Matthew Dohman Looking to Shake Up 'Old Boys' Club'

Matthew Dohman and family | photo courtesy of Matthew Dohman

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Point him at a fork in the road and Matthew Dohman will likely take the one consecrated by Robert Frost.

When he founded his mortgage lending company, he did so in the middle of the global financial meltdown when homebuying was as popular as volcano surfing.

When he purchased his first horses at the sales, he eschewed sage counsel from agent and trainer and picked 'em largely himself. Didn't do too bad, either. The Cal-bred Guy Code, who he snagged for $63,000, ended up winning nearly a quarter-million.

And when he announced his bid earlier this year for a seat on the Thoroughbred Owners of California (TOC) board of directors, he did so as the only non-incumbent running and after a last-place finish in the prior elections–oh, and after a bit of a rocky road through the whole electoral process, which closed this past Thursday (more on this in a bit).

As befits someone who disdains silly little things called obstacles, Dohman, 41, appears high on his chances.

“This time, I've tried to be a little bit more vocal in the things that I'd like to see changed in California racing,” said Dohman, about his electoral approach. “Last year, I felt maybe I didn't say enough.”

Dohman's campaign trail included an email blast to TOC subscribers outlining his wish list, including increased minimum participation purses and a minimum per-start payment for trainers.

It also listed a proposal to increase female participation in the saddle by giving female jockeys a weight break, as well as a proposition to publish trainer contact information and training day-rates in the horsemen section of a racetrack's website.

Dohman knows some of his ideas can appear out of left field. But the way he describes the racing industry makes it resemble a time capsule that needs dusting off and opening up to let in needed sunlight and fresh air.

The TOC, “They've developed a bit of a good old boys' club and they don't want people from the outside in,” Dohman said, with the sort of dismissive laugh that cautions the listener not to take it entirely as jest.

If, as Dohman suspects, he'll be made a TOC board member when the election results come in (perhaps as soon as the start of the week), what exactly will he bring to the board table?

For one, an origins story ripped from the pages of Horatio Alger–one told from the spotless, sleek and modern trimmings of a pad perched on the lapping waters of Huntington Beach. The kind of place you'd expect the Property Brothers to suddenly jump out of.

No nepo baby talk here. His father was a custodian, mother a bartender. He grew up across town in a one-bedroom apartment. “I slept on the couch bed in the living room.”

How did Dohman hopscotch his way from a sofa-bed to a stable of 22 horses? The journey included stepping-stone stints for grocery chain Pavillions and for electronics store Fry's.

“But my goal was to open my own mortgage company,” he said. “I turned 20, got my real estate license and I went and worked for my cousin in the mortgage business.”

In 2009, amid the wreckage of a global financial collapse and with the whole mortgage industry doing its best to emulate the Hindenburg, Dohman decided to go all in, open his own company. Optimum First Mortgage. “I had one employee, someone who had done loans with me before.”

Soon after, his business partner Robert Drenk joined the fold. Bit by bit the company grew, until 14 years later, “we have like 50 people that work for us,” he said. “And I also have 25 people that have worked for me for over 10 years.”

The racing connection began with Dohman's father, who took his son to the races–Santa Anita, Del Mar, Hollywood Park–when junior was still knee high to an outrider's pony. “He taught me how to read the Racing Form, would put in little bets for me.”

A little more than 10 years ago, when the livin' was getting decidedly easier, Dohman made the move into the owners' ranks. “I didn't really know how you go about getting into horse racing, so I started looking up trainers online. I reached out to a few trainers, but nobody contacted me back.”

In a roundabout fashion, Dohman ended up at the door of trainer Hector Palma, who claimed two horses for him and Drenk out of a nondescript allowance optional claiming at Santa Anita in October of 2012.

Both horses finished down the field that day. But one of them, Unstopper Topper, won next time out at Hollywood Park. The other, Floating Feather, finished second in his next start. “I was like, 'Holy shit, this stuff's easy,'” Dohman said, with the ironic wonder of someone well and truly disabused of such notions in the intervening years.

It's this experience–the lack of a useful roadmap for new recruits at a time when many trainers complain of the difficulty of finding owners–that partly guides Dohman's proposal to publish trainer contact information and training rates through the TOC or the horsemen's section of a racetrack website.

“I feel like half of these trainers don't have websites,” he said. “They're not modern in terms of communication. How do people contact them?”

The more Dohman ponders the idea, the more he sees other avenues for initiating the uninitiated. On these same websites, for example, he sees the need for a variety of tutorials. How do you claim a horse? How do you get involved in partnerships?

“If you want to try to buy a horse at the sales, here's a list of bloodstock agents to help you,” he added, riffing on the idea. “I mean, it should be like shopping for a store or something on Google.”

His own syndicate, California Racing Partners–which he manages in partnership with Joe Ciaglia–has more than 32 partners. Twenty-two horses, 12 of them 2-year-olds, are spread between the likes of Ryan Hanson, Leonard Powell, George Papaprodromou, Matthew Troy and Doug O'Neill.

Asked if the reason for casting a wide net was in part to help field sizes at a time of encroaching impacts from big-numbered barns, Dohman demurred. It's more that some of the “recognizable names” among the training ranks help bring new partners to the fold.

“Doug O'Neill has a lot of owners,” Dohman added. “He might put new owners in with us too and broaden my owner base.”

That's not to say Dohman appears blind to some of the effects from more numerically dominant stables. He doesn't agree with the reinstitution of a stall cap for a single trainer at a facility–what was once 32 in California. “It doesn't make sense,” he said, calling the concept anti-capitalist. Rather, he raised the idea of tacking a fee onto stables that exceed a certain threshold.

It was a topic that led to the punishing economics of the game, hindered by rising costs for both owner and trainer. Blame inflation. Blame, too, the more stringent safety protocols put in place in California, and now roundly adopted by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) across the country.

“I agree with HISA and everything it's doing for the image of the sport and helping improve and clean it up. But it does make it harder for horses to stay on the track. [That's why] I think the participation purses should be higher,” he said.

“I think if we brought up the participation purses where if your horse ran fifth or sixth, it would help some owners out, help them stay in the game,” he said.

Optics are part of the reason Dohman believes the industry needs to incentivize greater female participation, especially in the jockey ranks–something that could help cultivate what he deems a “softer image” for the sport.

“When people go to the races and they see a woman's name in the program, it's different. Women have a different image than men,” he said. “It's a good one.”

And the way to do it, he said, is to give female jockeys a weight allowance.

“Just look at Jessica Pyfer and Emily Ellingwood,” he said. “After they lost their weight break, they've been relegated to only a few mounts a month. A weight break would help, maybe make it a little bit fairer for them, give them more opportunities.”

Increased female participation, he said, would be one way to help reshape the sport's broad narrative, which has taken more slings and arrows in recent years than the French did at Agincourt.

“We have the aftercare programs. We have the injury jockey fund. But besides things like that, what are we contributing to the rest of society through the money that's generated through horses racing?”

What's missing right now, he said, is a clearer philanthropic approach that extends beyond the four shrinking walls of the sport.

“We should be able to say we've raised this much money towards cancer research. We've raised this much money for animal shelters or the ASPCA,” he added. “We could let the owners elect to give money to a charity out their purses. Or give free advertising space, maybe on track or in the program, to a major charity or two.”

Dohman knows some of his views will land in some quarters of the sport with all the subtlety of an anvil dropped from the top of the Chrysler Building. Not that he seems to care. Racing neophyte is a role he seems to relish.

“Michelle tries to correct me all the time,” he said, of Michelle Hanson, TV personality and wife of trainer Ryan, who is apparently quick with the scold every time he calls a horse sale “an auction.”

He also seems to relish the idea of giving the establishment cage a bit of a rattle. Mailers he sent out as part of his campaign, for example, included information about his partnership, like minimum share percentages. “The TOC said it was advertising and I shouldn't have done that,” Dohman said.

“I defended myself by just saying people can research my stable and what I've contributed to horse racing. Plus, you know, the wording on the email was pre-approved by the TOC.”

A bigger kerfuffle concerned the fact that the TOC mailed out ballots failing to identify which of the individuals running were incumbents, as was standard protocol. Nor was it apparently a simple deal to remail corrected ballots. As Dohman describes it, for that to happen, the whole electoral process needed to start anew, setting the whole costly process back months.

Instead, TOC leadership asked Dohman to step down from the race, he said, arguing that it was unfair to the other nominees as they hadn't sent out similar campaign mailers under the expectation of being identified on the ballot as an incumbent.

As Dohman sees it, the overwhelming rate at which incumbent board members are reappointed nullifies any sense of unfairness to this whole affair. “My reply to them was, 'if the people vote me in, they vote me in,'” he said. “It's still a fair election.”

[Note: TOC President Bill Nader confirmed to the TDN the ballot errors. He added, however, that there were a “number of things” that led to the TOC asking Dohman to step down from the race, including fairness to the other nominees.

For one, Nader said the TOC offered Dohman a seat on a committee in lieu of running. Furthermore, Nader said the mailer Dohman sent out included information not okayed by the TOC, and that it went well over a designated word-count. Nader added that these irregularities potentially raise questions about the validity of the election results.]

Still, if Dohman indeed proves successful in claiming a spot on the board–and then holds onto it–what can industry stakeholders in California expect from his contribution?

“I might not be as smart as that guy. I might not be as good as that guy. But there's one thing I can always do–I can always outwork that person. That helps bring me to the top of what I need to do and accomplish,” he said. “One thing I am always willing to do is work hard enough to make a valuable contribution to horse racing.”

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