08/25/2008 11:00PM

Eye on past, investment in future

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – Halsey Minor is old enough to remember when racing was a popular national pastime and Virginia-bred Secretariat became an American hero in the 1973 Triple Crown. And he’s optimistic enough to think there are more glory days ahead, both for racing in general and for Virginia Thoroughbreds in particular.

In fact, the 43-year-old Virginia native wants to ensure that happens. In the last year, he has launched ambitious efforts to restore two historic Thoroughbred fixtures to prominence: Miami’s Hialeah Park and his home state’s breeding industry.

“I care about Thoroughbred racing, and I’m a preservationist,” Minor said recently. “The philosophy I have that I’m following is that, as much as I love owning and racing Thoroughbreds, the No. 1 agenda in my life is to make sure the sport doesn’t disappear. If I were to have to choose one, I would choose dedicating myself to turning around the decline that’s been happening since 1969 in the Thoroughbred industry.”

Minor’s deep reserves – both financially and in enthusiasm for the game – make him look like a good gamble to pull both projects off eventually. Minor is a founder and former chairman of the technology media company CNET. He made his fortune at the pinnacle of the dot-com boom when CNET, now a subsidiary of CBS Corp., became one of the first Internet companies to turn a profit. Since retiring as CNET’s chairman in late 2000, he has started a number of other companies and now is head of Minor Ventures, based in California.

Minor first hit the Thoroughbred world’s headlines in 2007 when he paid $3.3 million for Dream Rush at the Fasig-Tipton November sale. His name initially was misprinted there as “Halsey Manor,” but it was less than a year before his correct name was familiar to racing media and fans as a potential savior for Hialeah Park.

Minor has entered discussions with John Brunetti, owner of the long-shuttered Miami racetrack that once was a jewel of the turf, in what could become the first serious bid for the track since it held its last race in 2001. According to Minor, those talks have been positive, though they have not matured to the point of a purchase price; a 2007 appraisal put the track’s current value at $40 million, and some estimates say it could take another $20 million to renovate the structure properly. Brunetti and Minor have met and walked together through the decaying plant, where the flock of infield flamingoes still lives, and plants have overgrown the marble stairways.

Brunetti told Florida media, “We both have the same views and objective, and that is to get Hialeah up and racing again.”

“I like my chances that we’ll get to the point of having a debate about value,” Minor said. “I think it’s anyone’s guess as that point whether we can jump over that hurdle. Can you imagine? I was there at the top of the stands, looking over it, and I told Mr. Brunetti, ‘We can’t let this go.’ Everybody says the same thing: The bones are there.”

Minor’s enthusiasm for bringing racing back to Hialeah is his most public renaissance project, but it is not his only one. In late 2007, he closed a $15.3 million deal to purchase the historic Carter’s Grove house and almost 500 acres surrounding it from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which had closed the house in 2003. The purchase, and Minor’s dream of someday opening a Thoroughbred breeding program there, could give new muscle to Virginia horsemen’s efforts to strengthen the commonwealth’s Thoroughbred industry.

“One attraction about it as a Thoroughbred operation is that the whole Tidewater area settled by the planter class along the James River, they’re the ones who really brought all of the bloodstock to America,” Minor said. “Virginia is far and away the most important importer of Thoroughbreds and, as it turns out, Quarter Horses. The most important was Diomed, who was brought over by John Tayloe. If you look at the pedigrees of most American Thoroughbreds, probably 80 percent of them have Diomed somewhere.”

It wasn’t all that long ago that Virginia was a dominant force in Thoroughbred breeding. As recently as the 1960s, Virginia-breds were considered among the cream of the crop of Thoroughbred yearlings, and Minor and others would like to see the state’s industry retrieve its crown. His long-term dream is to stand a world-class stallion at Carter’s Grove.

“I want a king and a queen,” he said. “I want a very high-quality broodmare band, and out of that I’d love to find a Weekend Surprise. As for the king, my dream is to have a stallion operation in Virginia, just like when there was Diomed, a stallion operation with high-quality, Kentucky-equivalent stallions on that property.”

Minor’s main adviser is Debbie Easter, a fellow Virginian, well-known bloodstock agent, and former president of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association.

Easter, 45, grew up just down the road from Minor in Charlottesville, and the two were University of Virginia students at the same time.

“If enthusiasm and desire are the indicators for whether or not he can get it done, then I think he’s got a good shot,” Easter said. “I love his enthusiasm for the sport. It’s not unheard of. They had Northern Dancer in Maryland, and people came.

“I love the fact that he would like to be here in Virginia and do something with quality here,” she added. “He understands quality and that that’s where you need to be in this game. It seems that if you’re going to jump in and be successful, you have to try to play with as much quality as you can afford to play with.”

Halsey Minor grew up in a horsey family. His mother, Susie – his partner in racing Dream Rush – and sister Raleigh are both accomplished show riders, and Minor himself had ponies as a child.

But it took a pair of horses on the TV screen to transform him into a racing fan. One was Secretariat, and the other was a runner who gave Minor a revelation.

“It was around the time of Secretariat, but I don’t remember the horse and I don’t remember the year,” he said. “I was watching the race, and this horse looked back because another horse was coming up from behind. And he went into another gear and beat that horse. It was the first moment that it dawned on me that some horses really want to win, that they’re as competitive as the people that own them, that we’re not just beating them into it.”

Despite his passion for the game, Minor is building his bloodstock holdings slowly and staying small.

“I don’t have to have 100 mares,” he said. “If I can’t remember all their names, then I have too many. If I can’t look at them and tell who they are, then we’re more of a factory than a family-sized operation.”

That patience impresses his adviser, Easter.

“I don’t think anything has to happen tomorrow,” she said. “He’s got a real love of horses and horse racing, and I think probably one of the biggest accomplishments for him would be to take a mare like Dream Rush and breed a champion. I think he’d like to breed racehorses from his own mares and be successful at a classic distance.”

Minor’s initial focus will be on breeding to race, partly as a way of controlling his stock’s development and uncovering the families’ true characteristics. In addition to Dream Rush, he owns two broodmares, Arch Lady and Abha, that he boards at Fox Ridge Farm, and the stakes-winning colt Fierce Wind, also in training.

“Everybody told me not to buy Fierce Wind,” he said. “They said he’s short, he’s not attractive. But what I kept hearing about the horse is that when he went onto the track he’d eye the other horses and he had this intense competitive spirit. . . . I love a horse that has that will.”

If that sounds like a romantic talking, Minor pleads guilty. He is by his own admission “as pure a purist as you’re going to find,” opposed to slot machines at racetracks and 100-mare books at breeding farms. His romance is with Thoroughbred racing’s heritage, a sporting past that he believes is possible to achieve again.

“I think I’m a common-sense preservationist, in that I think important things should be held onto and less important things can be let go and replaced,” he said. “Some things just can’t be replaced.”