Female syndicate based in Camden, S.C. enters gentleman’s sport of horse racing
By Rebecca Carr
Photographs by Josh Norris
The odds were against Minimambo as the 3-year-old filly walked to the starting gate at the Tampa Bay Downs for her maiden race. At 15.1 hands, she was on the small side. Her jockey had recently returned to racing after having a baby. And some of the owners of this liver-hued chestnut had never waged a bet, much less owned a thoroughbred. The Daily Racing Forum started her at a mediocre 8-to 1-odds.
Once on the track, the horses had to be reloaded into their gates, an unnerving experience for the highly strung thoroughbred breed. The starting bell rang and the gates jolted open. Minimambo was instantly bumped from side to side and had trouble running straight in sixth place. Hardly promising.
But as the nine-horse field settled into the track, jockey Rosemary Homeister Jr. swung Minimambo to the outside, some three horses wide, and started to make her move. Minimambo charged forth past the leading horse, farther and farther ahead, winning by a decisive 3¾-length victory. The local headline from March 21, 2015: “Minimambo Aces her First Track Test.”
Minimambo did more than that.
To the members of Fast Women LLC, a group of 32 women from the Carolinas, New Jersey, New York and Florida, Minimambo’s win was not just one of those Disney win-against-all odds moments. It was proof that a filly owned by women, trained by a woman and ridden by a female jockey could make it in the male-dominated racing world.
“It was like I was 11 years old and it was Christmas all over again. It was an adrenaline rush like no other,” said Missy McCutcheon, who was at Tampa Bay Downs that day with several other members of the racing syndicate. Purchased for $7,000 at a Kentucky yearling sale in 2013, Minimambo beat an entire field for the first place trophy and $16,500 purse.
A sport dominated by wealthy males
A female-owned racing syndicate — women pooling their money to purchase, train and race a horse — is relatively rare in the United States. Even rarer is one that has a female trainer and jockey, according to racing experts. But as women rise in the business world, more female racing syndicates are expected to emerge.
“As more women become successful and given more opportunity in the business world, more women will get involved,” said Ray Paulick, publisher of the Paulick Report, a leading racing publication based in Lexington, Kentucky. “Racing is a great outlet for people who are competitive. Being part of a racing syndicate is like being part of a franchise ownership of a sports team. It’s exciting.”
Since its inception, the horse racing world has remained firmly in the reins of wealthy and connected men, most of whom dabble in racing as a hobby. To be sure, an impressive line of women have independently owned successful race horses that have won the venerable Kentucky Derby and other races — Ethel V. Mars, wife of Mars candy founder Frank Mars; cosmetic giant Elizabeth Arden Graham, and Helen Bates “Penny” Chenery, who owned the 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, to name a few. But those were women who had made or inherited fortunes. A racing syndicate opens the doors to women without such means.
Now Fast Women and a handful of other female-owned syndicates are throwing that notion on its head. By bonding together and offering ownership shares as low as $4,300, they have learned they can share the cost and make racing accessible for a wide swath of incomes and professions. Other female-run syndicates include Lady Sheila Stable in New York; Valor Ladies at Team Valor stables in Versailles, Kentucky; and StarLadies Racing at Starlight Stables in Lexington, Kentucky.
Megan Jones, vice president of Team Valor Stables, started Valor Ladies in 2012 to encourage women to get involved in horse racing through ownership. Their first horse, Tuttipaesi, has won more than $560,000.
“It has just been such a joy to be part of the ride and have the women along for it,” said Jones, noting that the group has grown so close that they travel together to look at horses, most recently to South Africa. “To see women get this involved in racing has been the most rewarding experience of my career.”
Success breeds success
Minimambo’s success in Tampa Bay Downs, which happens to be owned by a woman too, spurred Fast Women to buy another filly with a special connection to the Camden, South Carolina, group.
Birgetta Rose was bred in 2013 by horse breeder Sylvia “Sibby” Wood, a Fast Women syndicate investor and noted member of the equestrian world in Camden, which for the better part of two centuries has been a stalwart of the American equestrian scene with its five race courses, polo field and Carolina Cup Steeplechase ground. The town also played pivotal roles in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. When Wood passed away in 2015, Birgetta Rose was put up for sale.
Most race horse purchases are a calculated study in odds and lineage. Trainers and owners pour over the horse’s heritage with the scrutiny of European royal courts matching a prince to a princess. There is little room for emotion, or error.
Donna Freyer ignored all of that. Gut instinct is exactly what Fast Women’s leader felt when she went to see Birgetta Rose for the first time. It was a “boom” experience where she knew it was meant to happen. There was something special about the horse and something even more special about carrying on Wood’s legacy in the racing world.
“I just had a good feeling about the horse and knew it would be special to have a horse that was bred by Sibby,” said Freyer, who runs Custom Care Equine from a cobalt blue barn commonly known around Camden as the “Blue Barn.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, Birgetta Rose went to Pimlico, the race track outside Baltimore where the famed Preakness Stakes takes place, for her first race. The bay filly pranced about the saddling area, keyed up and nervous. The Fast Women group thought she had run her race right there in the saddling area. Adding to the commotion, Birgetta Rose’s female jockey pulled out at the last minute, forcing the group to hire a male jockey in violation of their all-female jockey rule.
Like Minimambo, their prospects did not look good from the outset. The Fast Women members closed their eyes and looked up to the sky, praying for Sibby Wood to intervene. They quietly watched the starting gate line up. But it was different this time. Birgetta Rose burst forth, beating the entire field for first place. “We knew Sibby was there, we just knew it,” McCutcheon said.
Freyer started Fast Women as a way to get women more involved and educated about the sport of racing. She sold shares in each filly for $5,000 each to cover training, boarding and vet emergencies. A member of the second Dartmouth class to include women in 1977, Freyer knew how to navigate the gentleman’s club of racing. The core group has members from a broad range of professions and levels of horsemanship: The master of the Camden Hunt, a former school administrator, a mayoral candidate, a New York fundraiser, and an equestrian events organizer.
“It is a real thrill to be part of this group,” said Joanna Craig, the former executive director of the Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site and direct descendant of Joseph Kershaw, founding father of Camden.
Over the past few years, the group has formed an intense bond. They meet regularly to watch their fillies train. They host parties and sometimes include their husbands and partners, whom they call “colts.” They revel in all things racing — from how to bet to how to select a horse at an auction to training styles. They frequently meet over lunch at the Springdale Hall Club, across the street from Camden Steeplechase Museum — a white clapboard building overlooking more than 600 acres where the Carolina Cup and Colonial Cup steeplechases take place. The events have become one of the top horse events in the country.
“This is not just about making money,” Freyer said. “This is about women building a bond around horses that they love and having a lot of fun doing it.”