Bill Crager (center) with friends at Keeneland. Crager started Buttonwood to follow his passion for horse racing and, hopefully, to pass that on to his friends and family.
Many racing fans tell a familiar tale about a family member or friend who introduced them to Thoroughbred racing.
Often those recollections include the thrill of hearing thundering hooves for the first time, or the adventure of entering the colorful and diverse racetrack setting, or the excitement of sneaking off without permission to the track.
For Bill Crager of Buttonwood Farm, his first memories of the sport are sort of a trifecta of the highlights mentioned above and very personal because his introduction to racing came via his grandfather.
“My grandfather was a Brooklyn politician and horse racing was something that he enjoyed and he would take my little brother [John] and I to the races and not tell my mother,” Crager recalled. “He’d sneak us out of the house and bring us to the races. Those days were just so much fun, partly because it was a secret mission not to get caught by my mother, and part of it was all of the characters that we got to meet when we went to the racetrack.”
When Crager’s grandfather passed away in the mid-1990s, he and John decided they wanted to buy a racehorse to honor the man who led them to the great sport.
With little inside knowledge of the workings of a complex industry, Bill and John Crager hit the sales to buy a few Thoroughbreds, racing a number of their purchases and reselling the others before other obligations eventually shifted their focus to other endeavors. But the allure of owning and racing horses remained.
“I had started a new business and I said I’m going to focus elsewhere,” said Crager, who launched Envestnet, a financial services company that provides infrastructure for independent advisors and employs more than 800 people. “So we hadn’t been in the sport for probably 10 years before I came back two years ago.
“It was just something that I always wanted to do and I missed it during those 10 years when I was building my business. Now, we are happy to be owners again and involved in the sport for sure.”
Spend a few minutes talking to Crager and his passion for the sport is palpable. He brims with optimism yet does not shy away from voicing his opinion about what the sport can and should do better.
CRAGER AND HIS WIFE, KATHY, WITH BUTTONWOOD FILLY WEAVE
Like many other racing fans, Crager would love to see the industry commit to broadcasting all races in high-definition. Crager also suggested that less would be more for racing. He believes cutting race dates would go a long way toward boosting the quality of the product.
Crager would like to see the two main racing networks – TVG and HRTV - rethink their approach. He cited CNBC and ESPN programming as examples of strong use of time and talent.
“I think the way the game is broadcast could have more vitality and perspective and provide a variety of different insights,” he said. “Shake it up a little bit, not the same formula that I think we’ve all become very accustomed to viewing. I think that would be a way to engage a broader audience.”
For Crager, who is a news and sports junkie, it was an especially poignant clip from the nightly cable news that helped lead him back to Thoroughbred racing.
“I think it was two summers ago and there were people rioting in the streets in Greece - I think the market had dropped 500 points that day - so I wrote one email to nine friends,” Crager said. “ ‘The market is tanking, the kids are getting older, you are getting older. That’s all the more reason we should buy a racehorse.’
“I sent the email to nine friends - nine people who had never touched a horse, never been close to a horse, never been to a racetrack. All of them said, ‘yes, let’s do it.’ ”
Buttonwood started out as Bill and his wife, Kathy, and nine friends purchasing three fillies at auction as yearlings. Buttonwood grew to 16 investors the next year with investments ranging from $2,500 to $30,000. Buttonwood will have even more investors than that this year, thanks to word of mouth from the current group.
“We have people along who had never been to a racetrack before, who had never been close to horses and their enthusiasm over these last two years has just exploded,” said Crager, who lives with his family on Buttonwood Farm in Berwyn, Pa. “To me, it gives just a hint of what the possibility of the game is. You’re talking about doctors, your talking about guys or gals who work or Wall Street or in financial services or have started their own businesses. This is just a collection of middle-aged folks who were out doing their thing, and they love it. … It’s become an important hobby for them - a passion - over two short years.”
Crager’s first venture into the Thoroughbred industry taught him the importance of putting a good team in place. So when he dipped his toe back in the business, he surrounded himself with quality people. Pope McLean and the team at Crestwood Farm help Buttonwood pick out the horses, who are then sent to Webb Carroll Training Center in South Carolina for their early education and preparation as racehorses. Buttonwood horses are then transferred to Graham Motion at Fair Hill Training Center for their racing careers.
“The game is hard to understand and it’s a lot of work to get to a place where you trust the people you are working with,” Crager said. “We’ve got a great team. We were really lucky there. When you are bringing friends along for the ride, you feel a responsibility that we are always doing the right thing for the horse and doing the best that we possibly can, and it’s that team element that is so important.”
The first class of Buttonwood runners includes Red Hot Tweet, who earned her first career win in January and later competed in the Grade 2 Gazelle Stakes. Watching one of his horses compete in a New York graded stakes at the first racetrack he ever attended was a thrill for Bill Crager.
He also is a huge fan of the Belmont Stakes, which served as the backdrop for his bachelor party years ago and has become an event he does not miss.
“The big race days are unique American sporting events and I don’t think the industry pats itself on the back well enough for how special those events are and the people that the events draw together – those who want to have a good time in the infield, those that want to get really dressed on Millionaire’s Row,” Crager said. “I think those are two different groups of people converging to have a similarly good time.
“I think there needs to be more optimism in the game, number one, and number two I think the game should be a little more welcoming. It’s intimidating to try to figure out how to pick a winner; it’s intimidating to walk into a racetrack and not have been there before and try to figure things out; and it’s really intimidating to walk into Keeneland or Fasig-Tipton and try to buy a racehorse. I think there are ways the game can become more welcoming in all of those areas, you know make it easier to understand how to wager and easier to figure out how to get in the game. And then promote the enjoyment part a little more effectively, which is something that you guys [America’s Best Racing] are doing a great job of.”
The Cragers’ children also are enjoying the ride with Buttonwood horses. His son Will, 17, will spend some time this summer working at Crestwood, and his daughters Jane and Lily, 15, and Katie, 13, have become big fans of the sport as well.
THE CRAGERS' CHILDREN IN THE BARN
“I think that the game has so much possibility and has such potential to hit on all of those facets of what it offers,” Crager said, pointing to the puzzle of handicapping races, competing against other bettors at the track, the allure for an owner of racing the next great horse, and the pageantry of the big events as unique to horse racing.
“All of those things don’t exist in American big-time sports in any other way except horse racing, and if you put those pieces together you’ve got something that is incredibly special.”
Crager owes his passion and enthusiasm for racing to his grandfather, who inspired a lifelong love of Thoroughbreds, and he is now doing his part to pass that passion along to his family and friends through Buttonwood Farm.
THE CRAGER DAUGHTERS WITH RED HOT TWEET'S GAZELLE SADDLECLOTH