Forbes Notes Florida’s “Billionaire Racehorse Bootcamp” For Sale, Yet State Continues to Let Phony Horse-Related Events Destroy $2.2 Billion Horse Racing Industry
Yesterday, February 12, 2013, Forbes noted Florida’s world-famous “Bootcamp for Billionaires’ Horses.”
Now for sale by its aging private owner, Payson Park remains profitable and near full occupancy. However, a stark reality lurks in the background of what would otherwise be a highly attractive, lucrative, job-creating and economically beneficial real estate deal—while the waiting list of buyers dwindles.
As Florida lawmakers embark on a protracted study of gaming policy, the State continues to allow the use of phony horse events to skirt live racing and regulatory requirements for slot machine licenses. Word has gotten around the international horse racing community that rooted in the unilateral regulatory approval of “pari-mutuel barrel racing” is a nefarious plan to deliberately and dramatically curtail the usual thousands of horses needed for a normal Florida race meet down to as few as two horses—thus completely eliminating the need for facilities such as Payson Park and 104,000 annual jobs that would otherwise be needed to support normal training and racing activities, such as racetrack operations, racehorse training and ancillary breeding industries—all part of what drives the horse racing industry’s enormous Florida economic impact.
Will Florida’s horse racing industry be destroyed before our policymakers realize and protect the financial value and international prestige of this economic engine? How many potential buyers of Payson Park will balk at a purchase because of the clever lawyering and loopholes that have been allowed to literally begin the dismantling of all of it?
In the article, which is reprinted below, Forbes describes Payson Park thusly:
“Billionaires and multimillionaires with a penchant for racing have steadfastly filled the stalls for 30 years, the vast majority of seasonal licensees boarding horses coming through word-of-mouth recommendations. Among them: the Aga Khan; telecom billionaire Kenny Troutt and wife Lisa; Arab diplomat brothers Mahmoud and Moustapha Foustok; late Irish airline mogul Tony Ryan; diamond prospector Charles Fipke (whose horse Tale of Ekati is named for his Canadian diamond mine); and Madeleine Pickens, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens.”
When Virginia Kraft Payson and her late husband Charles Shipman Payson first arrived at the St. Lucie training farm in Indiantown, Fla., it was in shambles. Built in the 1950s by racing mavens Michel Phipps, Bull Hancock, Townsend Martin and C.T. Chenery, the farm had fallen into disrepair upon their deaths and landed in the real estate portfolio of an attorney looking to eventually profit from the value of the land itself.
“There were cattle and alligators on the race track,” remembers Kraft Payson, a Sports Illustrated journalist-turned-thoroughbred breeder. The self-proclaimed ‘outdoor adventuress’ and her husband Charlie, a wealthy industrialist who graced the Forbes 400 list in the early 1980s with a $100-million-plus fortune, had set their sights on horse racing, having acquired several thoroughbreds for competition. “To use the track, someone would have to ride out first to clear the wildlife that had come in the night before.”
Still, the Paysons leased the dilapidated farm for the winter season of 1979-1980 to train their horses: it was close enough to their snowbird residence on Jupiter Island that they could visit regularly to stay apprised of their investments’ progress during the winter months when Lexington, Ky. wouldn’t provide an optimal training climate.
After racing specialists surmised that it would take relatively little capital to restore the tracks to top condition, the couple, which also owned the New York Mets baseball team at the time, put in an offer to buy it. By August, after five months of haggling, the farm was theirs and Payson Park Thoroughbred Training Center was born.
To announce the new venture – and the new name – the new owners took out a single full-page ad in the racing forum. Posed in front of paddock fences, the Paysons promised to have their newly christened thoroughbred training facility open for business by October 1, in less than two short months.
Thanks to more than 100 people working daily, Payson Park did open. “We filled every stall by opening day,” recalls Payson. “We almost couldn’t handle it; we even had to turn some people away.” And until the economic downturn in 2008, the stalls stayed completely booked, with a wait list.
The result: a 405-acre training facility equipped with 21 barns touting a total of 499 stalls, a one-mile championship dirt track, a 7/8th mile irrigated turf track, and an electronic six-horse starting gate. The work also yielded two dormitories totaling 62 rooms, an observation lounge, 76 paddocks, a café with a commercial grade kitchen, a veterinarian facility, a lighted soccer field, and miles of riding trails. As Kraft Payson proudly points out, the dirt training track is the farm’s crown jewel, lauded the “most consistent of all race tracks measured in the country,” according to an independent study from M.I.T.
Payson Park’s success has been due in part to its prime location. As one of only two thoroughbred training facilities in South Fla. (the other is Palm Meadows), the commercial farm is less than an hour from billionaire-centric Palm Beach, providing a lauded wintertime training option that’s easily accessible.
Billionaires and multimillionaires with a penchant for racing have steadfastly filled the stalls for 30 years, the vast majority of seasonal licensees boarding horses coming through word-of-mouth recommendations. Among them: the Aga Khan; telecom billionaire Kenny Troutt and wife Lisa; Arab diplomat brothers Mahmoud and Moustapha Foustok; late Irish airline mogul Tony Ryan; diamond prospector Charles Fipke (whose horse Tale of Ekati is named for his Canadian diamond mine); and Madeleine Pickens, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens.
Then there are the horses. Pickens is the owner of Cigar, which, with 16 consecutive wins, is reportedly the top money earner in thoroughbred racing history. Other decorated champions include Drosselmeyer, Perfect Shirl, Royal Delta, Gio Ponti, St. Jovite, Easy Goer, In Summation, Voodoo Dancer, Perfect Soul, Ajina, Arravale, Go Between, Callwood Dancer, Pine Island, Lure, and Payson’s own race-winner, Rutherienne. The facility has been used by several Hall of Fame trainers too, including Roger Attfield, Christophe Clement, Shug McGaughey and Bill Mott.
“The Queen of England has had horses trained at Payson Park,” Kraft Payson informs me. “The first question she always asks when I see her at horse races in England is, ‘How is Payson Park?’”
But perhaps Queen Elizabeth II won’t be asking that question much longer. The outdoor adventuress – who has piloted hot air balloons, hunted wild game in Africa and dog sledded 75 miles across Alaska in her 80-plus years — put her beloved farm on the market for $12 million last May. With no buyer yet materialized, it has recently been slashed to $8.95 million.
“I have four children, my sole heirs, who have no interest in thoroughbred racing,” sighs Kraft Payson, who will continue to own and inhabit a residence located on a property adjoining the facility’s vast acreage. “It’s an estate planning move because I think they would sell it for 10 cents on the dollar to get rid of it and I don’t want that to happen to Payson Park.”
The cash-positive property is being offered as a commercial venture through Atlantic Western Realty Corp. Since the downturn, owners have cut back on their equine holdings, so the wait list has disappeared. But the farm continues to hover near full occupancy: for the 2012 fiscal year, 88% of stalls are full and the facility will earn just under $320,000 after operating costs and before taxes.
Brad Scherer, the real estate broker for the property, says he suspects a major racehorse owner – perhaps even someone boarding horses there now – will ultimately snap up the property. But the eponymous matriach doesn’t care who — as long as it continues to provide training for thoroughbreds.
“We have a reputation for being the very best in the country…so it must continue as a training facility,” Kraft Payson insists. “I do hope that after it is sold, to be able to come down and visit.” And of course, to have a place to board her horses in the winter.