By Emily Shields, California Thoroughbred
Shortly after Singletary crossed the wire first in the 2004 NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) at Lone Star Park, his cheering, chanting owners flooded the winner’s circle. Their $30,000 investment had just scored in a $1.5 million race, and their infectious enthusiasm was broadcast live on national television. The president of the Breeders’ Cup, D.G. Van Clief Jr., called it “the greatest single moment in Breeders’ Cup history.”
For Billy Koch the win was nothing more than an exclamation point on what he already knew: Horse racing is supposed to be fun.
“I feel that all of us lose perspective on how much fun we can have in our lives,” Koch said. “We’re allowed to have fun.” The search for fun is what led Koch, a self-professed “lifetime racetrack junkie and degenerate gambler,” to create his first partnership in 1991. The Versailles Racing Syndicate gave Koch a solid first experience in group ownership.
“Over the next 10 years I just kept starting all these partnerships without really understanding the syndication business,” he said. “I was just putting friends and family together. But I wanted better horses.”
Koch approached Bruce Corwin, chairman and CEO of Metropolitan Theaters, and Corwin responded by generously gifting Koch funds.
“I went out and bought three nice horses,” Koch said. “One of them was Singletary.”
Koch’s new ownership enterprise, Little Red Feather, was named after his grandfather’s fictitious bedtime story character. Investors in the partnership were able to buy into the horses with the promise of high-risk but high-reward fun.
Singletary, a son of Sultry Song—Joiski’s Star, by Star de Naskra, rapidly rewarded his investors by breaking his maiden firrst time out in 2002. He racked up a handful of stakes wins over the next two seasons, including the $148,750 San Francisco Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IIT), but was still 16-1 at post time for the Breeders’ Cup Mile against some of the best grass milers in the world. When he rolled down the stretch to win by a half-length, the celebratory victory by the Little Red Feather partners became one of Breeders’ Cup’s most memorable scenes.
“It was so different back then from what people were used to,” Koch recalled. “We were loud, emotional, and real. It wasn’t a sheikh or a multi-billionaire. It was just a group of people who got together and bought a horse. We celebrated the way you should when you win that kind of race. It’s changed the landscape of the game; people understand it’s okay to go crazy.”
Despite the wild early success—Singletary ultimately earned $1,754,312—Koch makes sure clients understand the difficulty of the game.
“We make it very clear to our partners that this is not a sport to come in and pretend you’re going to be financially successful,” he said. “But you’re going to enjoy yourself.”
With that mind set, Koch and his investors have enjoyed stakes exploits from a steady stream of classy runners, including California-bred Hot n’ Dusty, a daughter of Unusual Heat—Eager Dusty, by Eager Eagle. She made 23 starts, and although she won only four of those, she finished second or third 13 times and earned $345,971.
Saint Isabelle capped an extraordinary day for the group May 1, 2011, when the daughter of Saint Liam—Fortyniner Fever, by Forty Niner, won the $73,100 Time to Leave Stakes. She was Little Red Feather’s third winner on the Hollywood Park card.
In 2010, Koch’s bloodstock agent, Tom McCrocklin, purchased a nearly white daughter of Alphabet Soup for $12,000.
“He has one of the best eyes you can imagine,” Koch said, “and he is great at finding diamonds in the rough.”
Egg Drop, out of the Adhocracy mare Rehocracy, went on to earn $534,020 while winning six of 13 starts, including the $251,000 Matriarch Stakes (gr. IT) following consecutive victories in the $151,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes (gr. IIT) and the $151,000 Goldikova Stakes (gr. IIT).
“We called her the White Witch,” Koch said. “Her stall was her domain, and you did not mess with her. She really hated me; she hated men. She was tough as nails, and it made her a great racehorse.”
The biggest payday of Little Red Feather’s career to date came at the 2014 Keeneland November breeding stock sale, where Egg Drop sold in foal to Tapit for $1.9 million to Bridlewood Farm.
“The people at Bridlewood are a great group,” Koch said. “They told me she just foaled in early April.”
Most recently, Koch has found another Cal-bred, Sheer Pleasure, to be the latest source of fun. The sophomore Birdonthewire filly was ignored in the betting at 9-1 before her debut at Los Alamitos Race Course last Dec. 19, but stunned handicappers when she romped home by 6 1⁄2 lengths.
“The truth is, you just never know until they actually run,” Koch said. “It was an, ‘Oh my God’ type of performance.” Sheer Pleasure finished fourth in the $200,000 Xpressbet California Cup Oaks on the turf but returned to the dirt for an allowance optional claiming race March 6. She stumbled from the gate and lost jockey Martin Garcia.
“It was miserable, but amazing at the same time,” Koch said. “She lagged behind everybody, swung very wide, and stormed past everyone to gallop out well in front. A lot of times you see loose horses do something silly, like make a left turn to go back to the barn, but she ran her race.”
Off the disappointing incident, Sheer Pleasure was 8-1 at post time for her next start, the $201,000 Evening Jewel Stakes.
“They say it pays to own a Cal-bred, and they are absolutely right,” Koch quipped. “If you race in California but you don’t own Cal-breds, you’re not doing justice to your program.”
Sheer Pleasure won by three-quarters of a length, boosting her earnings to $147,450 with two wins in four starts.
“I’m so fortunate to be associated with horses like these,” Koch said, “but also their people, too—Mike Puype, Barry Abrams, and Phil D’Amato, who took over for Mike Mitchell when he could no longer train and carries on the traditions Mike set up. All the credit goes to the trainers and their staff.”
With 300 active investors, Little Red Feather is flourishing, and Koch is kept busy as the managing partner.
“Singletary’s win really put us on the map and allowed me to do this full time,” Koch said. “I love bringing people into the game, and I’m always on the lookout for new people. Our goal is to bring new owners to this sport that I believe in, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a guy like (talk show host and racehorse owner) Jim Rome or a guy I met at Starbucks down the street. I believe in horse ownership.”