06/02/2005 11:00PM

A risk and a plan netted Afleet Alex


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Any racing partnership whose first horse turns out to be a classic winner has to be lucky, right? Chuck Zacney, the 44-year-old managing partner of Cash Is King Stable acknowledges that the five-person ownership group had great luck in turning up Afleet Alex.

Since they purchased Afleet Alex - a Northern Afleet colt and their first runner - for $75,000 at last year's Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-old sale in Timonium, Md., Afleet Alex has earned more than $2.1 million. He came within a length of winning the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and on May 21 won the coveted Preakness Stakes. You don't get a much better ROI (return on investment) than that.

"Initially, we did this to have fun," Zacney said of the Cash Is King venture. "We never anticipated being here."

But the Cash Is King partners - Zacney, real estate investors Robert Brittingham and Joseph Lerro, hospital accounts director Joseph Judge, and Philadelphia businesswoman Jan Reeves - did have a set of priorities in mind when they decided to get into Thoroughbred racing. The decisions they made even before bidding on Afleet Alex have probably contributed significantly to their success, Zacney said.

Cash Is King may be a first-time ownership entity, but Zacney and Brittingham weren't novices to the game. They had been partners in He's Gone Country, a claimer who finished second for them in the 1998 Louisiana Champions Day Starter Handicap.

Zacney said he "got the itch again" in 2003 and recruited five friends and associates who had all been, as he put it, "track-goers" who understood the risks of ownership.

The stable has grown to 15 horses, of which five are currently runners. The rest are yearlings, weanlings, or unraced 2-year-olds, and one - the Hawkster mare Hawkster's Lass, now in foal to Northern Afleet - is a broodmare.

Cash Is King started with a loose business plan, but the more important factors turned out to be more about common sense than just dollars and cents. One tenet: Be flexible and allow yourself to be something of a risk-taker. The partners began with a plan to invest $100,000 in several horses. They started at the claim box - to no avail.

"We lost every shake, and we ended up with no horses," Zacney said. When they went to auction, they altered their plan and spent more than originally intended.

"Our one concern was that we had spent all that money on a single horse," Zacney said of Afleet Alex's $75,000 hammer price. They trusted trainer Tim Ritchey's assessment of the colt, however, and got a little lucky, too. A week after the sale, they claimed a horse named Barfly for $12,500. She won about $10,000 for them, and they lost her a few weeks later for $25,000, all of which helped offset Afleet Alex's cost.

"We have been flying somewhat by the seat of our pants," Zacney said. "I don't think you can script a plan, because there are so many variables. A horse breaks down, and your script goes right out the door. You've got to take it day by day and week by week."

Bearing that in mind, Zacney can lay out points he recommends that new owners keep in mind when they get into the game.

* Surround yourself with people you trust and who share your stable's goals. Zacney credits trainer Ritchey, who has all of Cash Is King's runners, with making the stable successful. Cash Is King chose Ritchey, Zacney says, because they valued his close attention to his horses and their welfare, a top priority for the partners. Zacney adds that having a skilled and trustworthy buying team, including any agents or veterinarians, is critical in acquiring horses to suit your needs.

* Do your homework. Find out about the people you do business with before you align your stable with them, and have the horses you want to purchase thoroughly vetted by your team.

* Get in because you love it. "The number one reason we did this was for the love of the game, to have fun," Zacney said. "It wasn't just to go to the races and see good racing, but also to make it a fun, family atmosphere so we could take our kids to the backstretch and see the horses, pet them, and feed them. That's something we truly enjoy."

* Diversify your equine portfolio. "We have everything from a broodmare to weanlings to horses that are 7 years old and racing," Zacney said. "We're trying to cover all the bases. We're involved in breeding now, and we're also developing young horses, and we have enough horses running races that can generate revenue to allow us to do the other things."

* Remember there is a business side to the game. "You do start to treat these horses like your kids," Zacney said. "You get defensive about them; you worry when they're not running well. You grow close to them, and then if you lose them in a claiming race, all of a sudden they're gone. You have to realize that."

* Have one designated managing partner. "If you're putting together a partnership, you need to have one voice who speaks for the owners," Zacney said. "That's so important, because you don't want the trainer getting 10 calls every morning."

* Understand the risks, "because there is a big risk involved," Zacney said. "We've been successful, and we've been very, very lucky. But it's like the stock market: It can go up, and it can go down."

At the moment, it's all up for Cash Is King, thanks to Afleet Alex. If their luck holds, he'll be around for a while yet, Zacney said. "He'll definitely run, if he stays healthy, through the end of this year," he said. "The amazing thing is, he really is like a son to us now."