West Point Thoroughbreds president Terry Finley, a part-owner of Flightline, grew up in Levittown.
by Mike Jensen
They’re selling a dream, or a percentage of one. Put down your money, join the celebrants heading for the winner’s circle. Except in a tough industry, the odds keep getting longer. The field of potential investors thins. The profit margins narrow.
And yet …
“Here’s the dream,” said West Point Thoroughbreds president Terry Finley, who grew up in Bucks County.
Another nice sentence on your bio: “In the September 2022 World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, he was given a rating of 139, the highest ever awarded to a runner on the dirt.”
That Pacific Classic performance in Southern California was, in fact, breathtaking. Now imagine if you are the owners. Finley’s West Point syndicate owns 17½% of the morning-line favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
In many ways, Flightline represents the culmination of Finley’s several decades in the game, and proof that a tweak in his business model paid off.
While West Point Thoroughbreds bought some quality horses over the years for its syndicate, and ended up with a share of a Kentucky Derby winner, nothing had hit this big.
“We haven’t had a champion yet,” said Finley, who always keeps a small ownership stake for the company. “We haven’t had an Eclipse Award winner. Quite frankly, it’s bugged me. I’d say, I hope I don’t work a whole career [and not get one]. … It’s so hard to get – 20,000 foals every year, to 15 Eclipse Award winners.”
The business tweak? Instead of owning all of a horse bought for, say, $100,000 at a sale, what about a smaller percentage of a million-dollar horse?
“A horse costs $100,000, you’re giving up something, either physical, in pedigree, or mental,” Finley said.
In his mind, Finley had been lucky to buy a share of Always Dreaming two months before the colt won the 2017 Kentucky Derby, since Finley had gotten the horse’s primary owner into the game. “We paid an outrageous price, but everything worked out,” he said.
That experience got him thinking, Finley said.
Building a business relationship with Kentucky bloodstock agent David Ingordo was key here, Finley said, since it was Ingordo who had been watching Flightline all along, and made the calls to put an ownership group together on the fly, the horse available at a 2019 Saratoga yearling sale. Finley was an easy sell to be part of a five-way ownership split.
“He was the one who picked [2010 horse of the year] Zenyatta,” Finley said of Ingordo. “He loved to put people together. I knew I had to bring in a real talented person to be our selector.”
This whole group came together quickly, the breeder keeping a share, the yearling sale price going for $1 million. West Point’s 17½% share is further split between seven investors, “across the country,” Finley said.
On going after a horse with a higher price tag, “I basically was able to say to them, ‘Look, it’s more risk,’” Finley said. “Your chances are improved somewhat. It’s not dramatic. If you spend $300,000, it’s long odds. If you spend a million, it’s substantially better, but still long odds. I think it’s the way to put us in the queue to get really good horses.”
He’s saying that he’s not trying to scam his customers. If you pay more for a random horse, he said, “Just know that it’s probably going to be a bigger loss for us.”
Just not with Flightline. After an injury, the horse didn’t race as a 2-year-old, and wasn’t ready for the 3-year-old Derby trail. Flightline’s debut was a Maiden Special Weight race at Santa Anita in April 2021. Trained by John Sadler from the start, Flightline’s initial victory was by 13¼ lengths. Next up, an allowance race in September 2021 at Del Mar. This 12¾-length victory had Finley’s full attention.
“He kind of broke a step slow — they kind of race-rode against him,” Finley said. “He just bulled his way through, but not in a mean way. He got through because he was like, ‘I’m a superstar and you just need to part ways.” Then he just rode off. I said, ‘This is not normal.’”
The entire horse racing world has seen it by now.
“I had never seen a horse move like him — he just never seems to be doing it with any ounce of effort,” Finley said. “It’s just there, a gift from God. Somebody said to me, he’s so smooth, you could put a glass of water on the jockey’s helmet and it wouldn’t spill an ounce.”
The Pacific Classic, a huge late-season West Coast race, was more than confirmation. Finley got to Del Mar, where the turf meets the surf just north of San Diego.
“When they went by us the first time, he just looked very comfortable,” Finley said. “He was still just galloping along. Even turning on to the backside, he was second. I remember saying, with these kinds of horses, if he wins by 10, I’ll just be shocked. These were very legitimate horses, [including] a Dubai World Cup winner.”
When Flightline started pushing on the other horses, Finley said, he had no idea what he was about to witness.
“It’s been dramatic, the uptick in interest,” Finley said of the postrace hoopla. “I’m talking from an industry standpoint. We know that we — I don’t want to say struggle, but we battle to get any kind of space in the consciousness of the sporting public. That’s what I was happy about, what all the partners are happy about. If you don’t win on the first Saturday in May, if it’s not the Derby or the Triple Crown races, people don’t always notice. We’ve got a horse people are starting to talk about.”
Finley remembers seeing this horse for the first time at the Saratoga sale, saying to himself, “Damn, that’s the way they’re supposed to look.”
But you can’t buy every horse that looks beautiful, and not every beautiful horse has what it takes after it leaves a starting gate.
“So similar to college receivers — they get to the big dance, they’re just not good enough,” Finley said of most of them. “They can’t separate from the defensive backs.”
If Flightline separates again, in the race that virtually every older horse in the world that can get the classic mile-and-a-quarter distance is aimed toward, he’ll land in his sport’s history books. Look for it under impossible dreams, realized.
“He grabbed you at first sight,” Finley said.