A pretty 2-year-old named Bella Villa waved her head playfully at a knot of visitors strolling through a cool barn at Hollywood Park racetrack one recent Saturday morning, so Anne Hasegawa of Monterey Park paused to stroke the bay filly's velvety suede nose.
"Let's take you home," Hasegawa said delightedly as the filly nuzzled her in return.
Joining a dozen or so horse lovers at what is designed as a membership-building workshop staged by the Thoroughbred Owners of California, Hasegawa had fallen under the spell of the racing industry's most alluring ambassadors, who just stood there chewing hay and looking beautiful.
The group was there for one of the owners' group's periodic classes to introduce would-be racehorse owners to the knowledge needed to buy, maintain and train a thoroughbred, a vocation that starts with love.
The horses "really love people," said Patty Harrington, wife of trainer Mike Harrington, in whose barn the visitors had assembled. "We play with them a lot, and that keeps them happy."
The spontaneous display of human-animal affection was exactly what John Van de Kamp, president of the Thoroughbred Owners, had hoped for.
"The economics have not been as good as they should, but the people love the horses and they love the game when they get into it," said Van de Kamp.
As a licensed owner of a share of a Northern California racehorse, Van de Kamp, the former state attorney general, is automatically enrolled as a member of the Thoroughbred Owners. The group has 8,800 members, but that is a decline of 18.5% since 1995.
The state's racing industry has lost revenue in the past decade amid competition from large card clubs, the state lottery and Indian reservation gambling casinos, Van de Kamp said. But it has launched counteroffensives, including a new $20-million-plus national ad campaign in addition to the hands-on workshops.
The horse lovers who turned out along with Hasegawa heard veteran owners hash out details of the fine points of buying horses and dealing with what outsiders often consider the track's off-putting protocols. And while some admitted they were just window-shopping, others came away determined that someday they'd own a horse like Bella Villa, with whom Hasegawa made friends as her father, Art, looked on bemusedly.
"She loves horses, so she's the one who's interested," he said. "But I don't know if I'm going to buy one. I knew there was a certain cost, and it's a lot more than I thought."
A magnificent animal with well-defined musculature, soulful eyes and puppylike enthusiasm, Bella Villa is almost irresistible. But her $21,000 price tag is but a bottom-rung investment to get into the business these days, Mike Harrington said.
Ron King, an owner of several horses, agreed that there is good reason to call this the sport of kings.
"If you have family, if you're saving to send your kids to college, you aren't going to go into this business," King said.
The spending begins with that gorgeous animal.
Harrington, moseying through the dusty straw in jeans, a heavy dark Levis's shirt and a wide-brimmed Stetson, showed off several head in his stable. He said his rule of thumb is to encourage new owners to have the resources to buy four horses in their price range--an amount that he calculates will cover the expenses of owning one horse.
"Two years ago, I bought horses at Keeneland [a Kentucky racetrack] and the least expensive was $42,000 and the most expensive was $120,000," Harrington said. "For new prospective owners on a smaller budget I would look in the $20,000-to-$30,000 range, but if somebody wants to spend a hundred, I know I could find a horse."
Then come annual maintenance expenses, in the range of $20,000 to $36,000 per horse to cover such things as feed, stabling, veterinarian care and medication, shoes and insurance.
There can be financial rewards. Current equine celebrity Real Quiet, bought at auction for $17,000, has returned nearly $2 million in earnings including spoils from victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, two prestigious races.
But, as horse owner Gary Burke suggested to the class, although 95% of owners lose money, the intangible rewards are substantial.
"I grew up around horses, and there is a lot about this sport that I like," said Michael Waller of Anaheim Hills, who had signed up for the seminar as a would-be owner. "From the quality of people you're around and the horses you see, this is one of the most satisfying things you can do."
Jeff Blankenship, an insurance underwriter from Chino Hills, said he's not quite at the point of joining the ranks of thoroughbred owners, but he's planning and saving for the day.
"I'm an average wage earner, so I have to be a partner, but I look at it the same as buying a car," Blankenship said, adding that he has been a racing fan since he was 18 and that he gets information from the Thoroughbred Owners' courses that you can't get from a book.
Hector Ziperovich of Beverly Hills, a co-owner of the Caribbean restaurant Limbo, was thinking of a horse owner's image when he laughingly pointed out one important part of the sport that the owners didn't cover in their seminar.
"If you're in this business, you've got to have a good hat," Ziperovich said. "I've got the belts, but I've got to have a hat."