Forty years ago, horse racing and boxing were the top sports in America. The Thoroughbred world’s leading owners were born into the game—and they dominated racing because their parents and grandparents had done the same.
When I founded West Point Thoroughbreds in 1991, we didn’t have the connections of blue-blood horse racing society. Our first runner was claimed for $5,000. Our first investor was a pipe-fitter from Philadelphia. We weren’t guaranteed a high-figure amount of funding. We started as outsiders, people who were fascinated by this sport and wanted to be a part of it.
But there’s one thing I shared in common with the people who were longtime racing figures - I always had a connection with the Thoroughbred. In 1978, my dad, who was a schoolteacher, and two other schoolteachers and I drove through the night from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to watch Affirmed beat Alydar in the Kentucky Derby that year. I was 14 and the winning jockey that year was only 16 years old—Steve Cauthen. I’m good friends with him now.
I spent the next 10 years trying to figure out a way to turn that connection into a profession. I live and breathe my business, this sport. When I’m driving down the road I’m thinking about racing; where to place our horses, how to better serve our clients.
I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’m always learning because the sport of racing is rich, multi-layered and fascinating. I know I’m in the right spot in my life because we’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’m even more excited about the next 20 to come.
As the racing industry has changed in the past 20 years, so has West Point Thoroughbreds. Our partnership roster today includes over 500 people - from schoolteachers who come to the races on their summer break to corporate executives who fly in on their private planes. We love to introduce people to the game, and I also love to share my thoughts about the business aspect of what I do.
When I have a chance to give people business advice, I ask them four questions.
Are You Willing to Go All In?
Like many other business owners, my wife Debbie and I started our company with credit cards and our personal savings. When I walked out the door of the insurance office and said ‘I’m going into horse racing full-time,’ we took a risk and were rewarded for it.
It’s like taking that first jump as an Army Ranger, sitting at the door of a plane, knowing you’re going to rely upon the fact that they packed the chute properly and it’s going to open. I always use a saying I learned in the military, “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”
A lot of people choose a career that will be their job, while their passion lies elsewhere. But if you can make what you do what you live and breathe and think and dream about all the time, you’ll go far. Taking what you love to do and making a profession out of it is so much better than just working to make a living. Many times, I knew I could stay on the safe route, but that wouldn’t have gotten me to where I am today.
Are You Surrounding Yourself With Good People?
Clients. Without them, we’re not here. They’re what we talk about all the time - if we’re doing the right things with their investments, if we’re keeping them happy, if we’re doing our best to find new ones.
Our biggest source of new business is referral from current clients, and as a CEO I always know we’re off track when we stop talking about them, when they stop coming up in conversation. With clients, remaining open to feedback and listening to their input before I make key decisions has been one of the best traits I’ve learned to employ as a CEO.
Our clients aren’t always going to be happy with the results our horses turn in, but they’re not ever going to have a reason to doubt our sincerity, effort, and integrity - and that’s because of our phenomenal team. It’s easy to hire people who are just like you, but if my team isn’t debating topics, I know there’s something wrong. I’m a leader who believes in collaboration, and a group always comes in with an answer that will make you think.
Surround yourself with people who don’t think like you do; bring people on to challenge your entrepreneurial thought process. The world doesn’t rest on your shoulders alone, so ask as many questions as you can from as many quality people as you can, before you make your final decisions.
Are You Looking Forward?
In horse racing, when we have an unfocused runner, we put them in blinkers to help keep their vision on the race ahead. In business, determination, perseverance, and a decision to keep looking forward will get you far. You have to realize that you’re going to lose clients over the years, you’re going to make some decisions you’ll regret, but focus on controlling what you can control and don’t burn bridges.
Racing is a volatile business. In baseball, if you’re a 300 hitter, you’re in the upper echelons. In racing, you’re doing good if you win 20 percent of the time. Everybody’s guessing in this game, even the experts. It’s different from other businesses in that you can do everything right and still be wrong—fundamentally sound business principles are still dependent upon the art and science that goes into acquiring a good runner, and the luck that’s required to have that horse go on to do great things.
It’s an emotional business and basically I’ve learned that all you can control is the way you react. There’s no value in destroying a relationship that could come back around, but by the same token, another one of my favorite sayings is “turn the page.” Basically, when you’ve done what you can do, realize that, and move on.
How Do You Evaluate Your Progress?
Horse racing is a sport of very measurable results. There’s a wire. We win or we lose. In the partnership business, there’s another angle - we sell percentages in horses, or we don’t. Most businesses have a similar pattern, although it may not be as clear-cut.
Know your key metrics. Keep it simple, focusing on what you do best. Know what counts, and know what factors impact your bottom line.
The most important thing in our business is how many times we get to the finish line first, but we also know it’s important for us to be in sync with our marketing expenditures, our overhead, and revenue. This is one of the reasons we don’t own a farm. We’re very focused on what we absolutely, positively do best—selling partnerships in active racehorses.
Today, partnership groups are just as important to the racing industry as private owners. We lead the way with innovation, technology, and good business practices - offering a chance to compete at the highest levels. When you invest with my company, you invest in a lifestyle, an experience. You also invest in a team of people who are passionate about getting your investment to the finish line first - and you into the winner’s circle - as often as possible.
Racehorse ownership is a life-changing experience, and it’s a great business I work in. Any time I need to remember that, I try to walk around a racetrack, to visit the grandstand, the clubhouse, or the picnic area. Seeing the amount of people that find joy in this game gives me great happiness, and to think there are future owners in the pipeline keeps me excited for what lies ahead.
'How I Made My Millions' Monday, August 22 9p | 12a ET
Terry Finley is the founder and President of West Point Thoroughbreds, Inc. a leading horse racing partnership management company headquartered in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. A graduate of West Point, Finley is a former Army Captain and Airborne Ranger who holds an MSBA from Boston University and has served on numerous racing industry boards. He has been passionately involved in the Thoroughbred industry for more than 30 years, gaining hands-on experience working with thoroughbreds as a teenager and starting his company in 1991.