Castle Village Farm was born in 1995. Three couples who had become friends, Steve and Jean Zorn, Murray and Caroline Skopin and Jim and Gail Berson, decided to own a race horse. We all lived in an apartment complex named Castle Village in northern Manhattan. We used to joke that there was almost enough room for a horse on the Castle Village grounds, so, when it came to a name for our racing partnership, the answer was obvious.
Our first trainer was Keith Sirota. He was just starting out on his own after working with Alan Goldberg and other New Jersey trainers. Keith was based in South Florida in the winter and New Jersey in summer and fall, so our first horse would race at Hialeah and the Meadowlands. Keith brought Newsday racing columnist Paul Moran, handicapper Stuie Rubin, and some great New Jersey racing fans into the partnership. That gave us just enough money to make our first claim. He was a Florida sprinter with the unlikely name Warwhatisitgoodfor. He was named after a rock song but he quickly became Charlie to all of us. Charlie won second time out for us, at Hialeah. We had never felt a rush like that! We were hooked on owning horses.
Charlie loved racing. He did it till he was seven, and still didn’t want to leave the track, so he became an outrider pony at Gulfstream. Last time we were in Florida, he was still there, taking the young ones to the gate.
But even while Charlie was thrilling us at Monmouth, we wanted to own horses closer to home. In 1998, We joined Cyberspace Racing Team, a national internet syndicate, which gave us a small share in a two-year-old colt named Aloha Sunrise. CRT had a bunch of New York partners, so we didn’t just gain a horse; we also gained a host of new racetrack friends . CRT hired P.G. Johnson to train Aloha Sunrise. Johnson, a successful trainer for more than 50 years, brought years of expertise to the education of our little colt. That summer, at Saratoga, we spent many blissful hours every morning leaning on the rail behind P.G.’s shedrow at the Oklahoma training track, fascinated by P.G.’s stories of his half century in racing.
Aloha Sunrise broke his maiden that fall at Belmont, but in his next race, was claimed away. For most of CRT New York partners, it was the first horse we’d lost to a claim. We felt like kids whose Christmas candy had been snatched away by a stranger. CRT was busy with horses in other parts of the country, and not interested in finding another horse for the New Yorkers right away, so Steve volunteered to put together a new partnership, just for New York. Within weeks, most of our new friends in CRT’s New York venture joined up. The partners agreed that, since the name Castle Village Farm already existed, and even had some local connotations, we’d stick with it.
The new expanded New York version of Castle Village Farm was nearly ready to go. But we didn’t yet have a horse or a trainer. That all changed with the arrival of jockey Leah Gyarmati. Leah had started at the racetrack when she was still in high school as an exercise rider for Allen Jerkens, the longtime New York trainer famous as the David whose horses beat the likes of Secretariat and other Goliaths of racing.
In May 1999, Steve and Leah began scrutinizing the claiming races, in search of the perfect horse. Steve and Leah, and many of the other partners as well, scoured the racing form’s past performances, studied every claiming race, fanned out around the backstretch in the mornings to see workouts and to get information about the health and soundness of the possible candidates. In June, 1999, for $20,000, Castle Village claimed Flippy Diane, a 4-year-old mare, who’d been out of racing for six months, nursing a sore knee. It was a gutsy claim, but Steve had a feeling; something about her workout line told him that Flippy Diane was back in good form and ready to race. And he was right. In her first race for Castle Village Farm, at Saratoga, she came in second. That race alone fulfilled the dreams of Saratoga Charlie Barringer, one of Castle Village Farm’s first, and most loyal, partners: he had been going to the races at Saratoga for a lifetime, and had never had a horse of his own race there.
Flippy Diane’s next race was in the Maryland Million Distaff. Castle Village Farm’s $20,000 claimer won Maryland’s most important filly stakes race! She went on to have such a stellar career for Castle Village Farm that the partners never had to pay a cash call until over a year after she retired. In fact, we used her earnings to claim another horse, No Bad Habits, and to purchase the lovely two-year-old who became Seneca Falls.
Expert jockey Diane Nelson rode Flippy for most of her career. With a woman trainer, and a woman jockey, and a stakes-winning mare, Castle Village Farm quickly made its name as a place where women’s talents were recognized and supported. That’s unusual in horse racing, even today.
Castle Village Farm started as a group of friends, with Steve donating his services,“ not only in choosing horses and overseeing the work of the trainers, but also in keeping partners informed about what was going on, making sure that the partnership bills got paid, maintaining the partnership bookkeeping and other records, and even doing the partnership taxes. One of the many benefits of this model was that there were no extraneous expenses. No charges were tacked on for lawyers or bookkeepers or accountants, let alone for management. Steve didn’t take a fee. The result was that, for almost the first time, people with ordinary incomes could experience the thrill of owning race horses. That part of the game was no longer the exclusive preserve of the well-to-do.
When Castle Village Farm expanded into New York, that business model continued. Once Flippy and Castle Village Farm’s other horses were winning regularly, other people around the track started to notice the fun that the partners were having, and we started hearing from people who wanted to join. After much thought, we decided not to keep endlessly adding partners to the original Castle Village Farm, which would have had the effect of making everybody’s shares smaller and smaller. Instead, we decided that the best way to expand was to set up a second partnership on the Castle Village Farm model. We called that partnership Snowbird. We claimed Storm Magest, a wonderful older horse who loved to run and run and run. His best races were at the longest distances. With Diane Nelson in the irons, Stormy would take the lead, and never give it up, no matter how long the race.
Snowbird’s success meant that a third partnership had to be created, and then a fourth. We made race horse owners out of more and more people who had never before thought they could realize that dream. And, once they had a taste of ownership, most people wanted to keep on with it. Some of the original (and later) partners have followed us into almost every one of the new partnerships. Others prefer to own just one or two horses at a time, joining up for shares in new horses as their current ones are claimed away or retired. Some of our partners have learned enough about ownership through their participation in Castle Village Farm to enable them to form their own groups or to buy horses on their own or with a small group of friends. And some were satisfied, once they had the thrills, to put their win pictures up on the wall and return to civilian life.
Although most of our early purchases were by way of the claim box, we also have bought a number of yearlings and two-year-olds at auction, mostly New York-breds. We generally buy for moderate prices, and a number of our horses have earned 10 times or more their purchase price on the race track. And, when an opportunity comes along, we buy horses privately as well. Steve hones his eye for selecting these young horses by working as part of an expert team at the annual Keeneland yearling sales, selecting high-priced horses for the elite of the racing world.
As we expanded the number of our horses, we also involved additional trainers in caring for them. Early on, we were fortunate to link up with Bill Turner, who trained Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, and more recently, we added up-and-coming young trainer Bruce Brown. All our trainers have been based at Belmont, so partners can easily visit all their horses at one time.
As Castle Village Farm grew, it became a fulltime job for Steve and then more than fulltime. But, he has so far refused to add to the partners’ costs by taking a salary for himself. He consented only to taking a commission on the purses that our horses earn for us. That way, Castle Village Farm can remain affordable; you don’t have to be rich to own a CVF race horse.
We’ve added staff. For a time, Jamie Jones ran the office for us, and did a great job of keeping us, the horses and the partners organized. Christopher Zorn served as a liaison to the partners. Our current Director of Sales, Joe Wall is at the backstretch every Sunday morning, introducing partners to the many pleasures of life behind the scenes, and in the boxes every time a Castle Village Farm horse races, to make sure the partners have a good time and get good seats.
Nowadays, Steve’s major focus is on the racing part of our business, the horses, the trainers, the jockeys and the races, though it is still Steve who does the annual partnership taxes. Other than that, his wife Jean handles most of the business side, making sure that bills are paid, supplies ordered, and that monthly accounts are scrupulously kept so that the partners will pay only for what was spent. Castle Village Farm is not a profit-making entity; it is in the business of making horse ownership accessible to people from all walks of life.