Kentucky Derby winner’s blanket marks new sports collectible debut

WESTHAMPTON, N.Y. – While baseball, football and hockey jerseys game-worn by legendary athletes can run into the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, there’s still one sport that offers ground-floor opportunities to collectors – thoroughbred horse racing.

Richard Russek, president of Grey Flannel Auctions in Westhampton, N.Y., says the smart money is literally on the backs of turf champions. He cites a prized example from his company’s Dec. 8 sports memorabilia auction: the official white fleece winner’s blanket worn by Big Brown in the 2008 (134th) Kentucky Derby which sold for $3,630.

It’s a one of a kind historical item, Russek said, noting that blankets worn by prize-winning horses are much rarer than modern-era baseball jerseys. “While a baseball player might wear many hundreds of jerseys in his career, a thoroughbred horse runs in only so many races, and there are only so many blankets or halters per race,” Russek explained. “The thing is, these sorts of items so seldom appear for sale in the public marketplace, many people don’t even know it’s possible to buy them. There are ground-floor opportunities available right now, but they’re not going to last for long. The prices are going nowhere but up.”

The Big Brown blanket – a stunning memento with its embroidered bouquet of roses, the words “Kentucky Derby 134” and a patch with the race date and image of a jockey on horse in full stride – was one of several items sold from the collection of New Jersey businessman Randy Sussman.

Founder of Sussman Sports Management and now owner of an international special events company, Sussman has had a lifelong connection to horse racing. He started going to the track with his father and grandfather at age five, and his uncle was a jockey for nearly 30 years on the New England and Florida circuits. As an adult, Sussman started buying minority stakes in racehorses, which led to friendships with many of the jockeys and grooms, and the launching of a new hobby.

“It used to be traditional for the groom to be given certain items from the racehorses they took care of. It’s very hard work caring for multimillion-dollar horses, and these gifts were a thank you from the owners,” said Sussman. But over the last few years, Sussman said, the practice has ceased to exist because of the increasing value of horseracing souvenirs, especially those associated with Derby winners. Now horse owners or trainers opt to keep such items for themselves.

At one time, Sussman was able to purchase major race memorabilia – including blankets, saddle cloths, fly sheets, stall guards halters and even boots – straight from the grooms, who were not sentimentally attached to the items. “Many of the grooms were from Mexico or other countries. They appreciated the extra money,” said Sussman, who recalls seeing Derby winners’ blankets used in grooms’ homes as coffee table covers or even as bedspreads. “Nobody knew what this stuff was worth. Many blankets got lost or were thrown away, which is why surviving blankets are so rare. Obviously, the blankets associated with the premier races are the most desirable of all. A Kentucky Derby winner’s blanket would be on par with, say, a game-worn Babe Ruth jersey. They’re museum pieces.”

Big Brown’s historic Kentucky Derby winner’s blanket featured an opening bid of $2,500. Among the other items of note sold were: the exercise saddle cloth worn by 1989 Breeders Cup winner Steinlen, which sold for $600; Silver Charm’s stall guard from the 1997 Kentucky Derby, which brought $1,562;  Easyfromthegitgo’s 2002 Preakness stall guard, which brought $300; Funny Cide’s 2003 Haskell Stakes fly sheet, which brought $866. The Chrysler Triple Crown Challenge jacket, worn by Easy Goer’s groom at the 1989 Belmont Stakes, failed to get a bid at $150.

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