01/22/2016 4:46PM

Simon: Rome shares his infectious passion for the game

Benoit & Associates
Sports radio host Jim Rome

When The Jockey Club was looking for a keynote speaker for the OwnerView Conference, it found a perfect match in Jim Rome, who definitely likes to talk and now actually likes to talk about horses. Sometimes it seems like you can’t get him to stop talking about horses, at least in front of racing people.

Rome, a national sports radio host based in California, has provided racing with a high-profile name to help sell the sport, because in a short period of time, he has had some extraordinary success. He’s also had some unbelievable lows, and the combination of his experiences, along with his ability to tell stories and his passion for the game, made him an interesting person to listen to about racehorse ownership.

Rome agreed to talk at the OwnerView Conference at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 13 several months ago, though in the interim, he lost his champion racehorse, Shared Belief, due to colic Dec. 3. He said the thought of not attending because of that event was never considered because he wanted to be in the company of people who would understand the magnitude of that crushing loss, to be with likeminded people.

In an entertaining, extemporaneous speech at a conference for prospective and existing owners, Rome went from the beginning of his involvement in racing to the present, and it took him more than 50 minutes to tell the tale, though he was given just 20 minutes to talk. No one seemed to mind the overage.

What resonated throughout his speech was his passion for racing. For someone who did not grow up in the sport, this also took him by surprise, but if there is one characteristic that the majority of owners have in common, it’s a passion for the sport. In a game where owners lose a lot more than they win, passion is an important trait to possess.

Rome did not start with any passion for racing. He never went to the track with his father when he was young or really cared about the sport.

“I never had any interest in racing,” Rome said. “On my radio program, I would talk horse racing a couple of times a year, around the Triple Crown. If someone was making a run at the Triple Crown, I would interview them.

“So, what changed? How did I wind up here?”

He got there because Billy Koch, who runs the Little Red Feather Racing syndicate, was persistent. Rome would go to Del Mar racetrack several times a summer, and Koch would see him and tell him he had to get into racing. Rome’s wife, Janet, was the one who talked him into it, telling her husband that he needed a diversion to get him out of the house and away from work.

So, they bought a 10 percent interest in an Argentinean-bred horse, Wing Forward. The horse made his North American debut at Santa Anita in the fall of 2007, and Rome and his wife went to the track to see the horse run.

“We go to Santa Anita,” he recounted. “The horse goes off at 15-1, and this is my first race as an owner. I’m ashamed to admit how naïve I was about the entire thing. I knew nothing about the horse’s running style. The horse was running dead last, and I’m thinking, ‘You are a dumb, dumb guy. Did you think you would know something about this?’

“I’ll never forget [Santa Anita race-caller] Trevor Denman, ‘Eight in a line, Wing Forward out of the clouds to win it. Wing Forward.’ It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Lightning struck me from out of the clouds. It was like someone snuck up from behind me and injected me with a drug, and I didn’t know it. Because when that horse hit the wire, my life changed in an instant. Someone injected me with a drug because I couldn’t explain it. It was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever seen. I could not wait to get back to the radio program and talk about this experience.

“And then I was addicted. Horse racing was in my blood, and I couldn’t shake it. I wanted more and more.”

Rome recounted the travails many new owners go through: He jumped in with both hands and never had a business plan. As much success as Rome has had, his early days, outside of the experiences with his first few horses, was not good.

“We win three of the first four races, and I’m thinking, ‘I have a knack for this. I’m good at this,’ ” he said.

So, he bought a lot more horses, increasing his ownership level from 10 percent to 20 percent to 50 percent and then to the whole horse, and he was losing a lot of money.

“I was falling in love with every horse I’d see,” he said. “Then I started learning the lessons we all know. They get hurt, they get sick, they need time off, they don’t run. They don’t run, they don’t earn, and the bills pile up. I still love the animal, but we’re getting our heads kicked in. It’s not easy winning races. I had no idea how hard it was to win a race because we were winning races early on.”

Near the end of whatever budget he had, he told his wife they would give it one last try. In May 2011, he saw Mizdirection win her maiden by 11 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita and thought that was amazing. He had horses with Mizdirection’s trainer, Mike Puype, and asked Puype about her. She was for sale, he was told, because the owners wanted to take some money off the table. His agent, Alex Solis Jr., organized a partnership, and Rome was one of the owners of Mizdirection.

The Mizzen Mast filly was a home run. She became his first stakes winner, then developed into the queen of the downhill turf course at Santa Anita. She won 10 of 15 starts for Rome, earning almost $1.7 million for the partnership, and took two straight runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint down the Santa Anita hill, both times off long layoffs. Two days after her second Breeders’ Cup win, she was sold at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November mixed sale for $2.7 million.

“Mizdirection saved my racing life,” he said. “She kept us in the game. [I’m saying] we’ll never find another one like that. She was a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

A few days later, Solis found Shared Belief, who won his debut at Golden Gate Fields two weeks before Mizdirection’s final start, and the Candy Ride gelding was for sale. Rome and company jumped at the chance. In his first start for Rome, Shared Belief won the Hollywood Prevue, and in his second, he captured the CashCall Futurity, and Rome had an Eclipse Award winner.

Shared Belief missed the classics but went on to be one of the best horses in training, winning the Santa Anita Handicap and Pacific Classic while earning $2.9 million. In his final start, he was pulled up in the Charles Town Classic with a hip injury, but he was training well upon his return to the track when he suffered a bout of colic on the morning of Dec. 3 and could not be saved.

“Alex calls and says, ‘Jim, they couldn’t save him.’ I’m a 51-year-old man crying at my desk. Shared Belief was gone. He was gone. I finished the show and go back to the office, and I’m crying at my desk. I used to make this joke on the radio that you can’t cry at work … and I’m crying at work.

“The first call is from Mike Smith, and he’s already crying. He didn’t start crying; he’s already crying. I told my son about the conversation I had with Mike Smith, where we’re both crying. And my 10-year-old says, ‘Dad, I’ve never seen you cry.’ And tell my son, ‘I think you’re right. You’ve never seen me cry. I’m not that guy.’ So, if I cry in front of a whole bunch of people [here at this conference] I don’t know, that’s how this is. My son has never seen me cry.”

The loss of Shared Belief was crushing, and Rome questioned whether he wanted to continue in racing.

“So, I’ve done some soul searching,” he said. “I’ve had the highs; I’ve had the lows. I asked myself, ‘What is more intense? The high of the high or the low of the low?’ Did I feel better when Mizdirection won the first Breeders’ Cup or did I feel worse when I heard about Shared Belief? The honest answer is I felt worse when I heard about Shared Belief.”

But Rome has decided he will stay in the game.

“I’ve done a radio show and a TV show for the better part of 30 years, and I’ve been really lucky and have had a pretty good run,” he said. “It’s a great job to talk sports.

“But even my best days at work – and I’ve had some good days and a few not-so-good days – my best days at work are not as good as the most electric days I’ve had at the track. For someone who did not grow up around the track, my very best days on the racetrack were more surreal and electric than any day I’ve ever had other than the day I married my wife and the birth of my two sons.

“We’re in the sport for a lot of reasons, but mostly because we love the animals.”