Come Saturday, millions of viewers across America will be sitting down in front of their televisions to enjoy the thrills of the Kentucky Derby, perhaps with a mint julep in one hand and a crumpled off-track betting ticket in the other. But there might be a more satisfying way to take part in the greatest two minutes in sports.

Fans tuning in for the horse race aren't only interested in the outcome of their wagers, or in watching those magnificent thoroughbreds galloping full-bore around the one-mile track at Churchill Downs. There's also a fascination with the owners -- those deep-pocketed speculators with a fortune on the line, inevitably captured on camera after the race in the rapture of victory or the agony of defeat.

While racehorse owners have long been viewed as an elite slice of society enjoying the so-called sport of kings, the recent growth of innovative investment pools in the sport has opened up a path to the owner's box for the rest of us.

My Little Pony

The proliferation of racehorse syndicates enables anyone to own a stake in a thoroughbred for as little as a few thousand dollars, as opposed to the tens of millions that are laid down for full ownership.

It's a form of incorporation that allows large, often disparate groups of people to buy small shares of ownership in a single horse and thereby lay claim to a chunk of its winnings and, ultimately, its value as a breeder or sale item.

Like investors who own stock in a company and depend on its management team to make the right decisions, those who buy into a horse syndicate need not be well versed in the esoteric world of thoroughbred selection, breeding and training.

The principal agents who run the syndicate will take care of the details in return for a piece of the action, allowing the owners to sit back and ride easy.

A Prizewinner, Affirmed

" Syndicates are generally regarded within the thoroughbred industry as a fantastic way for people to stick a toe in the water of horse ownership, learn a lot about it, and not get hurt too badly financially," says Glenye Cain, bloodstock business writer with the Daily Racing Form and author of " The Home Run Horse: Inside America's Billion-Dollar Racehorse Industry."

"It spreads the risk around so you don't go to an auction and spend $100,000 on one horse. If that horse has a problem and it never makes it to races, you never even had fun with it. You can go that route, but a lot of people love the flexibility and risk-management of these partnerships."

To view Nat Worden's video take of today's Good Life segment, click here .

Horse syndicates are nothing new. In the U.S., they originated in the late 1960s when Cot Campbell started his first limited partnership to sell shares of ownership in racehorses.

His company, Dogwood Stable, remains one of the most popular syndication outfits in the sport. But these days, with prices in the thoroughbred market rising astronomically, syndication groups are springing up all over the country.

In the past three years, syndicates owned two top Derby finishers -- the 2003 winner, Funny Cide, and last year's third-place horse, Afleet Alex, who went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.

While many syndicates won't see the spotlight of the Triple Crown, some of them are still enjoying the kind of racing and financial successes that are the stuff of dreams.

"There are syndicates that cater to every level of the game and every aspect, depending on what you want to get into," notes Cain.

Barry Irwin, a former horseracing writer, got into the game in 1987 when he formed Team Valor, another well-known stable of syndicated horses, with his partner, Jeff Siegel.

His average clients put down around $12,000 to $16,000 to go in on a horse. Steve Karlin of Merrick, N.Y., president of Karlin Sales & Associates LLC, has been buying into horses with Team Valor for about eight years. In that time, his horses have raced in two Belmont Stakes, a Kentucky Derby and three Breeder's Cups.

"These are races that a lot of people who are spending millions and millions of dollars on horses every year never get a chance to participate in," says Karlin, who grew up riding at a summer camp in New Hampshire. "I got to do it for a lot less than that."

Most recently, Karlin bought a 2.5% stake in a filly named Irridescence for just over $9,000, plus extra charges for travel and upkeep expenses.

The Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup

The horse has since won five out of six races. In late April, it was Karlin's turn as a part-owner to travel expense-free with his wife to Hong Kong and watch Irridescence run the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup at the Sha Tin racecourse. She took first-place in a nail-biting three-way finish for a $1.8-million purse.

"Irridescence is probably one of the top fillies in the world now," says Karlin. "She's worth a fortune."

A top filly in the industry is worth around $10 million: Team Valor bought Irridescence for $365,000. A winning colt commands anywhere from $15 million to $25 million.

But for every success story in horseracing, there are many more flops.

"If you're going into this thing as an investment, you're crazy," says Irwin. "If you're doing it with money that you're afraid to lose, this is the craziest thing in the world you could possibly do. I don't want impulse buyers. They never work out, and they're never happy. I want guys who have been thinking about doing this for a long time, and they finally make up their mind one day and decide to do it for fun."

Elsewhere, people can buy into syndicates at reputable outfits like Centennial Farms and Class Racing Stable. Bob Feld, a California-based bloodstock agent (one who seeks out horses to buy for clients), recently started forming syndicates with his brothers under the name Bongo Racing Stable. So far, Bongo has syndicated a dozen horses and has about 80 clients. People can buy into one of its horses for as little as $3,000.

"This is a business that is very ripe for taking advantage of people, so you have to be careful and make sure you're investing with a reputable group with a good track record," says Feld. "There have been instances of fraud in the industry."

He recommends calling state racing commissions to make sure syndication groups are properly licensed and have a clean record. Also, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association recently formed a blue-ribbon panel that published guidelines for new owners, laying out what they should look for when entering the racing industry.

"There is a certain amount of responsibility to do some research if you're a horse owner or a prospective horse owner," Cain points out. "The nice thing about these partnerships is that they have a lot of people who have gone through them, and you can find out about their experiences. Just do your homework. Find out about all the fees and costs that will be involved, and get as many people to comment as possible on any group you're considering working with."

She also recommends as an unbiased source of information about the thoroughbred industry.

And They're Off

After a buyer does the research and finds the right horse with the right syndicate, it's off to the track.

"Our owners can go visit their horse, feed it and watch it train in the morning," says Feld. "They get owner's passes to the track and free admission for the year -- there are a lot of perks like that which makes it fun."

Of course, there's no guarantee that some new filly or colt won't fall prey to injury. Maybe they'll be valuable for breeding instead of racing. Then again, there's always a chance of catching lightning in a Kentucky bourbon bottle and winding up in the owner's box at Churchill Downs. Whatever happens, horse ownership can be a fine thing for someone who enjoys a day at the races, even if it means sharing the rewards with others.

"No matter how small a part of a horse a guy owns, as far as he's concerned, that's his horse," says Irwin. "You can own 5% or you can own 50%. The experience of racing is the same."

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