John Freeman Gill
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THE BLUE-COLLAR THOROUGHBRED
The Blue-Collar Thoroughbred

Like many New Yorkers, she came to the city from someplace else, aiming to go as far as her talent could take her. She was just starting out, and when she arrived from rural Florida, she moved into a small place in South Ozone Park, Queens, so close to Kennedy Airport she could hear the planes roaring overhead as she ate breakfast.

Her new home was not a studio apartment, however, but rather a hay-filled stall at the Aqueduct Race Track. This new New Yorker was a 2-year-old thoroughbred racehorse named Karakorum Starlet, a chestnut filly who has an inborn restlessness about her that even now, two years later, is evident to anyone who visits her home in Barn 3 at Aqueduct. On a summerlike fall morning, four days before she was to race in the $125,000 Iroquois Handicap at Belmont Park on Oct. 20, Starlet spent most of her waking hours in her stall, swinging her head back and forth like a jumpy metronome.

In a sense, Starlet is aptly named. Although she is far from famous, she has an avid fan base. Whenever she or any of her stablemates in the Karakorum Racing Team breaks from the starting gate, the horse carries not only a jockey but the hopes and passions of three dozen city residents, most from the boroughs outside Manhattan.

These New Yorkers track the careers of Karakorum horses not merely as bettors but as owners. In a once rare but increasingly popular arrangement, each Karakorum horse is owned by a commercial partnership in which up to 200 shares have been sold to people from all walks of life.

For an initial $499 payment and a monthly maintenance fee of $29, Karakorum – the operation takes its name from the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire, which conquered its enemies on horseback – will sell a buyer a one-half percent stake in a racehorse. This low threshold for ownership has made the sport of kings easily accessible to working-class and middle-class horseplayers whose involvement might otherwise be limited to yelling at the television sets in their local OTB parlor.

The Blue-Collar Thoroughbred

In a notoriously expensive game whose high-profile owners include business titans and Middle Eastern royalty, Karakorum counts among its shareholders hairdressers and garbage truck drivers, stagehands and telephone repairmen.

Typical of Karakorum shareholders is Juliet Nash, an insurance company finance officer who lives in Flatlands, Brooklyn. Ms. Nash said she recognizes that she is hardly of the stature of George Steinbrenner or Sheikh Mohamed of Dubai, two famous stable owners. Yet she added: "I feel when I deal with Karakorum that they treat you like an owner of that caliber. It's great that little turfites like myself can enjoy the feeling of ownership without putting too much into it."

Usually, that rarefied feeling includes the privilege of losing money. Although Karakorum horses have increasingly won a share of the purse over the last two years, they almost never turn a profit for shareholders; in most cases, a horse's winnings do no more than pay its owners' Karakorum bills for a few months.

"I tell people they should have a good time and shouldn't expect to make any money, but the customers think I'm lying," said Josh Bauman, Karakorum's silver-haired sales manager, who on race days wears a black sport jacket and red pocket square that match the silks of Karakorum's jockeys. "The buyers say, 'I'm just looking to have a good time; I don't expect to make any money,' and I know they're lying."

Nearly all Karakorum shareholders were bettors before they were owners, and for many of them, the exquisite tension of just being in the game, as horseracing is known, transcends the frequent hit in the pocketbook.

But beyond the gambling aspect, holding a share in a racehorse, even a percentage that amounts to little more than a hoof and a fetlock, offers owners a variety of fulfillment that is as individual as the owners themselves.

"There's a story behind each person who does this," Mr. Bauman said. "Nobody does this for any logical reason."

The Filly in the Wallet

Reveta Rowe, a 65-year-old certified nursing assistant and OTB bettor who lives in Wakefield in the north Bronx, had longed to own a racehorse for more than 25 years, since shortly after immigrating from Jamaica.

In July last year, when she saw a Karakorum commercial while watching a horse race on cable television, she jumped at the opportunity, putting down $499 to buy half a percent of a 2-year-old bay filly named Karakorum Elektra. Two months later, she bought another half-percent for $350.

"Whenever she runs, I drop everything and run to see how she does," Ms. Rowe said. In all, Elektra has 79 owners, 61 of whom live outside the city and few of whom know one another.

The filly immediately showed promise, finishing second in her first race and winning her second outing by a length and three-quarters.

Now Mrs. Rowe and her husband, Winston, view Elektra almost as a member of the family. Mrs. Rowe carries a photograph of the filly in her wallet, and the couple recently framed a larger picture of their thoroughbred so she could take her place on their wall beside the photographs of their five children.

"It's like when your kid goes to school and you go to your first performance of the child, and you have that certain feeling of accomplishment and investment in what your child does," explained Mr. Rowe, who has seen Elektra only on television because his job driving a sanitation truck keeps him too busy to go to the track. "You love the animal, and though you can't feel the same love as you do for a child, you feel almost the same sentiment as if it were your child."

Shareholders whose investment is driven by their love of the track often buy at least a 3 percent stake in a horse so they can become licensed as owners by the state. The license entitles them to racetrack perks that set them apart from the legions of weekend handicappers at the three tracks in the New York Racing Association circuit: Aqueduct, Saratoga Race Course, in upstate New York, and Belmont Park, just over the Queens border in Nassau County. The privileges include free access to the owners' boxes, the barn area and the paddock, where some feel they gain the inside track as bettors by chatting with trainers and jockeys.

"They ask me how our horse will do," said Jeff Odintz, a native of Canarsie, Brooklyn, who trains 14 of the 21 Karakorum thoroughbreds competing or training in New York. "Sometimes I give them our horse or maybe another in the race where they can bet and maybe make some money. I try to help them out."

For others, visiting the horse they own leads to a more personal attachment. When Annette Matejik, a 49-year-old fitness instructor from Jackson Heights, Queens, first petted Elektra in the horse's stall, she felt an instant connection. "She's a little jumpy, a little out of her mind, to be honest," Ms. Matejik said. "But I felt intuitionally: This is it; this is the one."

Ms. Matejik, who wears an exercise brace on her left ankle to prevent stiffness, feels that her bond with the filly is strengthened by the knowledge that Elektra has battled soreness in a hind leg joint. "I can identify greatly with a horse that's hurting," she said. "I feel that way every day."

But the most common motivation for ownership is probably the simplest: the urge to be one of the lucky ones trotting down to the winners' circle while the losers are tearing up their tickets. When any Karakorum horse wins a race, all the Karakorum shareholders are invited to the winners' circle to join the group picture with the victorious thoroughbred, regardless of whether they own shares in that particular horse.

The practice helps promote an impromptu camaraderie among a group of elated strangers, some of whom express their euphoria in unexpected ways.

On Sept. 27, after Elektra closed in the homestretch of a seven-furlong race at Belmont to win by a head, Ms. Matejik stood for the winners' circle group photo, then frenetically rubbed her palm on the animal's sweaty nose and sniffed her hand.

"Horse smell!" she declared with a giggle, offering the man next to her a whiff. "I love it."

The Feisty Long Shot

As the much-anticipated stakes races of Belmont Park's final weekend of the year approached last month, some horseplayers thought that Karakorum Starlet's best days were behind her. At Saratoga on Aug. 20, the 4-year-old had achieved her greatest victory when she won the $81,650 Union Avenue Stakes. But in her next two races she faded, finishing fourth in her most recent outing.

Her trainer, however, sensed that she was feeling feisty. Mr. Odintz had entered her in the seven-furlong Iroquois Handicap, the biggest sprint race of the year for New York-bred fillies and mares. As Starlet stood in her stall after a jog one morning, battering a suspended red rubber ball with her head like a boxer working a punching bag, Mr. Odintz said she had blossomed into "a nice, hard-knocking New York-bred stakes filly." Nonetheless, he was unsure she could beat two of her more favored rivals in the Iroquois: Ice Cool Kitty and Light Tactic.

Four mornings later, as the day of the Iroquois dawned, Starlet was led out of her barn and into a van for the short drive to Belmont Park. She and Elektra, who was stabled at Belmont, were to run in consecutive races.

Over in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a retired interior designer named Larry Marimow, who owns 3 percent of both Starlet and Elektra, bypassed the velveteen jogging suits he wears to the track when Karakorum horses are not running and instead chose a snazzy brown double-breasted suit and silver wraparound sunglasses worthy of an Elmore Leonard character. James Lorenzo, a telephone repairman from Ozone Park, Queens, chose a sharp gray sport jacket and a silvery tie.

Then both men headed for the track in their cars. Ms. Matejik made the journey on the Long Island Rail Road.

In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Bernice Thomas, who sells advertising for community newspapers, had to stay home to take delivery of a fish tank, but she hoped to catch Elektra's race on television. Up in the Hudson Heights section of Manhattan, a private investor named Julian Hamburger, who owns stakes in both Starlet and Elektra, could not turn on the television because he is an Orthodox Jew and his religion forbids it. "Even so," he allowed, "I'll walk over to the OTB and just look in."

In the early afternoon, in Belmont's grandstand, Karakorum shareholders sought out Mr. Bauman, the company's sales manager, and asked him what strategy the Karakorum jockeys planned to pursue.

"See, you're inside the stable," said Mr. Marimow, the interior designer from Sheepshead Bay, "which is an edge for a guy who likes to bet."

Mr. Marimow was in his element. For most of his adult life, even before two heart attacks sidelined him from the work force more than 20 years ago, racing had been his passion and the track a place he felt respected. But among the non-horse-playing public, he lamented, "there is a certain taint of disrespect given to people who are involved in the racing game." Most distressing to him, he said, was that his daughter and son-in-law disapproved of his playing the horses on his laptop in their house, "and that creates heartache in my life."

Soon Mr. Marimow flashed his owner's credentials and strolled into the paddock. As Starlet and her rivals were paraded around the walking ring, he joined several other Karakorum owners in its center.

At odds of 14 to 1, Starlet was a long shot, going up against three horses that had beaten her in her previous race. The favorite was Light Tactic, an undefeated 3-year-old about whom Mr. Bauman had warned shareholders in an e-mail message, "The word on the backstretch is that she's an unbeatable freak."

Success Has Many Parents

Mr. Marimow, sitting alone in an owner's box moments before Starlet's race, was the very image of dapper poise. As the horses broke from the gate, he raised his binoculars to his eyes and intoned with quiet professionalism: "Starlet's at the lead. The favorite is chasing her. Now the favorite is dropping back."

But as the race progressed and the field thundered into the far turn with Starlet still in front, Mr. Marimow's voice began to crack with emotion. "Come on, baby!" he shrieked. "Come on, baby!"

As the field raced to the top of the stretch, a bay filly named Mama Theresa came up fast on the outside. Mr. Marimow, the blood surging into his normally pallid face, stood and hollered: "Kick home, baby! Kick home, baby!"

Starlet and Mama Theresa raced through the final furlong together, and as Starlet, under fierce whipping from her jockey, Garrett Gomez, crossed the finish line to win by a neck, Mr. Marimow's face contorted with ecstasy. Then he and nearly 50 exultant owners and their guests cascaded down to the winners' circle from the grandstand and clubhouse as Starlet was led to the front of the crowd for the group photo.

Orlando Correale, a Karakorum shareholder who is an owner of a pizza place in Hollis, Queens, looked around in wonderment at all the gleeful strangers. "It's like one big family you don't know," he said.

Mr. Marimow, flashing a snaggletoothed grin, galloped off to cash in a ticket worth more than $1,200. How did he feel? "Winner!" he replied giddily. "No matter what else is happening in your life, you're a winner."





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