12/08/2011 12:44PM

Q&A: Benjamin Leon

Photos by Z/Keeneland

The founder and chairman of Leon Medical Centers, he is the owner of Besilu Stables and was a breeder and owner of world champion Paso Finos before he entered the Thoroughbred game in 2007. At the Keeneland November auction, he paid $8.5 million for Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic winner Royal Delta, the third-highest price ever at the auction for a racemare or broodmare prospect. He and trainer Bill Mott are pointing Royal Delta to the March 31 Dubai World Cup.

Birthdate: Dec. 4, 1944, in Oriente, Cuba

Family: wife, Silvia; daughters, Silvia and Lourdes; son, Benjamin III

Main residence: Coral Gables, Fla.

What makes Royal Delta worth $8.5 million to you? I don’t think there’s any reasoning for a given dollar amount for any horse, as opposed to a business where you use multiples, or a car that you can make so many of. I think there’s a uniqueness I find in her. I think that what caused Royal Delta to be the highest-priced filly ever at the sale is that, if you analyze her pedigree deeply for a broodmare, you would choose her. If you’re looking for a horse based on conformation and size, you’d buy her. And if you’re going to look for a filly for racing ability only, you would also choose her. Being only 3, she should be a little better at 4. She offers not only the thrill of racing and the hope of victory, but she also offers the opportunity to provide a return on that money fairly quickly if everything goes right. I realize it’s a big risk.
Steve Jobs said something that helped me make that decision. What he said is, if we don’t have a relationship with death, we’re going to miss out in life. When we have that understanding of death, only then will we be able to pursue our dreams and take risks. Because at the end of the day, we have nothing to lose. All my life I’ve taken calculated risks, and I think Royal Delta is a calculated risk. At the same time, she’s a delight to own. Also, I am not a young man, and that was a factor. If I was 20 years younger, maybe I would not have bought her.

Do you remember when you first started to love horses? Since I became a rational human being. I had to stay late in detention in school when I was a kid because in third grade I was in history class and got caught drawing a horse, with a saddle on it and everything. I remember Hopalong Cassidy and Cisco Kid, all those guys. I used to love to see cowboy movies. My dad was a CPA with a very large public accounting company, but my family also had farms. I used to make good grades in school and make an effort in order for him and my mom to allow me to spend a month by myself working the farm with the workers. I’m what you’d call a Cuban hillbilly. I always had horses as a kid. I remember competing in 18-inch or two-feet jumping when I was maybe 6, in the fair.

Do you have other passions? My other passion is baseball. I played softball in this country and made it to the national hall of fame. I retired in 1981, and I was inducted in 1988. When I played my last national title in softball and won it in September 1981, in November I bought my first two horses.

Does your long experience with different kinds of horses give you an edge breeding and buying Thoroughbreds? I don’t know if you’d call it an edge. There are a lot of people in the Thoroughbred business who have a lot more experience than I do. But if an edge means giving me a step up getting into the game, yes. The last 29 years in the Paso Fino breed have helped me tremendously. I’ve spent the last 3 1/2 years learning and talking to experts. I started off walking, now I’m jogging, and someday I’ll be running. I’ve sent my mares’ pedigrees to seven experts and asked them to tell me who they’d breed them to and why. I don’t do things spur of the moment or by thinking I know what I’m doing. I’ll make the final decisions based on opinions from other people and on what I’ve seen by studying genetics, which I love. There’s a certain percentage of luck, absolutely, and I’ve been very lucky. But to get lucky, the first thing you need to do is buy the very best genetic composition in horses.
I’m not in a race against time. Horses need time and need the owner’s understanding that they are made of bone and ligaments and tendons, just like we are, and they can take so much at a given time, especially when they’re young. I learned that through trial and error with Paso Finos, and I messed up a couple of very good horses by not knowing that. That trial and error has made me a very patient breeder and owner.

What was it about racing that appealed to you? Whoever gets there first wins. In Paso Finos and other horses, you have human opinions, you have people, and we’re not perfect. A lot of politics are involved. Trainers that make a living are involved, judges that sell horses − it’s a lot of conflict of interest and different opinions. I’ve navigated through it. I’m a good loser. When I lose right, I lose right, and when I lose wrong, I still lose right. I’m a good sport and a horseman. So even with all of that, I can’t complain. My horses have done very well. But in racing, the bottom line is, who gets to the wire first wins.

Do you think Royal Delta could be the next Zenyatta? I don’t know. It’s not right for me to say that. She still needs to do a lot. Zenyatta is one of my idols. Royal Delta has already lost, and Zenyatta didn’t lose until her last race, against the boys. I’m hoping for her to show us what she’s able to do. She’s got a trainer that knows her and knows her family extremely well and has taken her to the highest levels so far. Hopefully, she’ll continue to give him her best.