Sport: Bluegrass Auctions for Bluebloods

When the rich try to hit it big—or in their case, bigger—they do not go to their neighborhood parish house to play bingo or purchase lottery tickets in a cigar store. Instead, they travel to Kentucky in the summertime and, midst all the splendor of the bluegrass, they buy thoroughbred race horses.

On the surface, such a venture seems nothing short of fiscal madness. For every dream horse like Seattle Slew (auction price: $17,500; payoff on the Triple Crown races alone: $462,380), there are thousands of also-rans and tens of thousands of never-rans. As a rule, only 5% of the more than...

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