He calls himself the “horseless horseman.” Dan Schafer has never owned a horse in his life.
But the 33-year-old pizza entrepreneur from Michigan could land in the winner’s circle at Gulfstream Park on Saturday if a 50-1 long shot named War Story springs a major upset by knocking off four-legged titans California Chrome and Arrogate in the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational. With a $12 million purse, it is the richest race in thoroughbred history — a whopping $10 million more than the Kentucky Derby. The Pegasus winner gets $7 million.
“It has been an amazing ride up to this point,” Schafer said.
That’s putting it mildly.
Schafer is among a handful of “stakeholders,” investors who ponied up $1 million each to secure one of the 12 starting slots in the Pegasus. Stakeholders didn’t necessarily have to own a horse to take part in the race, which is typically the case. But they were free to lease or sell their slots to those who did.
“If somebody told you that you could have a spot in the Masters every year and all you had to do was find the golfer, you’d do it,” said Dean Reeves, another stakeholder. “That’s what went through my mind.”
Unlike Schafer, Reeves knows his way around the sport. He has owned horses, including retired champion Mucho Macho Man. But that horse is now at stud, producing mini-Muchos and leaving Reeves without a top-caliber, stakes-ready horse worthy of consideration for the Pegasus. As a stakeholder for the Pegasus, though, he could try to locate one.
And so in May, when Schafer and Reeves put up their $1 million, each began the process of scouring the country for the best possible horse to chase that $7 million carrot.
For Schafer, it was an education. He was fascinated with the sport and recalled watching the Triple Crown races with his grandfather.
“I went to my first [Kentucky] Derby in 2003,” he said.
When it came to horse ownership, though, Schafer was timid. He knew about pizza, opening Jet’s Pizza franchises in northern Kentucky and the Midwest. But horses were another matter.
“I always wanted to own horses,” Schafer said. “That had always been a dream of mine. But I’d go to the sales at Keeneland, and going down there I was intimidated.”
Schafer watched as skittish, unraced yearlings were fetching seven-figure prices at auction. Not knowing what to look for or who to trust, he kept his hands in his pockets.
“I never ended up buying a horse,” he said.
But Schafer saw an opening when Gulfstream announced plans for the Pegasus, a race organizers named for the 11-story bronze statue of the mythical horse that towers over the Hallandale Beach track’s north parking lot.
“It made good sense to me,” Schafer said of the concept.
The trick was finding the right horse, the fastest horse. Schafer and Reeves, as well as others without a horse of their own, spent the summer and fall scouting the major races, keeping an eye out for a horse that looked the part. Whenever they spotted one, they would contact the owner to gauge interest and try to broker a deal. It wasn’t an easy process. Some of the horses they targeted became injured. Others retired. And the owners of still others quivered at the thought of having their horses go against either California Chrome or Arrogate, the one-two finishers in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November.
“It made it tough,” Schafer said of the fear factor associated with having to take on the two clear-cut leaders in racing. “There were so many skeptics, naturally, when you have two superstars out there, the No. 1 and No. 2 horses in the world. You knew that whatever horse you were getting, that horse was going to have his back against the wall. There were a lot of horse owners who felt the same way, so why invest money if my horse doesn’t have a chance?”
Reeves began to fret as time passed, and he still had no horse lined up for his slot.
“It went past the first of the year and we didn’t have a horse,” Reeves said. “I mean, I’m sweating. I couldn’t sleep or anything. I thought we were going to have to put a billy goat in as our entry.”
With time running out, Reeves was eventually able to work out a deal with the owners of Breaking Lucky, a 5-year-old Canadian-bred coming off a second-place finish in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. And Schafer worked out a lease agreement for War Story, who finished eighth of nine horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, more than 25 lengths behind Arrogate and California Chrome.
Third place is worth $1 million, after all. And participants are also receiving a cut of the track’s sponsorship deals for the race and wagering handle on the Pegasus itself, an amount Gulfstream officials say could reach $40 million.
Win or lose, Schafer said, he will have no regrets. He is renting an entire section of the apron for 200 of his friends he’s invited to watch the race with him. And if War Story by some chance prevails, he’ll delight in the $7 million payoff. That’s a lot of dough, even for a pizza man.
“That million [dollars] put me in the richest race in the world,” Schafer said. “I stand behind that investment still today.”