The gift horses of Sonoma State

Sonoma State needed money for athletic scholarships. The solution? A horse syndication, of course!

Updated: December 24, 2003, 1:32 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Sonoma State needed money for athletic scholarships, a lot more than can be raised by having players hold a couple of bake sales or car washes. The NCAA had mandated that all Division II programs must award $250,000 a year in scholarships by 2005 or they would be sentenced to the ignominy of playing in Division III. That meant coming up with at least $122,000 to close the gap, serious money for a small Northern California school forced to slash expenses due to the state's fiscal crisis.

It seemed like an impossible situation until the Seawolves' assistant athletic director for marketing Russ Gardiner came up with a novel idea: turn to athletes with four legs, not two.

Gardiner decided to raise money for the school by selling horses. He promptly sold 200 shares in a racehorse ownership syndicate at a $1,000 each, with half the money going toward the school's athletic scholarship fund. The end result is that Sonoma State will be the first college ever to compete on the hardwood, the diamond, the turf and the dirt. And thanks to Seawolf Stable, nobody is going to have to worry about finding money for athletic scholarships any time soon.

"I had no idea this would take off the way this has," Gardiner said.

Gardiner didn't know much about horse racing, but he was savvy enough to notice the buzz being created in the sport by the Seabiscuit saga and that there were a lot of horse lovers among people living in the Sonoma area. He thought he could tap into that surge of interest in racing by selling shares in a small stable. With the money, he would buy two modestly priced horses at the Barrett's Sale, saving some of what was left over for the stable's overhead and giving the rest to the scholarship fund.

It was quickly apparent that he had hit upon something as the money started pouring in. Some customers saw what they believed to be a good deal because anyone investing in the stable could write off $500 of the $1,000 they put up since the stable is registered as a charity. Others just wanted to be part of the action.

"So many people have dreamed of owning a race horse," Gardiner said. "You can't believe how many people have told me their parents had horses and that they've always dreamed of owning a horse themselves or that they've been going to the track for years and have been jealous of people in the winner's circle. For just $1,000, these people's dreams are coming true."

In October, Gardiner and advisor Tom Bachman, the owner of Pegasus Ranch, spent a total of $34,000 at Barrett's on two yearlings, which have been named Seawolf and Sonoma Slew. But it didn't stop there. The story hit the local papers and that led to still more calls from interested owners. Gardiner was able to take reservations for another 200 shares at $1,000 shares and is hoping to finalize the purchase of two more horses soon.

With so many people apparently interested in getting involved, Gardiner is prepared to take the stable to the limit. The most a Division II school can give out in scholarships is $1.8 million. Gardiner believes that enough shares in Seawolf Stable horses can be sold that eventually the school will be able to give out the maximum in scholarships, sure to do wonders for the teams on the field of play.

"Sonoma State is a true David and Goliath story," Gardiner said. "With very few funds in our athletic department, last year we had four teams make it to the N.C.A.A. playoffs and the men's soccer team won the national championship. The average scholarship for a student athlete at Sonoma State is less than $500 a year. If we can raise that to a competitive level, where some programs in our conference award $10,000, $11,000, $12,000 scholarships, we can recruit some players we weren't previously able to recruit. That will enhance our chances of becoming a consistent and superior Division II athletic program."

The racing side of the operation will be run by Bachman, who plans to have the horses ready for the Sonoma County Fair meet, which begins in late July. He's not looking for the next Funny Cide, but for a couple of horses who can compete and give their owners a thrill.

"We'll aim to start them off at Sonoma because most of the people involved live around here and it's a great time of year to get going with a 2-year-old," he said. "I want to run them where they can win. I know a lot of these people are along for a fun ride. I hope to get 100 of them packed into the winner's circle. That would be good for the Sonoma Fair and for the racing business."

The stable's silks will be royal blue, Columbia blue, black and white, the same colors worn by the school's teams. All the horses will be named after something relating to Sonoma State athletics. Bring a couple of cheerleaders to the track and they'll be all set. The Seawolves have goals for the future, beating rivals Cal State San Bernardino, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Bakersfield, Chico State, UC Davis, and San Francisco State, find someone to pick up the slack for departing seniors Trevor Howe and Chris Oliver on the men's basketball team, and breaking their maiden at first asking, Russell Baze in the irons.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com