Arnold Zetcher bought his first racehorse fifteen years ago, back when he was a CEO. His employees at Talbots, the women’s clothing retailer, were glad he finally had a hobby.
They “liked that there was another outlet,” Zetcher said.
On May 2, Zetcher’s current prize, a three-year-old colt named Firing Line, will compete in the Kentucky Derby, the marquee event of the horse racing year. The elegant chestnut thoroughbred is a 16-1 shot in the early odds, putting it in the top echelon of the 19-horse Derby field.
Zetcher has had two horses fall short in previous runnings of the Kentucky Derby. This time, he’s looking for a win.
“He’s a really good horse,” Zetcher said of Firing Line. “On the other hand, there’s twenty horses in there, so anything can happen.”
Zetcher, who retired from Talbots in 2008, is a rare Jewish owner in a sport with relatively few prominent Jewish participants. That’s not something that he spends much time thinking about. “We really don’t know who is and who isn’t [Jewish],” Zetcher said.
Brought up in Missouri, Zetcher got into horse racing as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, when he and his friends would run off to bet on the races at Cahokia Downs and Fairmount Park, two old thoroughbred tracks outside of town. Cahokia Downs is long-gone now, as is Zetcher: He decamped for California, where he lives with his wife.
Since his retirement, Zetcher has spent much of his time running his horse racing stable. He has 15 to 20 thoroughbreds in race training at any given time, plus a breeding operation at a farm in Kentucky. Horses born to his mares have won a handful of top graded stakes races in recent years.
As he’s gotten older, Zetcher’s interest has shifted from doping out the winners of races to the pleasure of watching the horses run.
“Now that’s probably the main aspect of it,” he said.
Back in 2001, Zetcher’s first purchase was a dud, a European-bred horse that took 15 races to notch its first win. His second, though, was a winner: Gabriellina Giof won the 2001 running of the Manhattan Beach, an annual stakes race at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, on her first race with Zetcher. That was Zetcher’s first victory as an owner. He hasn’t looked back.
Zetcher is cautiously optimistic about Firing Line’s chances. Over the course of his brief career, the colt has never finished worse than second. Purchased for $240,000 in April 2014, his sire, Line of David, finished an abysmal 18th in the Kentucky Derby in 2010, but his offspring have so far looked promising. Firing Line’s jockey for the derby, Gary Stevens, is a 52-year-old Hall of Famer with three Kentucky Derby wins on his record.
Race experts say that this year’s Kentucky Derby field is one of the strongest in a decade, with the stunning American Pharaoh the obvious favorite and Dortmund a close second. Still, Firing Line likely won’t be forgotten by bettors: Some have ranked him as third-favorite in the 20-horse field.
Zetcher is heading down to Kentucky to meet his horse on April 29. He’ll watch the horse stretch out the next morning, and the morning after that. On Derby day, he’ll watch from the stands. He doesn’t plan to bet on his horse: the $2 million purse is enticement enough.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Zetcher said. “We can’t wait to get there.”
This story "Kentucky Derby Horse Gives Arnold Zetcher a Chance To Dream" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.