10/03/2014 1:19PM

Conquest Stables out to conquer racing world

Michael Burns
Ernie Semersky (second from left), co-owner and founder of Conquest Stables, is shown with Conquest Harlanate before she won the Natalma Stakes to earn a berth to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Trainer Mark Casse remembers exactly the day he met Ernie Semersky. It was July 8, 2012, and Casse was at Churchill Downs. Donnie Richardson, then a Churchill racing executive as well as Casse’s friend, paved the way for the introduction.

“Donnie told me he had a guy who was maybe interested in buying a horse,” Casse said.

Yes – Ernie Semersky was interested in buying a horse. In fact, he has been interested in buying lots of them.

Semersky and his longtime business and personal partner, Dory Newell, operate Conquest Stables, and less than two years into full-fledged operation, the venture is putting its stamp on North American racing.

The now-3-year-old filly My Conquestadory, one of Conquest’s first major purchases, won the Grade 1 Alcibiades last year and finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. On Sept. 13 at Woodbine, the Casse-trained, Conquest-owned 2-year-olds Conquest Harlanate and Conquest Typhoon won the Natalma and Summer stakes. Both were Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In races and guaranteed Conquest Harlanate a berth in the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf and Conquest Typhoon a berth in the Juvenile Turf.

There are plenty more Conquest 2-year-olds with big-race agendas. On Sept. 27 at Santa Anita, Conquest Panthera disappointed with a seventh-place finish in the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes, but Conquest Eclipse was a good second in the Grade 1 Chandelier. At Keeneland this week, the Alcibiades for 2-year-old fillies goes without a Conquest starter, but Conquest Tsunami was to race Saturday in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity.

When Casse and Semersky met, Conquest Stables consisted of one horse, Gunderman. Barely more than two years later, Semersky said his equine holdings have grown to 100.

“There are different personalities,” Semersky said. “I can’t do things halfway. I’d rather not do things on a small scale.”

That has become abundantly clear. Conquest has risen rapidly to prominence on the racing scene, and through a buying spree at horse auctions the last two years, it is poised to become even more heavily involved. In 2012, Conquest purchased three horses, all yearlings, for a total of $325,000, but in 2013, it bought 24 horses – 13 2-year-olds and 11 yearlings – for a total of $6,175,000. And so far in 2014, with several more auctions still to come, Conquest has purchased 26 horses – 14 yearlings and 12 2-year-olds – for a total of $7,539,000.

That’s more than $13 million paid for horseflesh the last two years. Semersky is all in.

“We started off with one horse I bought for Dory, but I’m spending 90 percent of my time now doing horses,” Semersky said. “I’m gonna take this industry and see how I can do with it. I sat down with Mark and told him my business plan and what I wanted to develop. I don’t sleep. I’m one of those people. I work all night. I work 22 hours.”

Evidently, all the work has proven seriously remunerative. Semersky, 64, is based in Highland Park, Ill., an affluent suburb north of Chicago. He owns several residences, has a private plane, and is into art collecting. His longest-running business is in high-end car dealerships – Porsches and Audis. Semersky said he got his first dealership at age 24. In 1984, Semersky led a successful revolt of national Porsche dealers when the automaker told dealers it planned to start selling directly to customers. Semersky said in the past, he dabbled in the auto-racing game and in boxing. For a time, he owned several gyms.

He said he grew up a child of very modest means in southern Illinois. His boyhood home had no shower. The kids took sponge baths.

“I’m kind of obsessed with water pressure now,” said Semersky, who called himself a “neat freak” and does not hide his Type A personality. “I’m brutally honest, confrontational. That’s one of my problems.”

For love of physical contact, Semersky said he used to work out with boxers training at the gyms he owned. When he inspects horses at auction, Semersky said he looks for “a horse that wants to kill me. I like to see an alpha male.”

Semersky doesn’t look his age, and he’s proud of it. He’s fit, and when attending the races, he often dresses ostentatiously. Last year at Woodbine, he wore two-toned sunglasses matching Conquest’s orange and blue silks. Semersky said that until six years ago, he also was a financial trader. He has made a lot of money and spent a lot of money. There’s a September 1989 Chicago Tribune article about his $700,000 purchase of a Porsche 959, described as the fastest street car in the world at the time. The 959 could do about 200 mph.

That $700,000 mark is the highest Conquest has gone for a horse so far. At this year’s Keeneland September yearling sale, that’s what it paid for a colt by Tapit out of the Carson City mare Seeinsbelievin. Twenty-four of Conquest’s 2014 sales buys cost six figures, and most were $250,000 or more. The operation launched so recently that there’s no real breeding component yet, but that’s coming, too.

“I looked at this like an IPO [an initial public offering of a publicly traded company],” he said. “You have to front-load the business. I front-loaded it quickly and heavily. I thought we’d start with the racing and establish a reputation for what Conquest is and hopefully develop some Conquest stallions out of that. I really believe, when you look at all the variables, if you get a few great broodmares, have enough horses that can run, and win races, I think you can make money with it. That wasn’t the goal, but the goal wasn’t to lose money, either.”

Semersky does not come across as a man who could stand much losing. Anyone in the racing business loses more than he wins, but Conquest has done remarkably well. In three calendar years of racing, Conquest has compiled a record of 26-15-11 from 79 starters, unusually high rates of nearly 33 percent wins and almost 66 percent in the money. At Woodbine this year, Casse’s home base, 22 of 27 Conquest runners have finished third or better.

“Believe me, we’ve bought horses that haven’t turned out, but we’ve been fortunate,” Casse said. “We’ve had a lot of good ones that have done well. We’ve been lucky, but the old saying goes: You have to position yourself to get run over by luck.”

Semersky professes profound loyalty to and appreciation for Casse, his only trainer, and indeed, had he wound up in different hands – a novice owner willing to throw around vast sums – Semersky might have found himself the flopping fish caught on a quietly baited hook.

“I think a lot of new owners aren’t treated well, and we lose them,” Casse said. “Good people that come in excited and are taken advantage of before they get very far.”

Casse and Semersky don’t speak by phone every day, but Casse said texts and e-mails fly back and forth daily.

“We share one thing,” Casse said. “We’re both a bit obsessive.”

Casse trains for other prominent owners, too, among them John Oxley, and Casse’s stable right now is loaded. With 105 wins and $8.59 million in purse earnings through Sept. 17, Casse is on track for career bests in both categories. Casse, 53, first started training in 1978, but after 13 years, he took a job as a private trainer for Harry Mangurian’s Mockingbird Farm, training at the farm and mainly sending horses out to racetrack outfits.

When Mockingbird slowed down in the late 1990s, Casse jumped back into the racetrack game, but he and his family still operate Moonshadow Farm in Ocala, Fla.

That’s where all the Conquest yearlings will get their earliest lessons, a farm-to-racetrack setup that’s very rare for large-scale North American operations. And Casse still is expanding. Already set up at Woodbine and in Kentucky, he ran a string at Oaklawn Park this year and is branching into Southern California, where he has 26 stalls for the Santa Anita meet.

Many of those stalls will house Conquest horses selected for purchase by Casse and Dr. Robert McMartin – Dr. Bob, to Semersky. Semersky said Casse looks at thousands of prospective purchases for him and that Casse, Semersky, and McMartin put in “hundreds and hundreds of hours” on sales prep.

“If we find something we want, it’s going to be hard to outbid us,” Semersky said.

Semersky looks at buying auction horses like drafting a football team. In fact, not content with merely winning, Semersky wants to re-engineer the way racing is perceived by the public. Conquest is his brand – thus the inclusion of the word in all horses’ names – and Semersky wants to cultivate a fan base. Conquest has a Facebook page, of which Semersky said he is an active part, and Semersky envisions legions of devoted Conquest fans following the stable’s runners across the continent. When the Facebook following hits 20,000, there are plans for a clothing line.

“We want to keep this light, to have fun with it,” Semersky said, but that is only Conquest’s approach to fan development. Out on the track, Conquest, the racing stable of a hard-driving businessman, aims to conquer.

“I want people when they come up against a Conquest horse – I don’t want them to think, ‘Can I win?’ ” Semersky said. “I want them to wonder, ‘Am I going to lose by 20 lengths?’ ”