The evolution of Laurel Oak

[This article was prepared for an Operation Ownership feature in the Racing NSW Magazine and an abridged version appeared in the October 2005 edition.]

Laurel Oak Bloodstock has been operating now for almost 20 years “making racehorse ownership easy and enjoyable”. Started and still operated by Louis and Jill Mihalyka, Laurel Oak started off as pure syndication business but is now involved in many facets of the racing and breeding industries. The “team” of one employee (Louis) with a wife working and supporting has now grown into a full-time staff of four working flat-out!

“We started Laurel Oak because I absolutely loved racing and loved owning racehorses, and thought that syndicating would be a way to race more horses and be paid for it! Well the passion for racing horses has never waned – 20 years later I still get white knuckle fever before a race, whether it is before a country maiden or a Group One race. I guess we will keep doing it and enjoying it while the passion still burns!”

The Laurel Oak motto of making racehorse ownership EASY and ENJOYABLE has never been truer. Laurel Oak Bloodstock is the main operating company while Laurel Oak Thoroughbreds has always been a separate company holding an AFS Dealers Licence. In fact that company may now be the longest continuous Syndication Licence holder in Australia!

In recent years however the Bloodstock company has played a far greater role in helping owners, new and old become involved in racing. We have never been a “big” syndication company, nor had any desire to be. We have seen some big ones come and go over the years although that market seems thankfully a lot more settled now. We realised many years ago that there is no point in trying to compete with the larger, high-profile syndication companies with their massive advertising budgets because it has never been our style. Consequently Laurel Oak Bloodstock has taken a greater role in making ownership “easy” and “Thoroughbreds” may only offer one or two horses a year for syndication.

Rather than compete in the public advertising market, we work very closely with our existing clients which we have established over 20 years in the acquisition of horses that suits them, and the majority of our new owners are word-of–mouth introductions to people who share our passion for racing.  For example we go to the sales on behalf of existing owners or syndicates and buy horses. Many of our clients are breeders who buy quality fillies or have bred horses that they are happy to lease out all or part of for racing and that provides the opportunity for many of our owners to race a horse on lease as alternative to buying into a horse.

What really makes it EASY for you to become a racehorse owner with Laurel Oak is the tremendous flexibility in the size and style of ownership that we can provide you. Basically you can decide the size of ownership that best suits you whether that is determined by your budget or what gets your adrenalin going and in time we can source a horse for you or create the opportunity for you. If you know what you want and what you can afford, we will try and find a horse or horses that will fit your requirements, regardless of whether you are an individual, or a small or large group of friends or colleagues. For example ownership or lease shares can range from as large as you want to as small as 2.5% shares.

Our clients range from owners with large and multiple racing interests, down to as small as you like. For example we have one syndicate of 16 that has been going for about four years that pays $90 per month each, and they have a 20% lease share in two or three horses at any one time. While they individually each race 1/80th of each horse, it is a very social group that enjoys their racing and generally have a very good time. Many of them have graduated into larger ownership but still retain their interest in this syndicate for the social enjoyment. One of their horses may run in a Group One race on Epsom Day so that would be a fun day!

The “Enjoyable” side has many aspects. Firstly going to the races is important! On average we only “acquire” around 10 to 12 new horses each year, whether it be purchased or on lease. The main focus is on horses that we think have the physical structure to get to the races, and the physical and pedigree structure to be successful racehorses.

This has enabled us to be particularly selective in our acquisitions and as a result we have a phenomenal record of getting horses to the races. Of our current 4,5 and 6yos of 37 horses selected for clients, 36 have raced and 37th is a late-blooming 4yo who is only about 5 weeks off a debut to keep it a 100% record. We appreciate that it is impossible to maintain a 100% record but because we do not bulk buy yearlings we can be more selective to lower the risk of break-down. The majority of our new season 3yos have already raced as well, so we are on target to keep that 100% record going for a bit longer!

Winning is also part of the “enjoyable” side. Because virtually all the horses that we “acquire” actually go to the races, we have a very good winning strike-rate. That does help the enjoyment!! The first two weeks of the new season saw two city winners for the “team” in Radiant Star and Miracle Queen. However the career highlight for Laurel Oak was without doubt the first time we had two horses in a Group One race. In the 2003 Salinger at Flemington on Derby Day we quinellaed the race when Ancient Song beat Into The Night!  Both horses were purchased on Laurel Oak’s recommendation, both were raced by syndicates formed and managed by Laurel Oak, and both horses were produced by matings recommended by Brain Pedigree Analysis.

[Brain is a very successful international pedigree analyst for whom Laurel Oak is the Australasian agent. All Laurel Oak horses are Brain recommended matings or yearlings and that has helped lift our winning strike-rate tremendously over the years. Brain has been responsible for recommending the matings of many Group One winners in Australia while overseas Motivator, this year’s English Derby winner was also the product of a Brain recommended mating.]

The best thing about the Group One quinella was that it highlighted so much of what we do. The ownership of the two horses ranged from a 60% owner down to a couple of 1/80th shareholders, with the majority of owners somewhere in between. But the mix of personalities is such that they all get along well and all celebrate just as hard!

The highlights continued in 2003 when Into The Night was invited to represent Australia in the Hong Kong International Sprint. While doing the best of the Australian horses, that was the year Silent Witness was “discovered”, but it was a great honour to be invited and an absolutely sensational trip for about 15 owners!

Outside of the racing side, the other contributors to the “enjoyment” are a very strong focus on communication. We have a free monthly newsletter, Grandstand View, which focuses on general Laurel Oak and racing news, and it must be over 350 editions old by now! However each owner receives specific communication on their own horses, by email, fax or mail (depending on their level of technology!) and telephone communication as well, including a phone call before each race start. In fact the communication side is the one area that we receive the most compliments on (you’ve tried the rest, now try the best!). I am sure it helps in maintaining the quality of communication that we try and keep our team to a manageable level of around 30 horses of racing age.

To add to the enjoyment we have range of social functions as well. Stable visits, racedays, industry functions, an annual Melbourne Cup trip that just grows every year, three or four golf days each year at Castle Hill Country Club, regular Hunter Valley trips, a biennial New Zealand Stud Tour and anything else we can think of that our owners would enjoy!!

We make the accounting side easy as well by centralising the administration through Laurel Oak so that each owner has the opportunity to only make one payment for each horse or in many instances one payment for all their horses. That has worked so well that it has actually evolved into a service for non-Laurel Oak owners, with several high-profile owners with large racing and breeding interests centralising their administration through Laurel Oak so they only have to make one monthly payment each month for all their horses.

Laurel Oak is based in Sydney although we have horses trained across the eastern seaboard. Basically we have placed horses in the various states depending on the bonus schemes that they are eligible for. And for that reason we are great fans of BOBS as it has really made winning races in New South Wales great value and now that all the major studs are supporting the scheme it will just get bigger and better.

Our main New South Wales trainers are Gary Portelli and Keith Dryden. Having a metropolitan and country based trainer means we can move horses to where they are most likely to win, but Keith showed with Into The Night that country trained horses can win stakes races throughout Australia and even be invited to Hong Kong! 

Apart from training the horses successfully, it has always been very important that our trainers provide us with up-to-date communication so that we can keep our owners informed as we have been involved with “bigger” trainers where that did not happen. It is also very important that our trainers get on with our owners and make them feel welcome at the races and at stable visits regardless of the size of their ownership.

So there are many ways that Laurel Oak can make racehorse ownership easy and enjoyable for you, and we always welcome new clients to join us in racing horses.

Contact Louis Mihalyka of Laurel Oak Bloodstock on 02 8883 1066 to discuss your potential future racehorse ownership and how Laurel Oak can make it EASY and ENJOYABLE for you.