Bill Simon is the kind of new thoroughbred owner that the sport badly needs. Innovative, successful, experienced, and passionate about the sport and giving young people support to advance.
Simon is the owner of Barber Road, who will be the first Derby starter for him, and for trainer John Ortiz and jockey Reylu Gutierrez.
Before he retired in 2014, Simon was President and CEO of Walmart U.S. and Executive Vice-President of Walmart Inc. He created the $4 prescription. Suffice it to say, he knows his way around a spreadsheet. And let’s just get it out of the way – he also has an eye for a bargain.
Living in Arkansas, he got involved in horse racing through friends. His wife, Tammy, has always loved animals and horse racing, and they quickly got hooked. Figuring out a way to make the horse business pay, however, was another story.
They tried a little of everything. Expensive claiming horses. Cheap claimers. Bought some 2-year-olds. But what they have settled on doing over the past couple of years has been to focus their efforts on buying weanlings, instead of more expensive horses already in training.
Barber Road was in the first group of those they bought – for the relatively low price (forgive the Walmart reference) of $15,000.
“Everyday low price!” Simon said, smiling.
He’s heard it all. Rollback pricing, you name it. That all comes with the Walmart territory. The fact is, Simon invests in a wide range of weanlings, from those like Barber Road to a $300,000 Gun Runner colt he recently bought. They buy fillies based on bloodlines and colts based on conformation – how athletic they look and well they move.
You might chuckle at the bargain price for Barber Road, but now Simon brings him to the Kentucky Derby with $650,000 in career earnings.
“A good horse is going to cost you in the millions, and nobody wants to pay that much and everybody wants the horse,” Simon said. “But even if you do pay that much, you’re not really guaranteed much of anything. With a 2-year-old in training, you have one route — you run. And with a with an expensive colt, you either win a Grade 1 (race) or you lose money, right? I’m a numbers guy and I spent the first couple years that we were in the sport, trying different things and different approaches, tried to figure out the best way to sustain a business here. And, really, the approach that we landed on was that if we buy a range of weanlings, the price value of a weanling is certainly better than that a horse in training. And on top of that, you have a whole bunch of off-ramps with a weanling. You can sell them as a yearling. You can sell them as a 2-year-old, you can race them. So what we’ve done is start buying groups of weanlings in very broad price ranges. . . . The idea is, is that, you know, we get to see how they develop . . . and we’re building a portfolio of horses.”
And building portfolios is in Simon’s wheelhouse. After starting with one horse five years ago, the operation is up to 25. His idea of something he and his wife could do together after his corporate retirement has turned into something even more.
“She fell in love with the horses and I sort of fell in love with the math and the game,” Simon said. “You know, P&L in business on a spreadsheet, or in a racing form in racing. That’s where I excel is on the numbers side of things. From there it’s grown into a business. Our youngest son graduated from Baylor and now he’s doing the bookkeeping and looking after our young horses. So it’s turned into a nice little family business.”
Since breaking his maiden in his second race, Barber Road has never finished worse than third, including a second to Cyberknife in the Arkansas Derby.
The colt is named for the street in North Carolina where Tammy Simon grew up, and where her parents still live. About 85 locals will party under a tent on that farm to watch the Derby on Saturday.
“They’ll watch Barber Road from Barber Road,” Simon said.
And Simon will watch it in style, with friends visiting to see if Barber Road can shock the horse racing world.
“The last time I was at the Derby, I said, ‘Well, this is great, but I’m not coming again unless I’m in the Derby,'” he said. “You know, it just it’s kind of one of those things where, all right bucket list, it’s checked off, you know? But now it’s going to be special.”
That he’s there with a first-time trainer and jockey is no accident. When interviewing trainers, Simon wanted someone up-and-coming. He thinks that’s important for the game.
“The industry is at a time, in my view, that it needs young people,” Simon said. “To be successful, it needs a new group of people to come. The world is changing. There’s technology, and so many different opportunities for people to spend their entertainment dollars. In an app, you can wager on almost anything anywhere at any time. And there needs to be some hope, and some future and some light and some excitement brought into a racing to follow the path that these wonderful accomplished trainers and jockeys have set.”
Simon spent 25 years in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserves. In 2015, when a small plane he was flying experienced engine trouble over Arkansas, he had to eject.
If you’ve survived that, you probably can handle the nerves of having a Derby horse. But it’s not a lock.
“I’m like a caged tiger right now,” he said.
He’s also the kind of story that horse racing needs more of.