A man who picks a winner the very first time he bets on a horse race often becomes a victim of the same kind of pleasurable confusion that overwhelms a young man when he kisses his first maiden: he is convinced he has stumbled on a secret unknown to ordinary mortals. This is, of course, a snare and more often than not also proves to be a heartbreaking delusion. There are some few men who are fortunate enough never to discover this awful truth, and for anyone who demands proof there is the remarkable case of Jack Dreyfus Jr., a trim and unusually well-kept gentleman of 50 who is an authentic Wall Street tycoon, though he happens to have the good judgment not to look or act at all like one.
During his working hours, which are long and exacting, Dreyfus is president of the Dreyfus Fund Inc., a mutual investment firm which he took control of 13 years ago when it was practically moribund, and through skill, catchy advertising and devotion nursed into a financial colossus with some 215,000 investors and assets close to $530 million. During his leisure hours, which are rare and blissful, he could once be found at the Cavendish Club playing masterful bridge with the likes of Oswald Jacoby and the late P. Hal Sims ("I was a bridge bum"), or cutthroat gin rummy that was even sharper than his bridge, or golf at the Metropolis Country Club, where he once won the club championship seven straight times. But he is now more likely to be located at a racetrack or puttering happily around Hobeau Farm, his 1,100-acre Thoroughbred racing establishment near Ocala, Fla. He is a man who is crazy about horses and, more noteworthy, horses have a way of returning his love in full.
Dreyfus is by no means the commanding figure in racing that he is in Wall Street, but he has been amazingly successful in both the running and breeding of horses. His personal definition of happiness is putting on old clothes, clutching a scratch sheet and joining the ordinary horseplayers in the grandstand, that pleasant place where a man can turn a few dollars with a wise wager. Unlike some turfmen, who seem to take pride in relating how much they lose on their racing operations, Dreyfus could if he wished, only half a dozen years after acquiring it, dispose of Hobeau Farm for a hefty profit, and it pleases him to say so. This makes Dreyfus both an oddity and an enigma, for it is almost a hallowed tradition of the sport that when a millionaire takes up horse racing he should pay through the nose like a man. When asked how he happens to be so different, Dreyfus says modestly, "I've been 110% lucky. The rest has been brains."
Since no known combination of money and brains has ever produced good horses without the addition of some elusive and undefinable quality that might as well be described as luck, most horsemen accept this explanation. They usually point out in passing, however, that when it comes to horses Dreyfus seems to be lucky in the same way a fox is lucky. This has been true from the day Dreyfus discovered horses. That was back in the '40s when Dreyfus visited a racetrack for the first time with a group of bridge-playing cronies, including Hal Sims, who was renowned for risking a bit of his bridge winnings at a mutuel window. The entire experience must have left Dreyfus in a happy daze, because to this day he cannot recall much about the track, except that it was in the New York area. What he can remember with tingling clarity is that while Sims and his other friends dropped bundle after bundle on successive races, he sat down and tried to unravel the intricacies of a form chart. When he finally decided he had a glimmering as to what it was all about, he began to bet. He picked a winner in each of three races.
From that day to this, Dreyfus has been a devout horseplayer, and he has never lost his touch. He is not a plunger, for he takes more pleasure in the game than in the money, but he impresses everybody who knows him with his knack for being on the right horse at the right time. Sometimes Dreyfus will admit that if things came down to it, he probably could make a fine living as a handicapper. But if he has a secret he has difficulty in expressing it, except in the broadest and most elementary way. "The important thing, I suppose," he says, "is not to be emotional about it. You have to study a horse's chances in the same calm and detached way you study a stock investment or a business deal. This isn't a problem for some people. But I am an emotional man and, in racing just as in business, I've had to train myself to keep my emotions under control, to always depend on my head instead of my heart. You cannot eliminate risk, but you can be sure the risk you are taking is worthwhile. Some good horses run at odds that make them not worth the gamble: some not-so-good horses run at odds that make them worth taking a chance on. And the kind of luck you have does not change the odds in the long run. Trying to get even in the eighth race when you have had a bad day, for instance, is foolish. In fact, the time when you should really watch yourself is when you are losing."
Dreyfus, fortunately, is not altogether quite so cold-bloodedly cautious as this makes him sound. He did not, for example, sit back coolly and wait until he amassed a fortune before buying a horse of his own but, like many a good man before and since, he fell in love with a particular horse. "I went crazy about this Beau Pere mare, Bellesoeur," he admits. "She won the Astarita and Spinaway at 2, the only year she raced, and was placed second to Bewitch among the fillies in the Experimental in 1947, at a weight of 117 pounds. Only 26 fillies have been weighted at 117 or better in the Experimental's history."
Bellesoeur was far beyond Dreyfus' financial reach at the time, but he knew her from afar, and he was particularly pleased when she was mated to Count Fleet, another of his favorite horses. The colt produced by this union was Beau Gar, and Dreyfus bought a quarter of him for $7,000, and later he bought another two quarters. Beau Gar had all the qualifications of a great horse but never amounted to much as a runner because he was plagued by injuries and bad luck. At this point a less astute man might have lost interest, but Dreyfus was still impressed by Beau Gar's obvious potential as well as his bloodlines. When Beau Gar was sent to stud in 1956, Dreyfus' instincts told him that this was his chance finally to acquire a good horse all for himself.
There are many wild and wonderful versions of what happened next, but the commonest one is that Dreyfus persuaded Laudy Lawrence, who owned the remaining quarter of Beau Gar, to sell his interest for 150 shares of Polaroid stock. What actually happened is that Lawrence agreed to sell Dreyfus the quarter interest for $7,000, and Dreyfus accepted. He then advised Lawrence to invest the money in Polaroid, a stock on which Dreyfus was particularly keen at the time. Lawrence thought this was a good idea, so Dreyfus bought 150 shares of Polaroid and sent them to Lawrence instead of cash. The details of this transaction deserve some attention, because at the time Polaroid was selling for a fraction more than $46 a share. Since that time it has been split six for one, and at one point each share soared to a peak of $260—which meant that Lawrence received around $234,000 for a quarter interest in this unproved stallion. Dreyfus takes this into account when he sometimes jokingly says that Beau Gar was a decently expensive young stallion, worth $936,000.
As things have turned out, even this price might not have been fantastically excessive for Beau Gar. He has proved to be a marvel in producing good horses out of not-too-fashionable mares, which were about the only kind of mares Dreyfus could afford before his own holdings of Polaroid, and other investments, turned him from a mere fair-to-do into an immensely rich man. Beau Gar now stands at Hobeau Farm, insured for $1 million and available only to a few select non-Hobeau mares at a $10,000 stud fee. Actually, Beau Gar richly repaid the money and faith Dreyfus invested in him with the first horse he sired. This was Hobeau Farm's famed Beau Purple, the erratic but fabulous bay stallion who won five $100,000 races, set many track records and was the only horse ever to show his heels to the great Kelso in three different races. Beau Purple went to stud this year and there is no reason to think he will not shape up even more brilliantly than his sire.
The odds against a man getting two such horses as Beau Gar and Beau Purple for a comparative pittance when he first starts putting a stable together are astronomical, and this is what some people mean when they say Dreyfus is plain lucky. Other people are convinced that Dreyfus proved to be one of the craftiest operators to enter racing in a long time when he had the good judgment to make a solid investment in an outstanding stallion, for—in retrospect, of course—almost everybody can see that the unproved and injury-prone Beau Gar was a veritable gold mine. All arguments aside, it is a fact that Dreyfus showed much more judgment and restraint than most newcomers to racing, who usually splurge on flashy runners if they have unlimited means or, if they have limited funds, collect a stableful of mediocre horses and hope for a miracle. Perhaps the fairest evaluation of Dreyfus' success was made by Elmer Heubeck, a seasoned and shrewd owner-breeder in his own right, who is Dreyfus' manager at Hobeau Farm: "Jack is lucky, all right, but he is the kind of man who makes his luck."