Kirk Godby’s Don’t Tell My Wife Stables’ is no newcomer to the Kentucky Derby (G1), having started two horses in the Run for the Roses in the last seven years with Exaggerator and My Boy Jack. Shortly after the outfit’s Confidence Game stormed home to win a soggy rendition of the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park, Ocean Reef Racing syndicate founder Billy Paynter bought in on the auspicious son of Candy Ride with aspirations of Classic success as the First Saturday in May loomed. A lifelong racing fan with a shrewd eye for business, Paynter launched Ocean Reef Racing only three years ago, and the fledging syndicate has given its partners both young and old worldwide experiences they’ll never forget. Come May 6, Ocean Reef and its partners will again be in for the thrill of a lifetime when Confidence Game heads to the starting gate for the 149th Kentucky Derby.
Louisville, Ky. native Paynter spoke with BloodHorse MarketWatch about forming Ocean Reef, his goals and intentions for the syndicate, and why Confidence Game was a horse he had to invest in come Derby time.
MarketWatch: You’re a relative newcomer to the racing business. How did you get started in the industry?
Billy Paynter: I’m originally from Louisville. I’ve been a racing fan my entire life. I always just had a true love for the horses from a gambling side when I was younger and then once I graduated college and moved back to Kentucky, I started going to Keeneland. I had a couple of guys at my country club that were part of Woodford Racing so I started tagging along with them to the races. They asked me to join in on them with Woodford and that was my first go at owning horses.
MW: How did you come to form the Ocean Reef Racing syndicate?
BP: I spent a lot of time down in Florida at a club called Ocean Reef and people there would always ask me about racing. I had a good friend named Charlie O’Connor (Director of Sales at Coolmore) who was talking to me one day and said well ‘Why don’t you race with us?’ At the time, I had no idea how a racing syndicate worked. I called my five friends down at Ocean Reef and said Coolmore wanted to be in this with us and they all said yes, and then two more joined along too. Fast forward three years later, we now have 12 racing partners and 17 horses in training. We also have a pinhooking business too where we pinhook weanlings to yearlings. We currently have 22 weanlings. It’s been fun to bring a lot of good people together. We race typically in partnership with Andrew Farm and Debbie O’Connor and then a little bit with Woodford Racing and we have a one-off on the West Coast with Exline-Border Racing.
MW: What’s your typical business approach with Ocean Reef?
BP: We buy a 25-50% share of the horse with Andrew Farm and Coolmore or X-Men Racing or Woodford. You don’t want me picking the horses. I don’t tell a three-star Micheline chef how to cook a meal. They’ve been in this business for generations over here and over in Ireland. Generally, we’ve always bought in on colts in the past, but we’re moving more towards fillies now just for the residual value. The other pinhooking business, called St. Francis, is where we pinhook weanlings to yearlings. We’ve found that we come across many people that are aged 30 to 45 who might have a little disposable income and are interested in investing in racehorses but are hesitant to spend $25,000-$50,000 on a racehorse. We tell them, ‘Hey, put 2/3 of your money into the pinhooking and 1/3 of your money into the racing’ so the pinhooking will carry them if the racehorses don’t pan out and do well. They also get to see all aspects of the racehorses as well from weanling to a racehorse. We do it mainly for fun. By no means are we trying to make a living off it, but it’s fun and we get to travel all over the world to get to do it.
MW: Was the situation where you purchased a piece of Confidence Game somewhat of an anomaly for your syndicate?
BP: Yes. That was atypical for us. Typically, we buy in September here at Keeneland and a little bit at Fasig-Tipton as well. We try to spend 60% of the income in the fall at the weanling and yearlings sales and 20% on one-offs or anything like that and then we’ll look at one or two 2-year-olds in training at the sales in Ocala. We just did that and bought in on two with Exline-Border Racing. We typically buy in on 25% with them. The first one we got with them last year was Kissed by Fire, who ran second to Justique and then ran in the Del Mar Debutante (G1). That’s been fun and allows us to go out to Del Mar.
MW: How did you end up buying in on Confidence Game?
BP: I was on a work fishing trip down in Guatemala and one of the guys was from Texas and mentioned how Kirk Godby had this horse in the Kentucky Derby. The Rebel was run two days earlier I just hadn’t seen it. And he said yeah, it’s ‘Confidence Game from Don’t Tell My Wife Stables’. I had met Kirk Godby three years earlier. I looked up the horse and I really liked his pedigree—Candy Ride, Bernardini, a close relation to Zenyatta. So, the next day I told the guy, ‘Hey, you tell Kirk Godby I’m going to buy part of that horse” and sure enough, I got a call from Godby days later and he said, ‘I hear you want to buy in on a part of our racehorse’ and the discussion went from there. And we got it done.
MW: What impressed you about Confidence Game’s win in the Rebel?
BP: This will be my 24th Kentucky Derby since I grew up in Louisville. This horse has run twice at Churchill Downs and has won. And you just shake your head like, ‘how did I miss this horse earlier?’ Looking at his pedigree, Candy Ride being the sire of sires that he is, and then watching him close in the Rebel on a wet track—and you know how the weather has been in Louisville the past few years. Those were the things that really stuck out to me. We felt there was a lot of upsides with him and that he had a real shot at the Classic races.
MW: How does it feel to have a starter in the Kentucky Derby with such a new syndicate?
BP: It’s been unbelievable. Just to be from Louisville and to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby with the possibility of what could happen—it’s incredible. Our first guests start coming in (April 28). We have 26 guests coming in and with Don’t Tell Me Wife Stables they’re bringing in half of Fort Worth, so it should be a big party. One hundred and fifty people total in the entire thing, it should be a lot of fun.
MW: Confidence Game will be entering the Derby off a 70-day layoff. If he wins, he’ll be one of the few to win coming off such a layoff. Do you have any concerns or comment on that?
BP: Since I was a kid there was always something; The Florida Derby (G1) winner hasn’t won in 30 years, or the BC Juvenile winner has never won the Derby or the Blue Grass (G1) hasn’t had a winner since Strike the Gold. I asked Keith Desormeaux and Kirk Godby about that, and they just said look, the horse has run over the track three times we don’t have to race him a lot to be in there. I don’t want to question them. They’ve obviously had success. They won the Preakness (G1) with Exaggerator and they’ve been in the Derby twice in the last seven years. Trainer Dale Romans said to me the other day: ‘Hey you might have the worst horse in the field, but if you have a horse in the gate you have a 5% chance,’ and look what happened last year. We’re just thrilled to be a part of it.
MW: What are some plans you have for the syndicate looking forward?
BP: We’re going to go over to Europe for the sales again this year. We bought two at Goffs last year. We’ll probably spend a lot more money over there this year to buy some fillies. We like that the dollar is still strong over there and we find that a lot of the Americans don’t tend to buy over there after the September Tattersalls Sale, so we think we can get some good filly pedigrees and ship them back to America. Though we’re not opposed to running them over there with the goal of Royal Ascot and the Goffs Million race for 2-year-olds in September. For us, it’s about having a good time. A lot of people in our group, both young and old, have been successful in their business careers and they just want the opportunity to go over to race their horse at Royal Ascot or go over to Goffs in Dublin. It’s about doing something they’ve never done and experienced.