race. By February of 2012, he had won two more races and enough money to nearly assure himself a spot in the Kentucky Derby.
I figured it was a good time to tell my wife, Caitlin, that we owned a horse. She took it quite well commenting something to the effect of, “you had me at new hat.”
Virginia Tech isn’t the Dixie south by any means but having gone to school there with some who did hail from the deep south, I’ve always considered a trip to the Kentucky Derby a “bucket list” type event. So this week, Caitlin and I went shopping and came back with hats, a dress, and a seersucker suit. When we told our daughters that we were going away this weekend to watch a horse race my youngest daughter, in kindergarten, noted I’d be missing the daddy-daughter dance on Friday evening. Her older sister, very excited about the idea of horses and a veteran of last year’s daddy-daughter dance quickly assured her, “That’s ok. Daddy’s a lot more fun at the father-daughter camping trip than he is at a dance.”
Caitlin, still smarting from a disco-themed party we went to last month in which I was a dance floor no-show, shouted from the other side of the house, “You got that right!”
(Even why I protest that I was on crutches, two months removed from a wheelchair at last year’s father-daughter dance, I get no sympathy in my own house.)
So this weekend there will be no baseball watching, no tweets, and no sabermetric commentary. My wife and I are going to Kentucky to see about a horse; she in a hat so adored that I believe it already has its own Facebook page, and I sporting seersucker for the first time since I went to a Southern outdoor wedding in the 1980s.
If you’re not doing anything Saturday afternoon and you happen to be near a TV, enjoy a mint julep and send some wishes along to El Padrino. Need a reason to back him? El Padrino is Italian for The Godfather, possibly the greatest movie ever made and the Kentucky Derby is being held this year on Cinco de Mayo; El Padrino is the only horse that has anything resembling a Spanish name
If he wins, maybe someday he’ll even be mentioned in the same breath as Smarty Jones.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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