Belgrade a Capital Investment for Next Kingdom

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Belgrade in the ring at Keeneland January | Keeneland photo

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In terms of the luck so indispensable on the GI Kentucky Derby trail, Carl and Yurie Pascarella are perfectly aware that they have used up a lot of “credit”. Certainly they know just how fortunate they were, to have been in the Team Valor partnership that won the race in 2011 with Animal Kingdom (Leroidesanimaux {Brz}). And prior to that, Carl was CEO of Visa during its hugely successful association with the Triple Crown series, between 1995 and 2005 offering a $5-million bonus to anyone who could slake the industry's increasingly avid thirst for a successor to Affirmed.

Credit, however, resembles fire in the old axiom: a bad master, but a very good servant. That's true whether you're dealing with a bank, or Lady Luck. And in spending $700,000 for one of the headliners of the Keeneland January Sale, in debut winner Belgrade (Hard Spun), the Pascarellas were not so much pushing their luck as actually making a measured calculation.

After all, it would have been easy to spend that kind of money in the same ring last September, on a yearling colt with breeding and conformation that might feasibly support Derby aspirations. But with those youngsters never having even had a saddle on their backs, plenty of prospectors try to improve their odds by waiting to see whether they can sprint an eighth in 10 seconds under tack the following spring. In this instance, then, the Pascarellas have simply extended the same logic to land a colt much farther down the road, having won a Fair Grounds maiden in December by six lengths.

Be in no doubt, they are absolutely versed in–and reconciled to–the unpredictability of the Turf. In fact, they recognize precisely that as what makes the whole game captivating.

“Horseracing is a great ego leveller, a great field leveller,” says Carl. “People can pay $5 or $10 million for a yearling or 2-year-old and then see horses like Funny Cide (Distorted Humor) or Smarty Jones (Elusive Quality) come along and win the Derby. So you can't buy your way in. Well, you can try–but it's very humbling. And that's kind of fun. We know how very fortunate we were, with Animal Kingdom. But once you get bitten by that bug, believe me, you'd like to get back there.”

So the Pascarellas make sure they do their due diligence and then just hope for the best.

“It was more than we ever hoped to spend on a horse,” admits Yurie. “But we bought a couple of yearlings a few years back that had very good pedigrees, but didn't do well on the track. We breed a few of our own, but they're just a side thing we do for pleasure. So for several months we've been talking to our trainer Graham Motion, saying that if we want any traction on the racetrack, we might as well buy a horse that's already been running, one where we can know a bit more about the potential. But it's not been easy.”

It was Motion, of course, who did such a masterly job with Animal Kingdom.

“Coming up to this sale Graham had counselled us that, this year, any of these 3-year-olds that was looking good round a couple of turns, with the right kind of lineage, was going to be expensive,” says Carl.

A private offer was duly made for Belgrade, but owner Randy Bradshaw was already committed to public auction. Motion urged them to follow the horse through: he commended both Bradshaw and trainer Brendan Walsh as the types to give a horse a good grounding, and both had attested to the horse's quality and temperament.

“And in fact I think Randy Bradshaw broke Animal Kingdom at some point, so it was a connection we felt really good about,” Yurie says. “We liked that the horse had not been pushed too early, to make that maiden race. And when I watched the video, he just walked through the finish line. It was only six furlongs but he looked like he has lots more to give, running farther.”

Carl and Yurie Pascarella | Getty Images

The Pascarellas, who are based in San Francisco, were represented at the sale by Motion's racing manager Jane Buchanan.

“She was on the grounds for us and was very, very impressed when she saw the horse,” Carl says. “And while it's not like we're ultra-conservative, we vetted him like no horse has ever been vetted. And at the end of the day Jane came to us and said: 'You're not going to get him for even close to what we offered, pre-sale, but this boy has got it all. He's got good bone, good structure, good temperament.' And that last aspect is especially important to us: we know it doesn't mean everything, but being so close to Animal Kingdom, we knew that he was a smart horse and a tough horse, and how being so strong, mentally, was key to his success.”

Having been shipped from Fair Grounds to Lexington, and now to Motion's Tampa Bay division, Belgrade is being given time to regroup and settle in. And that feels instructive of the whole merit of this project: that this horse is assured respectful handling by his new connections.

Sure, Carl permits himself to hope that after a few breezes, and eventually a race to test the water, Belgrade might look eligible to try the competition somewhere with Derby starting points on the line.

“As you can tell, my husband has very high hopes,” interrupts Yurie teasingly.

“Of course, he may end up in Los Alamitos!” acknowledges Carl with a chuckle.

Belgrade won his Dec. 18 debut easily | Lou Hodges

“Maybe I tend to be a little more pragmatic,” says Yurie. “But we both leave it all up to Graham. We trust him so much, we certainly don't tell him what to do. So let's just see how the horse is, see what he's made of, see what suits him. Of course the 3-year-old Classics are the ultimate goal for any horse owner. But it doesn't happen very often, and we've already been very fortunate. What I really like is that Hard Spun is such a sturdy stallion: he produces horses that are durable. I prefer a horse to have longevity, as opposed to a quick dash to the goal, then nothing. So it's not the end of the world, if doesn't make those Classics. There'd still be Saratoga, still lots of opportunities for 3- and 4-year-olds, so hopefully he'll give us a lot of fun.”

No doubt the Pascarellas owe something of this seasoned perspective to the privilege of a world-class mentorship. Carl met Yurie, a Tokyo native, when he was heading up Visa's Asia-Pacific region and the couple was introduced to the Turf by the Yoshida family at Shadai Farm. The late Zenya Yoshida, that master horseman, would trot up a handful of yearlings and discuss their different characteristics with Yurie; and the Pascarellas entered regular partnership with his sons Katsumi, Haruya and Teruya.

“We'd race two or three horses a year together,” Carl recalls. “We had some great experiences, not higher than the mid-range but one of them ran until the age of seven or eight. So we cut our teeth with some phenomenal horse folks.”

That education resumed back in the United States after Carl, one Derby weekend, happened to be introduced to the president of ABC, who mentioned that the current sponsorship deal would end the following year. Carl went back to his head of marketing and gave him the number: he didn't know whether they wanted to be involved in something like this, but there would be no harm in giving the guy a call and hearing what he had to say.

Pascarella with Nick Zito during the Visa sponsorship | Getty Images

“I guess we were very fortunate at Visa, I always had Chief Marketing Officers that were smart and knew how to leverage the brand,” Carl reflects. “Under my tenure as CEO we signed the Olympics, we signed the NFL, we got into Broadway. And after vetting this idea through everything in the world, we said that this was the most watched two minutes in sport, and let's go for it. And you know, the Triple Crown was probably the biggest return that we ever got on our marketing or partnership investment.”

Just let that sink in a moment. When we consider all the problems besetting our sport, and its image, that tells us just how high the stakes can be, if only we can get it right.

“I know that we were incredibly lucky, in that we had horses going for the Triple Crown in six Belmonts in eight years,” Carl reflects. “But that basically meant that we owned the sport's airwaves, at the weekend and some days leading up to it, from April until June. So we started building around this: horse stories, jockey stories, trainer stories. And in the process we were able to lift horseracing, maybe not from a situation of negativity, but from a lack of awareness. Though I had very little to do with it, people always used to thank me for shining a light on horseracing in the United States–but Visa got so much out of it, too.”

The sponsorship lapsed after Carl left the firm in 2005, but not the couple's interest. Yurie has always adored horses, and rode dressage for 30 years, while a decade of ringside Triple Crown engagement had been too engrossing to suspend now. Alongside a long commitment to the San Francisco cultural scene–notably its ballet, fine arts museums and symphony orchestra–the Pascarellas embraced the kind of wonderful companionship they had found in the likes of Bob and Beverly Lewis, owners of Silver Charm (Silver Buck).

The Pascarellas describe Loren Hebel-Osborne of Louisville, in particular, as “invaluable in guiding us and sharing her vast experience in racing for nearly three decades,” and they have had a couple of fun partnerships together. But to land on Animal Kingdom with Team Valor was obviously an unbelievable dividend, taking them from the euphoria of Churchill to an exotic sequel at the Dubai World Cup, and his retirement to stud prompted investment in two or three broodmares that board at Hidden Brook Farm, Kentucky.

Animal Kingdom's 2011 Kentucky Derby win | Horsephotos

But the vital residue of that personal experience, for the Pascarellas, is one that neatly dovetails with the lessons available to our industry from Carl's professional experience, in his Visa days. And that's the imperative to invest in people like Motion, who allow us to present the sport to the wider world with clean hands. Without wishing to rock any boats, Yurie admits that racing in their home state has had too many damaging headlines for their horses to be stabled more conveniently. In broader terms, she hopes to see the industry make a collective effort to clean up its act.

“After all these scandals, we need positive headlines,” Yurie says. “It's often perceived as a crooked sport, and I hate that when we have trainers like Graham who do everything ethically. I don't want to go to the races and have to cover my eyes every time. Sometimes Graham's approach can be frustrating for my husband, because he will take his time when he sees that a horse is not to be pushed. But that's because he understands that if you do push them, they burn out. I'm not a big fan of babies running around when their bones are not set properly. You have to give these horses time to mature, time to grow up.”

“And, of course, there are a lot of owner-trainer relationships out there that are pure business,” adds Carl. “Sometimes even confrontational: we've watched some of that. But Graham is the kind of guy you like having a beer with. It's the same with [Motion's wife] Anita, we like them, we meet them socially, they're great family people. If you can't have that kind of relationship with the people directing your course, then you might as well not do it. The idea is to enjoy the experience. We feel very lucky to have had the introduction to Graham, through 'A.K.', and to be able to grow that relationship.”

The Pascarellas prize Motion's honesty even when it extends to uncomfortable candor. As Carl says, he “doesn't sugarcoat”. In the past, he has told them that he couldn't keep taking training fees with a clear conscience when a horse has shown a transparent aversion to its calling. Whatever its level of ability, moreover, trainer and owners alike insist on being uniformly accountable for aftercare.

So the Pascarellas know that they can trust their man not only to maximize the potential of Belgrade, but also to give them a reliable sense of what kind of investment they may have made.

“We're very excited,” says Yurie. “I can't wait to go see him. He sounds like a cool guy, apparently he came out of the trailer into his new environment cool as a cucumber. It seems like he has a good mentality, so let's see how that translates onto the track and how he handles the pressure from now on. It's still early, but we're looking forward to making this journey with him.”

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