07/18/2013 5:14PM

Ownership group aims to lure the average Joe

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Emily Shields
Trainer Dale Romans (left) and owner Carlo Vaccarezza pose with Little Mike after his win in the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.

The rising popularity of ownership syndicates has made having a stake in a horse more accessible than ever. But make no mistake: The Thoroughbred business still is a rich man’s game.

However, those on a budget who are looking to get into ownership could find their answer in Little Dreams Racing. Founded by owner and breeder Carlo Vaccarezza, trainer Dale Romans, and John Williams of J & J Stables, Little Dreams allows owners to invest at their own level, from as little as 1 percent and upward.

That level of inclusion, Vaccarezza said, is what separates Little Dreams from other, more exclusive partnerships.

“I want to get the UPS truck driver that loves to go to the racetrack,” Vaccarezza said. “For $400, he can own 1 percent of a horse. The secretary, the person working in an office – somebody that can’t afford to go buy a horse for $40,000 or $50,000 and then give it to Dale and pay $3,000 or $4,000 [a month] in expenses on the horse.

“That’s the problem with this industry, that there’s so much separation from what people can do. There’s not a lot of people that have a couple hundred thousand dollars to just buy a horse.”

Vaccarezza, a Florida-based restaurant owner, is perhaps best known in the racing industry for his success with Little Mike, homebred in Florida and owned by his wife, Priscilla.

Following Little Mike’s Eclipse Award-finalist campaign in 2012, which included wins in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf, Arlington Million, and Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, Vaccarezza began fielding more and more requests from parties looking to share in that level of success. From that, combining the name of his standout horse and the dream of Thoroughbred ownership, Little Dreams was born.

“People started coming to the restaurant and asking me, ‘Listen, Carlo, next time you buy a horse, I would like to get a piece,’ ” Vaccarezza said. “These were people that can’t afford to buy a $20,000 or $30,000 horse, so I offered them to buy 1, 2, 3, 4 percent, and that’s where the idea came from.”

Little Dreams currently features a roster of 11 juveniles bred in Kentucky, Florida, and New York and acquired privately and at auction for prices ranging from $20,000 to $200,000.

In the beginning, the sale price largely determines the buy-in rate for each horse. For example, Little Rocco, a High Cotton colt valued at $41,368.75, factoring in the sale price, insurance, and other costs, has a 1 percent buy-in of $413.68. The owner is then responsible for 1 percent of the colt’s costs and receives 1 percent of his earnings. Of course, partners may purchase a larger share in the horse if they desire.

The partnership does not charge management fees and retains a 20 percent equity interest in each horse.

In the event that the horse succeeds at the racetrack, the buy-in price could rise, depending on the new value, but those who bought in early wouldn’t be affected. Vaccarezza used Little Rocco as an example.

“He’s breezing beautifully, but I’m not changing the price because he hasn’t run,” he said. “I’m a man of my word. If the horse goes to Calder and wins his first time out, I’m going to sit down with Dale and say, ‘This horse isn’t worth $31,000 anymore. Maybe he’s worth $100,000,’ and we’ll make the changes.

“If someone wants to come in on Little Rocco, not at $31,000 but at $100,000, we’d just change the structure of the partnership, but the person who bought their share of Little Rocco at $31,000 still owns their percentage. Nothing’s going to change for them.”

Vaccarezza said some members of the partnership have taken the opportunity to diversify their investments. According to Little Dreams’s website, two of the horses already have sold out.

“We’ve been selling a lot, but nothing big,” said Vaccarezza, who also acts as the syndicate’s bloodstock consultant. “I think the biggest percent that I’ve sold is 5 percent in one horse. All the other people buy 1 or 2 percent, and out of 11 horses, they’d pick two or three, they invest $1,000 or $2,000, and they have fun.”

The Little Dreams horses will be trained by Romans, the Eclipse Award winner for outstanding trainer in 2012, who also conditions Little Mike. Last year, Romans trained such outstanding horses as Dullahan, Shackleford, and Tapitsfly.

“He has a passion for the sport,” Vaccarezza said. “He’s been on the backstretch since he was 6 or 7 years old. He cares about the animals, and he cares about the sport. I wish there were more people like that.”

In selecting horses for the partnership, Romans said the only criteria were that the prospects showed potential and went for a reasonable price. The roster is a healthy mix of national-level bloodlines and hard-knocking regional pedigrees that could compete for statebred incentives in Florida and New York, both racino states.

“I think we just went out and got some nice individuals we thought could win races and get some people in the winner’s circle having fun,” Romans said. “That’s the key right now. We didn’t go buy the real expensive horses. We didn’t want anybody to get hurt real bad early, and the horses we bought were in a price range where nobody’s going to get killed [financially], but you still have a chance of getting a good horse.”

Romans said several juveniles from the Little Dreams roster are on the verge of making their first starts. However, he said it’s too soon to start appointing standouts in the group.

“I haven’t seen any that I want to throw out yet, so that’s the key,” he said. “It’s still early for most of them. By now, I always tell my owners, ‘I can’t tell you if one can run, but I can usually tell you if one can’t run’ – and I don’t have any of those in this group.”

If all goes according to plan, Little Dreams Racing will be bringing blue-collar owners to winner’s circles across the country later this summer and beyond.

“When you go to the winner’s circle, you can own 1 percent of the horse or 99 percent of the horse, but you want to say, ‘That’s my horse. My horse just won the race,’ ” Vaccarezza said. “That’s the biggest thing that we’re trying to revive, a little bit of this game that’s dying on us. People feel good about that. They feel like they’re participating and they’re part of the group.”