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Horse Sense: Lessons in Horse Racing and Breeding from Professor Tom Cooke

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For Tom Cooke, the search for a new weekend hobby about 30 years ago turned into a lifelong passion.

By Jennifer Lubell

 

It started when Cooke stumbled upon a racetrack in Laurel, Maryland, that hosted nighttime racing for standardbred horses — a breed of horses common throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and Russia. He took a quick interest, thinking, “I can do this.”

“Why don’t I get one horse, try to find myself a good trainer, and get started?” recalls the distinguished teaching professor of federal taxation and business law at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

The racetrack in Laurel no longer exists, but Cooke’s one-horse operation has become a thriving business. Today, TBC (Thomas Barry Cooke) Stables includes five trainers, their families and employees, five veterinarians, and four horseshoe experts. His 37 horses are housed in six different locations in Maryland, and racing activities span several states on the East Coast.

In 2014 alone, five horses in his stable won six awards for racing in Maryland.  

Cooke acknowledges that he did not become a successful horse racer and breeder overnight. In learning about this trade, he realized he could have all the business sense in the world, “but if I didn’t combine that with a certain degree of ‘horse sense,’ I was going to be left out.”  

Here’s what this veteran professor learned about business from the world of horse racing:

There’s no “easy win.”
“There was a lot of business activity that I was just not aware of, and the educational process took a number of years,” Cooke says. Winning, he learned, is reliant on how the driver and trainer plan the race strategy and on how the horse is treated and trained before the race. Cooke says he was determined to get his arms around it. “I’m not going to say that today I know 100 percent of the process of racing and breeding horses, but I’m pretty close to it.”

Have a business plan.
It’s important to put your expectations and goals in writing and articulate how to accomplish those goals, he says. Any business model has to be flexible and change with the times. “What the business plan allowed me to do is take knowledge I have gained on my own, through experience, through school, and through the classroom, and bring it to the real world,” says Cooke, whose tenure at Georgetown spans nearly 40 years. He also has earned three law degrees from the Hilltop.

It’s important for the horses to rest, to gain weight, to simply relax."
— Tom Cooke, Distinguished Teaching Professor of Federal Taxation and Business Law

Be humane.
Cooke’s business model stresses the ethical treatment of horses and supports groups that provide a retirement environment for horses. Like any human athlete, horses need time off. “It took me a while to recognize that. It’s important for the horses to rest, to gain weight, to simply relax,” he says.

Hire right and build trust.
Through trial and error, Cooke discovered he needed a team of competent and talented people to make his business thrive. “Early on I went through some trainers who were not the best I could have possibly found. Over the years I’ve managed to surround myself with highly competent and dedicated trainers. But it was not easy.” In addition, Cooke has learned to tell the horsemen just two things before a race: good luck, and be safe. “Getting any other directions from me would be pointless. They are the experts. I’m bringing the product to them. It’s theirs to decide how it’s raced.”

Stand up for the people who support you.
As president of the Cloverleaf Standardbred Owners Association, Cooke has long represented the horsemen in negotiating important long-term contracts with two Maryland race tracks. His next goal is to fight for a “new bill of rights” in the Maryland standardbred industry. This would help finance important missing benefits such as medical and dental care, retirement and financial planning, life insurance, and death benefits for horsemen. “To me, that would be the biggest accomplishment of my life: to obtain for others the benefits that I enjoy through Georgetown.”

 

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Spring 2015