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June 30, 2011

The Swan Song Of Team Ownership: Reflections On The USET Young Horse Development Program

Until the 1980s, the USET maintained a stable of potential mounts for team riders at the organization's Gladstone, N.J., headquarters. Photo from the Chronicle Archives.

In 1806, Henry Clay, the Kentucky senator and fabled “Great Compromiser” best known for delaying the Civil War, made an investment most horsemen would quickly impugn: he and four friends went in on the purchase of a lame, one-eyed, 18-year-old Thoroughbred stallion for the whopping sum of $5,500 (about $75,500 today).

But Clay and his friends must have been on to something, because the stallion, aptly named Buzzard, proved a better investment than he looked: With that one stallion, Clay established the storied Ashland Stud, where influential breeding stock went on to produce 11 eventual Kentucky Derby winners, two of which were foaled on the farm.  Aficionados of U.S. Thoroughbred lineage must delight in this patriotic mingling of the bloodhorse and an early American protagonist, but Buzzard also left another, lesser-known legacy to U.S. sporthorses: When Clay and his four associates conspired to buy Buzzard, they marked the first syndicated purchase of a horse in the United States.

Syndication quickly caught on in the racing world, where owners leveraged hefty sums at the chance to win quick and profitable returns on investment. Complicated syndicate schemes have become the industry norm today; ownership of this year’s Derby winner, Animal Kingdom, was split between 20 members of the Team Valor Syndicate, and a cursory Google search for “horse racing syndicates” returns thousands of results luring potential investors.

The Olympic disciplines have also seen an increase in syndicate ownership in recent years, though this wasn’t always the case. In the 1960s, soon after the U.S. Equestrian Team was founded, U.S. riders were furnished with horses owned or loaned by the team itself, which provided a centralized stable of potential mounts and spared riders the expense of maintaining a string of international-caliber horses. But as the value of horses and prize earnings increased, the USET had to compete with new financial interests, and the team’s once-magnificent stable looked as though it may be in decline—that is, until a valiant effort at a development program was launched by USET leadership.

In the Oct. 1, 1982, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, newly-minted USET Training Director Chrystine Jones (now Tauber) discussed a new program to keep up with changing times:

“Because of the growth of the Grand Prix circuit, it is getting tough to get people to donate horses to us. That’s a healthy thing, but what it has done to the USET is to minimize our source there, because the owners have an opportunity now to win a decent amount of prize money… in the past, say 15 years ago, it was possible to get those horses donated or loaned for long terms to the team because there was no big prosperous circuit. In order to keep up with the times we’ve had to come up with an alternate program, and I think that the Young Horse Development Program will be the answer in the long run.”

The Young Horse Development Program was an inspired idea: In service to U.S. riders, the USET went to a time-honored source—the racetrack—and offered owners a new channel and sizeable tax write-off for donating non-performing racehorses to the USET.

“We want them to know that we’re here, and that they have this outlet for horses that are, frankly, slow. We don’t need the speed, and they don’t want the slow ones,” she told the Chronicle.

Furthermore, the USET knew that the financial aspects of ownership were changing; riders paired with prize-winning horses and owners need not rely on the USET, and the Development Program sought to fill a different void.

“The whole purpose of the program is to come up with back-up horses for our riders. A lot of them are very well-mounted right now… But at a given time—well, for example, Buddy Brown’s horse Felton is lame, and he has a few other horses but not a strong string, and yet Buddy is a marvelous rider,” Tauber said in 1982.

So what became of the Development Program? Did it go on to produce many notable team horses?

“Quite frankly, no, it didn’t,” said Tauber, now Vice President of the United States Hunter Jumper Association, when we chatted this week. “The times were changing then. People were starting to go to Europe to buy young horses, and owners of grand prix jumpers were able to win more money, and horses were worth more. The industry was changing. ”

As a result of the increased asset value of equestrianism, the Young Horse Development Program never gained interest; selling horses for more money meant a more accessible profit flow, and riders shifted their focus from the centralized USET to individual owners.

According to Tauber, the Development Program was phased out almost as soon as it began, and the final team horses—Sasquatch and Flying John among them—soon left Gladstone for retirement, ending the USET’s ownership reign.

The Young Horse Development Program provides a glimpse of our industry’s evolution, but in light of Bill Moroney’s recent discussion of the need for a centralized Young Horse program, Denny Emerson’s column about the increasingly necessary financial acumen of professional riders, and ever-present interest in the Thoroughbred’s proficiency for upper-level Olympic sports, it’s also interesting to reflect on the program’s intentions in the face of another changing economic climate.

Perhaps it came along too late, but the Development Program’s values are still as timely as ever: finding good homes for good horses, putting them into productive training programs, and pairing them with the right riders. Though it may have marked the end of an era in terms of team ownership, how are these values being applied in the present-day schemes of syndicate ownership? Is there a need for a modernized program, or is it still just a relic of times past?

As we look ahead at the next 20 years of the equine industry, ownership schemes will undoubtedly undergo further transformations. If Buzzard was any example, the answers are probably already written around us. History sometimes gives us hidden clues—we just have to look for them. 

As a youngster, Chronicle of the Horse staffer Abby Gibbon was mystified by a black-and-white photo of her grandfather competing in a jumper class in the 1960s. He wasn’t wearing a helmet! His saddle pad was non-existent! The wall he was jumping looked like it would knock you down, too, if you happened to knock it! In the past 50 years, the world of equestrianism has evolved, but one thing is still for certain: History is something we all share as horse enthusiasts, and we’ve got to explore it to learn from it. Armed with nearly 75 years of Chronicle archives, Abby plans to unearth articles we haven’t examined for too many years, shedding light on how far we’ve come – and how far we still have to go – as modern horsemen.

Have ideas for historical topics? Questions or curiosities? Please e-mail Abby – she’d love to hear from you!

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