Ed Mitzen, the founder of the marketing agency Fingerpaint Marketing, grew up in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, a town whose social life revolves around horse racing. The Saratoga Racecourse is one of the oldest sporting venues in the U.S.; horses started racing there a month after the battle of Gettysburg. So Mitzen, inevitably, grew up around the sport–but it wasn’t until his college years, when his friends reunited at the track for long Saturdays to enjoy wine coolers and races, that Mitzen really came to fall in love with it.
Participating in horse racing–on the side of horse ownership–is not for the young and penniless, so Mitzen had to make a name for himself, not to mention some money, before he could think about entering the sport himself. Early on, though, Mitzen was able to integrate horse racing with his business. His first communications agency, Palio, founded in 1999, was named after the Palio di Siena, a storied horse race in Italy. And Mitzen managed to make socializing at the Saratoga track a key component of client entertainment. Clients would often carve up part of their summer to come from as far afield as San Francisco or Phoenix to enjoy some time at the track with Mitzen and his colleagues.
Still, recalls Mitzen, “I wanted to get involved in the sport from the inside.” In 2006, a friend approached him about joining a “syndicate”; that is, being one of dozens of people to take an ownership stake in one or more horses. This friend had had great luck–in 2003, his horse Funny Cide had won the Kentucky Derby–so Mitzen saw it as an opportunity too good to pass up. They teamed up and formed a syndicate called Sackatoga. “Basically, we went out and got investors, partners to buy horses with us,” recalls Mitzen.
“We’ve never achieved the same success Jack had with Funny Cide,” Mitzen is quick to point out with a laugh. Still, over the decade he’s been buying horses, Mitzen has seen highs along with lows. He’s had horses that fizzle out, not even placing. But he’s had horses that have won big-stakes races, as much as a $150,000 pot. “Whether the horse wins or not, it’s exciting and fun,” he says. “But to see your horse win is the greatest feeling in the world. It’s like pitching in the ad business. If you pitch and win, it’s an amazing feeling.”
If having part ownership in a stable of racehorses teaches you something about competition, it also teaches you something about being a graceful loser. Mitzen still recalls the day he bought Woodrunner, a beautiful black stallion with an impressive pedigree. Mitzen and the rest of Sackatoga had high hopes for Woodrunner, who performed very well in training. Then, for whatever reason, it turned out Woodrunner “just didn’t have it in him.” After a few disappointing finishes, Woodrunner’s trainer had to conclude that Woodrunner simply didn’t want to race, and the syndicate decided to find Woodrunner a nice place to retire. “The money is secondary. You want to make sure the horses are taken care of,” says Mitzen.
Still, says Mitzen, it’s hard to pour $75,000 into a horse “only to realize he’s not a racehorse.” Sometimes, racing horses is a lesson in managing disappointment. “It teaches you to roll with the punches,” says Mitzen.
There are a few other ways in which horse racing and business can intersect, says Mitzen. For one, to try to run a syndicate is to learn something about sales and pitching. “Both have to be grounded in complete honesty,” he says. When you go out and pitch a client, you can’t pretend to be someone you’re not; that will only result in disappointment. Similarly, when he pitches folks to join the syndicate, he is brutally honest in explaining how risky of an endeavor it is. “We tell them how much fun it can be, but we also make sure they understand this isn’t something they’re going to get rich on. You want to make sure people are getting in it for the right reasons.”
Most importantly, though, Mitzen says that horse racing, like business, is a team sport. “An awful lot of people are involved in making a horse into a champion: trainers, owners, walkers, groomers, vets, jockeys, the people who ship the horse.” The trainer is effectively the “CEO,” in a sense, but everyone plays a part. To enter a syndicate is to flex your teamwork muscle. Mitzen credits the camaraderie of the syndicate as one inspiration for his decision to grant all his employees stock in his company. “We’re all in it together,” he says.