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The Race Horse: Gypsy Flame

Gypsy Flame

Readers of Andrew Vachss' novels have come to understand that everything he writes is based in reality. So we receive messages to The Zero asking where you can find Judy Henske CDs, what a Neapolitan mastiff looks like, and ... how you can own your own racehorse.

Here are some excerpts from Sacrifice that inspired the request:

(from chapter 50)

I scanned the form the way I always do, looking for the intangibles, that combination telling me a horse was ready to break out, overcome its past. Everything important but the breeding, that's overrated. I'd like to own a trotter someday. They don't cost that much, and I've scored heavy enough to pull it off more than once. But you can't own a horse if you've got a felony record, so that lets me out. I could open a day-care center, though.

Finally, I settled on a six-year-old mare. She was shipping in from the Meadowlands, a mile track with a long stretch. She always ran from off the pace, so conventional wisdom says she'd come up short transferring to Yonkers, a half-mile oval with a real short way home. But I figured the extra eighth of a mile in the fifth race would give her all the space she'd need. Morning line was 6—I. I put a pair of fifties on the counter, pointed to Max. He matched it. I got up to call Maurice. Max can do a lot of things, but he can't telephone a bookie.

Gypsy Flame

(from chapter 134)

I looked to see what Luke was holding. Picture of a racehorse, a winner's circle photo of a trotter, still hooked to its sulky, a groom holding the bridle, the driver in blue-and-white silks holding the reins, smiling. Small print at the bottom: Jasper County Fair, Illinois. July 4, 1990, Second Race, 3 y.o. ECS Trot, First Filly Elimination winner: The Flame. Owner: The Syndicate, Inc. Time: 2:07.1, single heat.

"Is that your horse?" the boy asked.

"She sure is. Isn't she beautiful?"

"Yes! Could I go see her someday?"

"Yes. But now, go take Simsa in the other room. So I can talk with your friends, okay?"

"Okay," he said, gathering up his puppy.

He started out of the room. Hesitated, watching me. Gave Wolfe a quick kiss on the cheek and walked out. Hiding behind cute.

Gypsy Flame

(from chapter 135)

I lit a smoke. "That racehorse, it said on the photo it was owned by something called the Syndicate. Is that just the corporate name you use?"

"The Flame isn't just mine. We all bought her together."


"My . . . sisters. We're like a family, all together. We thought it would be fun."

"Your sisters?"

"She means us," Lily said, stepping into the room, Immaculata right behind her.

Now here's the full story, both on who The Flame is and how you can own a racehorse.

Confessions of a Small-Time Racehorse Owner

By David Hechler

(Originally published in Hoof Beats magazine, April 1990)

I don't drive a Mercedes. I don't smoke Cuban cigars, or drink Dom Perignon (unless you're buying). I'm more likely to dine at Burger King than a four-, three-, or two-star restaurant. But I do have one thing higher rollers would envy. I own a racehorse.

No, I don't own the horse by myself. I have a few partners; there are an even dozen of us, actually. We're not the types you'd expect to be in this game. We're a locksmith, an investment banker, a journalist, the director of a rape crisis center, a retired businessman, two therapists, a prosecutor, three lawyers in private practice, and a law student. Four of us are women.

The funny thing is most of us aren't even rabid harness racing fans. In truth, only a few of us were fans at all before we got into this. And even now most of us wouldn't know Hoof Beats from Hootenanny.

We did it as a kick. We thought it would be fun, and we were right. It wasn't very expensive, either. If people realized how exciting and relatively cheap it is, more might be buying racehorses instead of large-screen TVs. One of us—the investment banker—bought shares for her father, the retired businessman (and a lifelong harness fan). Talk about the perfect gift for the man who has everything....

A Syndicate

All of us have one thing in common: we know Andrew Vachss, a New York City lawyer and a novelist who writes crime fiction. Vachss (pronounced vax), like the protagonist of his novels, is a true fan and student of the harness sport. Since childhood he'd dreamed of owning a racehorse, but he'd always assumed it was one of those dreams that ends with an alarm clock buzzing. Until one day when he woke up and realized it didn't have to be that expensive; it was something he could actually afford.

He figured there were two ways to do it: buy a cheap horse, or a piece of an expensive one. Neither suited him exactly. If he owned a tiny percentage of a high-priced animal, he'd feel like someone who owns the spare tire of a Rolls Royce—not much like a real owner. On the other hand, he didn't want to invest so much that he'd be overly disappointed if the horse never made it to the racetrack. The odds, he knew, were heavily against it.

The solution, he decided, was to find a few people who shared his interest. He'd keep the number small, so that all felt like owners, and he'd keep the price down. That was only one reason he decided on a trotter. He'd always preferred harness to Thoroughbred racing as a more natural extension of the working relationship between human and horse. Harness horses typically race many more years than Thoroughbreds. And after they're through racing, or if they never make it to the track, they're far from worthless. They can always find a good home among the Amish, who value them as work horses, which is essentially what they are whether or not they race.

Vachss began mentioning the idea to friends and acquaintances. He was astonished at the reception. One after another asked to be included, even though they weren't fans of the sport. Why? Most of us were intrigued. We'd never thought of owning a racehorse and certainly wouldn't have gone looking, but when the prospect landed in our laps, we couldn't resist. I guess we just liked the sound of "racehorse owner."

A few of us saw it as an investment, but Vachss tried to discourage anyone who had illusions of making a financial killing. The odds, he told us, were only about one in ten that our horse would ever race, and if she did, only about one in three that she'd ever win.

So our prospects for a big return were not auspicious, but neither did we stand to lose very much. Our investments so far range from $208.75 (one share) to $2,505 (12 shares, or a 15 percent interest). Most of us own either 4 or 8 shares, at a cost of $835 or $1,670 respectively. There were no syndication fees or takeouts, but we did decide to give our trainer a 10 percent share. That way we knew he'd treat the horse as if she were his own. She is.

In all, the sale of 72 of the 80 shares (including the eight we gave the trainer) raised $15,030. We calculated that this would cover the expenses anticipated through the time our horse would either start racing or we'd know it wasn't for her. In addition to the purchase price, we added in training fees, feed and stable costs, equipment, licensing, entry fees, and so on. Accounting and legal work we do ourselves.

A Trainer

The money was the first ingredient, but there were two additional requirements before we were in business. Our first and most important decision was hiring a trainer. If we hadn't found the right person, we wouldn't have proceeded. We knew, of course, that plenty of trainers were available. But we also knew what we didn't want. We were looking for someone who was above all decent, dependable, and honest—someone we could trust with our baby. "That's the fulcrum on which the whole thing rests," says Vachss. "If the trainer is going to treat your horse like a piece of junk, like a meal ticket, if the trainer is not going to be honest with you, if the trainer's not going to act in the horse's best interest, then the whole purpose of having a syndicate would have been vitiated."

We were looking for someone who was a skilled and knowledgeable trainer and driver, and who didn't already have such a large stable of horses that ours would be lost in the shuffle. We wanted someone who would care about our horse and keep us informed of her progress without condescending to those of us new to the sport.

We were lucky to find Michael Dundee. His brother Wayne is a friend of Vachss's and a fellow mystery writer. When Vachss mentioned we were searching for a trainer, Wayne suggested Mike, who was young (25) but experienced and eager for work.

Mike Dundee had never had contact with horses until he was 16 years old. He didn't even know there were any around his home in Sharon, Wisconsin until a friend talked him into taking a summer job as a groom following his sophomore year. He liked it well enough to work the following summer and then full time after he graduated. It was on the Illinois fair circuit that he met Shari, his future wife and daughter of Illinois horseman Paul Phillips. In 1984, Dundee quit his job in Wisconsin, moved to Illinois, married, and settled in Charleston. He worked for his father-in-law for almost a year and a half, and secured his driver's and trainer's licenses, before work slowed down and he took a job in a factory.

During the four years he worked at the factory, Dundee moonlighted every afternoon with his small stable of horses, hoping someday it would grow large enough to enable him to quit his day job. When we came along, he was a little nervous at first about working for this distant and motley group of strangers. After a few conversations, however, he shed his misgivings and seized the opportunity. The syndicate was set. All we lacked was a horse.

A Plan

Vachss had already convinced us that we wanted a trotter. Now he persuaded us to go with a filly. Why a filly? First, he has always admired females "of any species as stronger, more honorable, and less fussy and whiny" than males. His favorite horse of all time—Une De Mai—was a mare.

Second, it made sense for the syndicate. A trotting filly is probably the longest shot to get to the track. But if we succeeded, Vachss reasoned, we'd have the best chance of return on our investment, since so few make it. And we can breed her to a great horse—Nevele Pride, for example—for a sum we can afford (and far less than we'd pay for a yearling at auction). If we bought a cheap colt, on the other hand, there'd be almost no chance he'd prove valuable as a stud.

We told Dundee we could afford to spend $5,000. Vachss figured our best bet was a filly by Arsenal, a horse who was blazing fast but also, in Vachss' words, "a lunatic—an out-of-control animal"—which explained why his lifetime winnings didn't exceed $48,000 and why we might be able to afford one of his fillies. Also, Arsenal had only sired two crops and his first hadn't started to race so we stood to get an especially good price. And if his daughter proved to be a fraction as fast as her father, she'd be a bargain.

We had one final instruction for our trainer: if possible, the mother should be a racehorse too, preferably out of the Noble Hustle or Noble Gesture line.

On the last Sunday in August, 1988, Mike and Shari Dundee drove to a horse sale at the Maywood Park racetrack, about four hours from their home. There were 101 horses on the block; looking through the catalog, the Dundees had checked 13 they planned to consider. They arrived at about 7:00 and looked them over. Several looked good, very good. Then they listened to the prices: $15,000 for one of the horses they'd checked; $26,000 for another. They bid on a couple, but they couldn't run with this crowd. Their only hope was that the big spenders would buy early and leave. They settled in for a long night, hoping against the odds for a bargain, but determined not to buy just for the sake of buying.

It was almost midnight and only about 20 or 30 people were left of the 300 to 400 that had earlier packed the stands. The Dundees had thought about leaving, but there were only three horses to go and number 99 was the last trotting filly: Arsenellie (by Arsenal out of Gypsy Nellie). They'd seen her half-sister, Tramps and Thieves, race the year before and she'd impressed them with her speed. She'd taken a record very early as a two-year-old. They didn't know much about Gypsy Nellie, but she had a record and she was out of the Noble Gesture line.

They looked her over carefully. She was a long-legged filly—not that big, but they saw potential for lots of growth. She looked good, as good as any they'd seen all night. But could they afford her? They cast a dubious eye at the competition, wondering how long it would take them to dash past their own $5,000 limit. It didn't take very long to find out.

The bidding started at $2,000. It moved up slowly by $200 increments and then suddenly, after about 15 minutes, the auctioneer was saying "$3,200 going once. $3,200 going twice." Mike's friend, who'd come along for the ride, elbowed him in the ribs. "You better get a bid in on that filly," he admonished, unaware that Shari had been doing the bidding. "$3,200 three times. Sold." And we had her.

The Payout

So far as I know, none of us passed out cigars when we got the news, but we couldn't have felt more like proud parents if we had. Mike and Shari received so many requests from us for photographs, you'd have thought they were Hacking for Dolly Parton. Mike contrived a brilliant solution to satisfy our craving without spending hundreds of hours—and thousands of dollars—sending 8-by-10 glossies to a dozen giddy horse lovers. His cousin came over one day with a video camera, and Mike decided to make us tapes.

The tapes have been great. For those of us who are beginners, we were able to see how a horse is harnessed, driven, bathed, and fed. We watched her learn how to trot around a track. Over several months, we saw our filly fill out. And we laughed like idiots at the little trick she played on Mike, snatching his baseball cap with her teeth every time he brushed her chest. Entertainment for the whole family.

In a more formal vein, we also started a newsletter to keep us informed of progress on all fronts. The first (and, to date, only) issue detailed, among other matters, the technical problems that delayed our license and the final resolution of a small but nagging issue—namely, we loathed our horse's name. We junked Arsenellie in favor of Gypsy Fire, only to learn it was already taken, then settled on Gypsy Flame, which seems to suit her fine.

Gypsy did her new name proud her very first time out. She won her first race last June at Griggsville, Illinois (in 2:18 on a half-mile track). In her 19 starts as a two-year-old, Gypsy took a first, nine seconds, and two thirds for winnings of $5,498. Not spectacular, but she earned her way. And she outstripped the higher-priced animals the Dundees were outbid on.

She might have done even better if she hadn't developed a muscle enzyme deficiency. Mike had to pull her out of a race and rest her for 12 days just when the larger stakes were coming up. He treated her with vitamins and supplements, and she came back to trot her best time (2:06.4) and cop two seconds in four starts. But she also broke twice, and, in Dundee's opinion, "wasn't quite the same.

"She'd never been hurt, she'd never been sore, and it got her down a little bit," he says. So just before the Lady Lincoln Land Elimination, he decided to turn her out to let her rest, grow, and forget about the injury.

She's grown a lot; she's better than 16 hands now, Mike estimates, and may still be growing. He thinks she'll be ready for a full and successful season as a three-year-old, and hopes to have her racing in late February or early March. Overall, he's satisfied with her first year. "She learned a lot. She was successful. She knows she's a racehorse now." Although she was a little down at the end, he believes she enjoyed herself when she was healthy. And she was beating some of the best fillies in the state, including the horses who finished second and third at the state fair and the Lady Lincoln Land.

The Bottom Line

One of the most insidious dangers of success is that it quickly lures people to raise their expectations until merely duplicating yesterday's triumph is seen as failure. I hope our syndicate doesn't fall prey to this affliction; it's much worse than a muscle enzyme deficiency.

We understood from the beginning that the odds our horse would ever make it to the track were slim at best. Gypsy made it and won her first race. No matter what happens next, the venture has to be called a success.

As a business investment, our horse has demonstrated the ability to more than earn her way. We hope she has the chance to prove her true value at the larger stakes this year. In any case, we haven't been assessed a dime beyond our initial investment. And the sad fact that Arsenal died recently has certainly increased our filly's breeding value.

If she pulls up lame and never races again, we'll be disappointed, but we'll still be racehorse owners. Friends and relatives will still be impressed. We'll still have our tapes, newsletter, and memories. And we'll still have the opportunity to breed her.

In what other professional sport could people like us afford to be directly involved? As Vachss observes, "I like baseball. I couldn't own a baseball team. Couldn't own a football team. A prize fighter is enormously expensive to handle. This was a chance to not only be in on it but go from being a fan to a real participant. I don't know where else you would find that."

Vachss is already planning a second syndicate to be composed of, among others, several of his friends who were offended that they were bypassed the first go-around. Dundee will be the trainer, and I wish them well, but I believe I'll sit the next one out. Deep down, I think I'm a one-horse man. And I haven't even seen mine in the flesh. I hear she's getting smarter every day.

Gypsy, honey, if you're reading this, I promise I'll be there soon—real soon.

If you're here about horses, here's another you'll want to check out.


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