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Can Crowdsourcing Make Horse Sports More Accessible?

Faced with the impending loss of his beloved horse, Irish rider Jonty Evans turned to the internet for help.

Can Crowdsourcing Make Horse Sports More Accessible?
Jonty Evans of Ireland riding Cooley Rorkes Drift during the eventing team jumping final and individual qualifier on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Equestrian Centre on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. [Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images]
 Seven years ago, Jonty Evans was driving in Gloucestershire, England, when he spotted a horse trailer pulled over on the side of the road. While the horses’ owner waited for a tow truck, Evans–a  professional rider from Ireland–wound up ferrying the horses, in his own lorry, to his home farm down the road.

That chance encounter helped shape the course of Evans’s career. The horses’ owner decided she wanted one of her animals, a 5-year-old Irish Sport Horse named Cooley Rorkes Drift, to remain in the barn to train with Evans. So Evans brought the horse along in the sport of eventing, in which the horse performs in three tests, including a miles-long gallop with more than 20 natural obstacles. Five years later, the duo emerged as underdogs to secure ninth place at the Rio Olympics.

“I went to the Olympics without huge expectations, and the horse really proved to the world what he can do,” Evans says.

Cooley Rorkes Drift’s performance was exhilarating, but became more of a liability than Evans could have predicted. Evans came home from the Olympics not just with a horse who could compete at that level, but a horse who could come within striking distance of the medal podium. Within months, buyers with deep pockets on both sides of the Atlantic had expressed interest in Art (as Cooley Rorkes Drift is nicknamed in the barn), offering the horse’s owner as much as £500,000 (about $680,000)– well out of the reach of Evans and his supporters, many of whom offered to help sponsor the horse.

Owning a horse at elite competition levels has always been an expensive proposition.  Their hay, grain, veterinary, and blacksmith costs never go away as long as they are alive.  The farms on which they live frequently rack up high management costs. There are training expenses, and some horses receive acupuncture, massage, nutritional evaluation, customized supplements and grain, full-body scans for injuries, and round-the-clock monitoring.

Horses who compete in Olympic sports like eventing and show jumping can run up major expenses–but horse racing, like this weekend’s Kentucky Derby, is an even more costly proposition.

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 “When you look at the numbers on a macro scale, the amount of money in acquisition, care, and training, and compare and contrast that to the prize money we compete for, there’s a big hole there,” says Terry Finley, CEO of West Point Thoroughbreds, which puts together horse racing partnerships.  “If you don’t win, the costs are exorbitant.”

In recent years, the price of both racehorses and Olympic-level equines has skyrocketed as more and more buyers compete for a small number of elite four-legged performers.  While racehorses tend to be the most expensive, the best show horses also command astronomical sums. The Olympic show jumper Greg Broderick lost his Rio horse, MHS Going Global, when the animal was sold to shipping heiress Athina Onassis for a reported €12 million ($14.3 million). Totilas, a dressage horse who broke world records with Dutch rider Edward Gal, was sold in 2010 for a price reported up to €15 million ($17.9 million).

These prices are in no way routine, but they threaten the careers of the best professional riders who rarely have the assets to secure such a ride on their own.

“I was naive about the amount of money they could get for him,” Evans says about the revelation that he could lose Cooley Rorkes Drift. Desperate, he approached anyone he could find to put together sponsorship for the horse, but came up short.

Evans counted as his friends the chef Andrew Kojima, who, after becoming a finalist in the British cooking competition show Masterchef, crowdsourced funding for his own restaurant.  Inspired, Evans decided to set up his own fundraising site, jontyandart.com.

“I reckoned my potential audience was very niche,” he says. “It was very unlikely if I walked into a big city and put leaflets through doors that the general public was going to give me anything.  This was going to appeal to people who understand horses, the partnerships, the emotion and the connection.”

All crowdsourced funds in Evans’s case were considered a donation, but he hoped that people would still feel a sense of pride and ownership in Cooley Rorkes Drift.

“It was more of a call to action to secure the horse, without any expectation of supporting the horse’s career on a monthly or annual basis,” explains Joanie Morris, the managing director of eventing in the U.S.

Within 24 hours, Evans had raised $64,000–and by the end of the week he’d surpassed $100,000.  When Evans turned to a guy who ran a crowdfunding platform for advice, the entrepreneur was gobsmacked.

“You don’t need my help,” he told Evans, “I need your help.”

The response to Evans’s call for assistance was indeed astounding. Some of Evans’s supporters donated stays in their vacation homes and fellow competitors, like Olympic gold medalist Andrew Nicholson, donated training sessions for an online fundraising auction. The BBC called. Two supporters put in more than £100,000, but many of the 6,800 donations Evans received were much smaller; “You, me, and even the bloke next door can help us to own Art,” Evans said in a promotional video.

Asking for outside financial support isn’t new in equestrian sports, but it typically follows the model of a syndication in which shares are sold and owners are expected to bear the burden of costs. Racing, where such syndication originated, has consistently been the most expensive of the horse sports. In the late 1970s, racehorses like Affirmed and Seattle Slew made headlines when they were syndicated for $14.4 million and $12 million, respectively ($34 million and $33 million in today’s dollars.)

But upkeep has grown more expensive.  “Fewer and fewer of the old families have stables now. They either have reduced their holdings or they’ve gotten out of the business entirely, and in their place are the big syndicates,” says Finley.  At this weekend’s Kentucky Derby, Finley estimates that 14 out of 20 starters will be owned in one form or another by such a partnership.

Syndicates may make horse sports more accessible to more people–but they still exclude the average investor.  “You can’t put a big percentage of your net worth in the horse business, it’s an insane investment from a financial point of view,” says Finley.

“But,” he concedes, “when you see the lifestyle, it’s captivating.”

That has been enough to draw donors to causes like Evans’s and to similar crowdfunding-based ventures, like The People’s Horse, a clublike entity in which members contribute between $150-$500 to get access to various experiences associated with the birth, training, and first year racing of a thoroughbred.

“We put the member in the driver’s seat of making the decisions without the vet bills and all the things that make it impossible to be a stakeholder,” says Geoff Gray, the founder of The People’s Horse.  The People’s Horse members helped pick out a broodmare for California Chrome, who won the 2014 Kentucky Derby. This spring, the chose mare, Colerful Bride, gave birth to a bright chestnut filly with a long white stocking on her left foreleg. Members can vote on her name and, in June, meet her at a special event.

Financial responsibility for that filly falls to True.Ink, a media company that Gray founded, and Taylor Made Farm, which manages the animal’s care and training.

Gray thinks that The People’s Horse experience is one everyone can participate in. “Our goal isn’t to create a great return for investors but to offer an extraordinary experience” he says.

Meanwhile, Jonty Evans tried to register Cooley Rorkes Drift in the name of a group that represented the 6,800 people and entities who helped purchase him–but the sport’s governing body limited the horse’s official ownership to the individuals who had made the most significant contributions.

A few weeks ago, Evans and Art won the Belton Cup, the first time either of them had won a major international competition at that level. On social media, a contributor to Evans’ campaign wrote, “My horse just won the Belton Cup!” Soon after, commenters were chiming in. “Mine too!” “Mine too!”

It was a response that even Art might have enjoyed.

“He loves the crowd,” Evans says. “The louder the crowd, the more shouting, the higher he jumps.”

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