Fair Hill Foundation Board Member, George Mahoney: Turning business acumen to steeplechasing

George Mahoney, Fair Hill Foundation
George Mahoney talks to jockey Ross Geraghty after Optimus Prime won the David Semmes Memorial at the Virginia Gold Cup Races in 2019 (Douglas Lees photo).

Sit in on Business, 101 survey course with champion owner George Mahoney

Learn the winning strategy: Surround yourself with the best, work hard, play hard

He worked at the white collar end of blue collar industries for decades, was boots on the ground joining the steeplechase fraternity some 44 years ago as a hands-on owner-rider participant, and he actively minded the helm of one of the nation’s oldest and most preeminent hunt clubs for more than a decade.

He went from small-time point-to-point string to burgeoning, championship colossus, following a distinctly upward trajectory, riding the bubble the last few seasons to claim last year’s National Steeplechase Association owners’ title and jump racing’s top prize – the Eclipse Award.

Hear how George Mahoney draws correlation, and parity, between his business success and sports success.

By Betsy Burke Parker |  Original story appeared in Temple Gwathmey Steeplechase Foundation Newsletter

There’s no “I” in “team.”

George Mahoney isn’t just parroting a Business, 101 first day lecture. It’s a real-life axiom that sets the tone for his winning strategy, in life and in racing.

It was a big jump, says the Glydon, Maryland horseman, from a shaky solo start in the American jump racing’s minor league to accepting the national circuit’s biggest titles.

“I’m blessed,” Mahoney says with characteristic modesty. “Surround yourself by the best. That’s been my winning combination.”

To trace Mahoney’s and his Rosbrian Farm’s steady ascent in the steeplechase game, dial back to an owner-rider timber race at Virginia’s Oatlands in 1975. Mahoney was “also ran” aboard Swindle. It was an unremarkable start to what’s become a remarkable career, but it lit his competitive fire and an ongoing ardor for the sport.

He loved foxhunting, and it was a natural sidestep into jump racing, Mahoney says. He enlisted the help of veteran trainer Bruce Fenwick and got a taste for victory winning the competitive foxhunters’ timber at Casanova point-to-point the next spring.

Mahoney at the opening meet of the Green Spring Valley Hounds in 2018 (Douglas Lees photo).

Mahoney branched out over hurdles in ‘78, riding Clover Over in a handful of unsanctioned starts before tackling the circuit’s premier amateur steeplechase – Nashville’s Iroquois; Clover Over finished fifth to winner Owhata Chief, ridden by another of jump racing’s notable amateur owner-riders – George Strawbridge. If nothing else, Mahoney says, it gave him a roadmap of where he could go.

Mahoney returned to his timber roots the next year, winning with his Score Sheet at Howard County in 1980, but after that he stepped back into an ownership role for the balance of his steeplechase career.

Mahoney kept one or two in training most years through the ‘80s and ‘90s, building a strong farm-team at Rosbrian and winning races with Red Brick House, Kilamery Boy and Flood Relief.

It was a slow burn, he recalls, until Rosbrian (the horse) debuted on the National Steeplechase Association’s elite timber circuit in 2002. Eventually a six-time Maryland Hunt Cup starter, Rosbrian gave lift to Mahoney’s steady ascent to the top of the game.

“He’s the one who got the ball rolling,” Mahoney says. “He’s still at my farm, age 24 and a little swaybacked, but happy and healthy.

“The horses come first. Most of them ‘retire’ to the hunt field, we sell a few, retire some, but we look after them. That’s the most important thing in our business.”

Mahoney has since hooked up with former champion jockey Ricky Hendriks as his U.S. trainer; Gordon Elliott, a former amateur jump rider that partnered Rosbrian (the horse) in two of his Hunt Cups, is Mahoney’s trainer in Ireland. Both trainers have built out their own support networks, Mahoney says, and that’s the secret to their continued success – entire teams focused on a sole goal: to put the horses first, and in so doing, creating a winning model.

Pictured here is Gordon Elliott riding Rosbrian over the 3rd fence at a very rainy Maryland Hunt Cup in 2005. That’s Blackchesters, with Jason Griswold up, out in front (Douglas Lees photo).

Some of the business rules that guide George Mahoney:

1. It’s okay to have butterflies – just make sure they’re flying in formation

“Talk about anxiety attacks,” he told Thisishorseracing.com of watching the epic battle unfold in the Belmont Park homestretch. Zanjabeel collared Rosbrian stablemate Clarcam on the turn, with fellow Mahoney colorbearer Optimus Prime setting sail in the run-in.

“Stressful, anxiety off the charts. You’re not rooting for or against any of them, so it can be a little bit hard to watch, just like you’re not rooting against your children if they’re on the same team.

“It’s a good problem to have three grade 1 horses, and I don’t want that to sound boastful, not at all. They have to run against each other. There’s no other choice, but we’re blessed. We’ll enjoy it, but tomorrow, just like always, we’ll put our heads down again and go to work.”

Mahoney watching three of his horses reach the stretch together in the grade 1 Lonesome Glory in September 2018 (Tod Marks photo).

2. Family matters

Mahoney’s father, George Perry Mahoney Sr., was a Baltimore contractor and political candidate. Mahoney Sr., a democrat, ran for the U.S. Senate and for Maryland governor.

In 1973, Mahoney Sr. was appointed head of the state lottery commission. He died in 1989.

Mahoney Jr. started out working for his father’s company, president of Mahoney Brothers Inc. and Mahoney Asphalt Company. He formed Monumental Paving in 1984 when he was 38.

“Just the same as the horse business, you’re driven by profit and success,” he says.

Monumental works strictly in Maryland, doing infrastructure, paving and some civil engineering.

The junior Mahoney has never been tempted to go into government, he maintains, noting that “when you are running to give to the citizens of your state, you must be prepared to give it your all. I certainly have a desire to give back to my community, and am involved in the current Fair Hill revitalization with Jay Griswold.”

3. Play your assets

Now 73, Mahoney says he looks forward to doing “something else” other than hunting three, four or five days a week, seven months a year.

“I’m blessed that I do have my health,” Mahoney says. “I love foxhunting, but I have to admit, it’ll be nicer to come and go a bit more. Now I’ll be in the saddle when I choose to, not every single time hounds go out.

“I’ve hunted with almost every pack in Ireland – the Limerick, Duhallow, Scarteen, … and was joint-master of the United Hunt in County Cork for eight seasons. It’s fly fences, lots of drains, banks, ditches, in Cork mostly hedges.”

Mahoney was joint-master of Maryland’s Green Spring Valley Hounds for 12 seasons (Douglas Lees photo).

4. Verify you’ve got the right tools for the job

When asked if he’s ever nervous about tackling Ireland’s infamous ditch-and-bank country or enormous “fly fences” in their hedge and wall country, Mahoney answers with a classic comparison.

“Like in any horse venue, whether hunting with the Middleburg Hunt, or Green Spring Valley or the Scarteen, if you’re on a Mercedes-Benz, you never get sick to your stomach thinking of the hunting day.

“The good horses give you the nerve, and what you need. The good ones give you confidence.”

5. Keep your eye out for a bargain

Long House Saint (blue) leads Witor (Tod Marks photo).

Mahoney purchased Long House Saint from the 2014 Doncaster training sale for $57,000. The Irish-bred rewarded Mahoney’s support, winning the allowance at Far Hills in his first out in the U.S. a month later, repeating at Camden to cap the year.

Selling at auction in 2014, too, English-bred Zanjabeel hammered down for $354,652 to Shadwell at the Tattersalls Newmarket October yearling sale. He failed to graduate in four starts at 3 on the turf in England and was wheeled back in at the Goffs training sale at Doncaster in August, 2016, a crazy bargain for $10,018 to Irish mauraders Gordon Elliott and Aiden O’Ryan.

Moved to Ireland and swapped to hurdles, Zanjabeel found his groove, winning at Punchestown second out. He won twice more but wanted firmer ground, according to Elliott.

With his experience on the American timber circuit, Elliott says he knew just where to aim the talented 5-year-old – the crafty trainer formed a 2017 Irish raid on Far Hills, New Jersey.

“We just thought (Zanjabeel) wanted good ground. He’s not a winter ground horse,” Elliott told the Racing Post. “And the owners (the aptly-named Confidence Syndicate) were ballsy enough to come over.”

Zanjabeel rewarded the confidence with a facile, nearly 5-length score in the Foxbrook, Elliott saying “everyone kept telling me it was the best race of the day.”

Zanjabeel stabled at trainer Ricky Hendriks’ Pennsylvania farm for the 10 days from his arrival to the U.S. up to the Far Hills run. After the easy victory, Hendriks knew he wanted to keep the horse.

“George asked me what I thought the horse was worth,” Hendriks says. “I told him it didn’t matter, whatever the owners wanted for him, he was worth it.

“He wasn’t $10,000, that’s for sure,” Hendriks deflects the question of the horse’s third sales price. “But it sure wasn’t $354,000 either.”

Zanjabeel returned for partners Mahoney and Ben Griswold’s Meadow Run Farm last spring to finish second in grade 2s at Camden and Middleburg Spring, winning the grade 1 Iroquois to close out the spring and the grade 1 Lonesome Glory to open his fall campaign.

The horse pulled a tendon and has been sidelined since, but Hendriks and Mahoney remain hopeful for his return. “The horse comes first,” Mahoney says. “We give them time.”

6. Surround yourself by the best, and hope for the best

“Please take this in a modest way, in the spirit of not bragging at all, but the short answer is: all my success has to do with the contacts I’ve built in this business.

“In the horse world, as in any business, especially listen to that broad brush warning – buyer beware. Sometimes buyers are taken advantage of. You know, double commissions, unsound, oversold.

“I am so blessed and fortunate to have four grade 1 winners. You have to have a great team – just like in business, across the board. Hot walkers, schooling riders, hay farmer, trainer, rider.

“But don’t forget the final component is luck. So much luck. Fast horses win, but fast horses get hurt.”