LOUISVILLE — The success of almost any sporting venture hinges on its ability to lure fresh investors to its game and then give them a reason to stick around.
That is no different in Thoroughbred racing, as the quest to bring in new owners is among the most common rally cries in the game today.
In addition to being among the most sought-after prizes in racing, the Kentucky Derby is a prime opportunity for the industry to sell itself to an audience full of potential investors.
When the 138th edition of the Derby goes to post May 5, two of its high-profile contenders will represent a pair of entities helping replenish the well of new blood for the sport.
Though many aspects of racing have undergone contraction, ownership syndicates have increased in the past decade, particularly at the top of the game.
This year's Derby will feature two examples as Team Valor International and Donegal Racing — both of whom have experienced some of the best moments racing has to offer — will have expected starters Went the Day Well and Dullahan, respectively.
Cot Campbell's Dogwood Stable, which was founded in 1973 and campaigned 1990 Derby runner-up and Preakness Stakes winner Summer Squall, is generally regarded as the pioneering force behind racing syndicates, and that helped earn Campbell the 2011 Eclipse Award of Merit.
With economic strain on the rise and discretionary income declining, syndicates have become the gateway for many to become Thoroughbred owners without shouldering the brunt of the financial and emotional risk.
"I think as the economy worsened and the people who were interested wanted to participate, the partnerships opened up an avenue for them," said Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin. "That's No. 1. And the people who run partnerships are entrepreneurs who are actively seeking investment and are rattling their cages looking for customers. So that helps as well."
Co-founded in the early 1990s by Irwin, Team Valor famously threw down the gauntlet for syndicate success last May when their colt Animal Kingdom won the Kentucky Derby en route to being named 2011 champion 3-year-old male.
While Team Valor has campaigned nearly 80 graded-stakes winners since its inception, winning a classic with a horse that was a product of Irwin thinking outside the box as far as pedigree provided the kind of validation one cannot put a price on.
"Professionally, it's been great. I think it gave me some credibility that I didn't have before," Irwin said of Animal Kingdom's Derby triumph. "I do a lot of unusual things with my selection of horses and the way we run them and where we run them, and I think people kind of look at me like I'm just pretty weird and strange.
"I think this last year winning the Derby and some other races I think people are finally figuring out what it is I do."
In its relatively short existence, Jerry Crawford's Donegal Racing group apparently has also figured out what it takes to be a regular player on racing's biggest days.
Founded in 2008 by Crawford and a handful of his friends, Donegal Racing had its coming-out party two years ago when their colt Paddy O'Prado finished third in the Kentucky Derby and went on to win the Grade I Secretariat Stakes on the turf at Arlington Park.
Injury halted Paddy O'Prado's career after he won the Grade II Dixie Stakes in his 4-year-old debut last May. Just months later, however, the syndicate's green and gold colors scored again when Dullahan took the Grade I Dixiana Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland and stablemate O'Prado Again won the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct.
"I had studied equine genetics with an eye toward handicapping the classic races, and then I thought, why not use this same formula to try and buy Triple Crown horses?" Crawford said of Donegal's beginnings. "In 2008, I was hoping to buy a couple of a horses, and with the same amount of money I was able to buy eight.
"So I came home and I said to a bunch of my friends, 'If you all want to do a partnership, great, if you don't, I'll be happy to raise these horses myself,' and they were all excited about it. I have enormous affection for Cot Campbell for sort of coming up with this concept."
Unlike most partnerships which can have varying owners on all its horses, those who buy a percentage of Donegal horses own a piece of every horse the group buys that year.
"That way if we have a big horse, as we have two of our first three years, well then you're in on the big horse," Crawford said.
Not only have syndicates like Team Valor, Donegal, West Point Thoroughbreds and Dogwood repeatedly proven their finds can be among racing's elite, but the unique experience they can provide is another selling point.
Emotional as it was for Crawford to see Dullahan stamp his Derby potential with his victory in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, celebrating there with an ownership posse of 100-plus nearly trumped the result itself.
"It's about how you have those amazing experiences because a lot of our very, very good friends don't know anything about horse racing, but they love it," Crawford said. "Now here they are in the Kentucky Derby. If you put the right team together, it allows ordinary people to share in this joy."