ELMONT, N.Y. — When she’s interviewing the winning jockey from horseback after a big race, Donna Barton Brothers believes her job is to help convey the emotion of the moment for NBC’s audience and, essentially, get out of the way.
And if Justify wins the Triple Crown, her interview with Mike Smith will probably not seem much different than it was three years ago when she was the first to speak with American Pharoah’s rider Victor Espinoza.
But Brothers has a unique perspective on the Justify story and the joy it could bring to his owners Saturday because, in her other job away from the television cameras, she’s technically part of the team.
Though Brothers is well-known to racing fans as a successful jockey in the 1990s and now the on-track reporter for NBC’s horse racing coverage, she also carries a title as the chief operating officer for Starlight Racing, a partnership group that owns a reported 15% share in Justify’s racing career. Her husband, former trainer Frank Brothers, is the primary bloodstock agent for Starlight, meaning he selects many of the horses the group buys at auction.
While Brothers says that connection has little to do with her reporting role, it illustrates the ripple effect of Justify’s complex ownership situation, which could bring as many as 400 people from various sectors of the horse racing industry into the winner’s circle on Saturday if he takes the Belmont.
“What I do is partnership development and partner relations, so it’s my job to make sure (the investors) are happy,” Brothers said. “I think we have something like 65 Starlight partners, and we only have about 10 or 12 in that horse but once they bring their spouses and family and friends that party went from something like 60 to 65 at the Derby to 70 at the Preakness and now 110 at the Belmont, so they’re bringing happy people along with them.”
Brothers, who has been with NBC since 2000, doesn’t view her role with Starlight as a conflict in covering Justify, particularly in a small industry like horse racing where there are all kinds of connections and crossovers. In the past, NBC has disclosed on the air when she’s had a personal stake in a horse (like when her husband had a horse in a race on the network), but in this particular role, she said her job is more about marketing for the partnership than anything to do with its horses.
“I’m not responsible for picking out the horses, I’m not the racing manager,” she said. “I don’t communicate with the trainers on a regular basis so while I am very much invested in Starlight and their success and the partners being happy, it doesn’t end up feeling like a conflict of interest to me because I didn’t pick out the horse. Before my husband retired, I had a couple of instances where I covered races where my husband had a horse. It was a lot harder then to separate, but it still wasn’t hard.”
In fact, Brothers said, she was so invested in being prepared for the Kentucky Derby — and with 20 possible winners, there’s a lot of potential questions she has to keep in her head for a possible interview — that she didn’t think about anything else until her portion of the post-race coverage was finished.
“Having been a jockey for so many years, I was able to see things for what they are and separate from them emotionally,” she said. “It really wasn’t until after my interview with Mike Smith after the Derby and he was jogging back to the winners circle that I thought, ‘Oh my God, Starlight Racing just won the Derby.’”
In many ways, Justify’s ownership is a microcosm for the way in which many top-end horses are being bought and managed these days. WinStar Farm, which owns a majority stake in Justify, has sold pieces of the horse to multiple investors over the past year including the China Horse Club and hedge fund executive Sol Kumin. The New York Times reported this week that another minority owner, SF Bloodstock, is backed by billionaire investor George Soros, who is a popular target of right-wing political groups because of his support for progressive causes.
While SF Bloodstock retained its share of the breeding rights to Justify (as well as Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Audible), it sold the racing interest to Kumin and Starlight, neither of which focus on the breeding aspect.
These kinds of complex, multi-layered partnerships are becoming more common in the industry as owners look to spread around the risk associated with expensive horses, which may or may not yield any profits on the racetrack.
With Justify, Starlight is a partnership within a partnership that, according to its Web site, markets to a select group of clients who want to purchase at least a 5-10% share of the yearling crop Starlight selects at auction each year.
It has been a successful formula with horses like champion filly Ashado and Grade 1 winners Harlan’s Holiday and Shanghai Bobby, and Brothers expects Justify’s success will only bring more people into horse ownership groups like Starlight because, in the end, it offers a unique kind of excitement that they see on television and want to be part of.
“I’m the e-mail address people reach out to if they want to learn more about the partnership, and what I’ve found is whenever one of our horses — whether it’s our color-bearer or not — whenever we haver a horse that’s winning races at a high level, it definitely increases interest,” she said.
But that’s not the main reason why Brothers will be excited if Justify wins the Triple Crown. For someone who has spent their life in horse racing, being so close to a moment like that is a reward in and of itself.
“When American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, I was as happy as anybody because finally after the 37-year wait we finally got to see that,” she said. “So, like, I would say at least 90% of racing fans, I’m going to want to see a Triple Crown on June 9. That would be awesome, but I’m not thinking about it from a Starlight point of view even though I’ll be thrilled.”