ELMONT, N.Y. – When Mike Piazza formed racing syndicate Zilla Racing Stables in June 2012, the upstate New York native said he wanted to merge his love of horse racing with his analytical mindset.
Zilla Racing Stables capped 2020 with a record of 36-10-3-7 on the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) circuit, hitting the board at a 55.56 percent clip. With a record of 17-3-2-1 through June 10 this year at NYRA tracks, the partnership is building on that success.
Zilla Racing Stables, who offer fractional ownership opportunities to groups ranging from 10-25 people per horse, form partnerships during different times of the year depending on the horse’s age. For 2-year-olds, partnerships commence in March; yearling partnerships commence in August; and claiming partnerships are formed throughout the year. Training and other expenses are billed at the end of each month.
Most Zilla Racing Stables’ partnerships operate under a standard model where partners pay their share of the purchase price and expenses at a minimum participation rate of 3 percent.
Also offered is a “zero expense model” for a limited number of claiming partnerships; these entail a minimum participation rate of 5 percent, in which partners pay their share of the horse’s purchase price plus a one-time administration fee. In this model, additional expenses are paid for by the trainer, who retains a larger portion of the earnings.
Piazza, who grew up 20 minutes from Saratoga Race Course, was introduced to racing by his parents, who were regular attendees at the Spa.
“They went to Saratoga and racing was on TV all the time,” Piazza recalled. “I was always exposed to it. I love handicapping, reading the racing form, and analyzing sheet numbers. I love analyzing things, so I just got so into it. It wasn’t even about the money to me. The process of handicapping a race, watching replays, and seeing how the races unfold is what drives me.”
Piazza said he had racing syndicate experience prior to forming Zilla Racing Stables.
“I really enjoyed it and I saw a lot of areas where it could be improved,” said Piazza. “It gave me the groundwork of all the things that partners are looking for, and what things were important to other partners. When I decided I wanted to do this, I never envisioned it becoming as big as it has.”
A graduate of Siena College with an accounting degree, Piazza said he merged his passion with his occupation.
“At the time I started Zilla Racing I was an accountant, so I knew I could handle things on the financial end,” Piazza said. “Given that I loved horses and horseracing, I just merged all the skills I possess into one thing. I felt that I had the ability to put together a partnership on so many levels. With my accounting background, I didn’t have to hire a bookkeeper so the cost could be more affordable to our partners.”
Piazza said transparency is paramount.
“If I’m not giving my partners all the information that they’re entitled to as owners, I’m not doing my job,” Piazza said. “It’s important to also let prospective new partners know exactly what it is that they’re getting into. I even put it out there on Zilla’s website that most horses lose money, some break even and very few earn a profit. This way, people know exactly what it is they’re about to be in for, without any sort of unpleasant surprises. However, just because this business so tough, it’s not an excuse to be inefficient and lose money.”
Piazza said new partners joining Zilla Racing Stables can expect an education on the day-to-day responsibilities for owners.
“Our members learn about vetting, training philosophy, what types of races we are targeting and how horses mature physically, especially through their 3-year-old season,” said Piazza. “You see horses really start to take off during their 3-year-old seasons. That’s when the races get faster. I try to get them to understand not just how the horse develops, but how the racing office writes certain races. If people do decide to go out on their own, they know what they’re getting into after partnering with us.”
Zilla Racing Stables offers syndicate opportunities on a wide array of racehorses.
“Sometimes partners are unsure about a claiming horse or a 2-year-old, so I tell them the pros and cons of both and let them come to a decision for themself,” Piazza explained. “To me, a claiming horse is like an unwrapped Christmas present under the tree. You pretty much know what you’re going to get because it’s already run, and you can see its form. The 2-year-old is like the Christmas present that’s still wrapped. You’re excited to see it, but you don’t know what’s in it, and that’s what keeps us all coming back. There’s something about chasing the unknown that keeps people wanting more. Often times, claiming horses simply are what they are, but you never know how good an unraced 2-year-old could be.”
Piazza teams up with agent Conor Foley of Oracle Bloodstock to scout unraced 2-year-olds.
“There are multiple things that dictate the price of a 2-year-old: how it breezes, how it bounces out, how he did it, what equipment is the horse wearing, and so on,” Piazza said. “I’ll have multiple questions that I ask myself. If the horse is breezing, is it wearing a tongue tie? What kind of bit is it wearing, and I can hear its airway as it gallops by me? After the breeze, they either pass or fail. If they pass, I watch them in slow motion, making sure they are efficient in stride and then narrow it down even more from there. We ultimately narrow it down to about 100 horses that we’ll go look at in person. We knock them off based off conformation and our list just gets smaller and smaller.”
In order to secure a horse at a more reasonable sale price, Piazza said he will choose horses with good conformation and an athletic demeanor over a pricier option with a more regal pedigree.
“The more boxes a horse checks, the more money that horse will cost,” Piazza said. “Our budget is limited. Ideally, you want an athlete with a pedigree, great conformation, good size and a good vet report, but I can’t afford a horse with it all. So, I have to sacrifice something, sometimes more than one. I will always give on pedigree, but I can’t give on the athlete. At our price points, we’re looking for horses that are good movers, big strides, clear airways, good vetting, really nice conformation. We just sacrifice a little on pedigree.”
Zilla Racing Stables’ top earner is the New York-bred Celtic Chaos [47-10-7-9, $751,431], a three-time stakes-winner, and the richest progeny by blue collar stallion Dublin. Celtic Chaos, a last out seventh on March 13 at Aqueduct, was recently reacquired by Zilla Racing Stables and will receive a well-earned retirement.
“We’ve been fortunate to have found some of those diamonds in the rough,” Piazza said. “We bought Celtic Chaos for only $55,000 and he’s a stakes winner who has earned $700,000.”
Zilla Racing Stables works with a handful of trainers, including 32-year-old conditioner Ray Handal, who saddled English Soul to stakes wins in the 2018 East View at Aqueduct Racetrack and the 2018 Fleet Indian at Saratoga.
“Mike understands the game and wants to win races,” Handal said. “He is very honest and transparent, he doesn’t mind taking good news or bad news, and those things always make your life easier. It speaks volumes as to why he’s been so successful and runs such a good program. He also was very instrumental in boosting my training career as well.”
Handal and Zilla Racing Stables also teamed up with Kentucky-bred Dealing Justice, who recently won a first-level allowance at Churchill Downs.
“Dealing Justice was a horse who made our list, Conor’s list and she was one that Ray thought was his favorite within our budget, so we all matched up on her,” Piazza recalled. “We all matched on English Soul as well and she turned out to be a multiple stakes winner.”
Zilla Racing Stables also employs reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, who conditioned Celtic Chaos to two non-consecutive scores in the John Morrissey at Saratoga, as well as six-time winner Out of Trouble, a New York-bred daughter of Into Mischief.
Piazza said working with Cox, who won the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets with Essential Quality last weekend, is a sign of the syndicate’s success.
“To have a guy like Brad as one of our trainers is an absolute honor because he’s selective on who he’ll do business with,” Piazza said. “For him to accept our horses speaks volumes of what he thinks of us. We’ve been with Brad for the past few years and it’s great to see him win Eclipse Awards for himself and having champion-caliber horses.”
Zilla Racing Stables has also served as a starting point for several other syndicate managers, including Blue Streak Racing’s Tim McCoy.
“I’ve learned from Mike. I’ve branched out with my own connections, but whenever we chat, we’ll ask each other about things. You’re always learning something in this business,” McCoy said. “Mike is very hands on. He was an accountant, working full time when I met him. He’s very numbers oriented and can see the big picture. He really pays attention and is always detail oriented. He makes himself accessible and I try to emulate that.”
Zilla Racing Stables currently have multiple opportunities to buy into unraced 2-year-olds. Recent $200,000 purchases at the April OBS include a First Samurai colt and a daughter of second crop sire Nyquist out of a half-sister to 2013 Canadian Horse of the Year Up With the Birds.
For more information about Zilla Racing Stables, visit https://www.zillaracingstables.com/.
NYRA Press Office
Photo: Mike Piazza and Celtic Chaos, (Photo courtesy of Jay Moran)