Michael Doctrow, a partner at central Pennsylvania-based McNees Wallace & Nurick, turned a relationship with a car dealer into a niche practice representing owners of some of the fastest horses in the country.
Doctrow and his firm have represented a number of thoroughbreds that have made a bid for the American Triple Crown. None had been successful until June 9, when his 2018 hopeful, Justify, won the Belmont Stakes. Doctrow was in Florida for the weekend, unable to see the race in person, but he checked into a local sports bar to watch.
Beyond the thrill of the win, having a Triple Crown client isn’t likely to hurt Doctrow’s intellectual property practice. He spoke this week with The Legal about how he started representing prize racehorses and what the work entails. Answers have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
How did you get into representing Triple Crown hopefuls?
Smarty Jones would have been the first one in 2004. Smarty Jones was owned by an auto dealer in Philadelphia that we represented, the Chapman family. I handled their intellectual property work. Those folks got me involved initially.
How many horses have you represented?
Probably about 10 horses over the last 15 years. And we only represent Kentucky Derby winners.
What kind of services do you provide to the teams surrounding these horses?
Basic trademark and copyright work, which would include registering and protecting their brands, and the image of the horse. And licensing transactions, including licensing the image and name of the horse … on things such as T-shirts and hats, initially.
With success in at least two of the three races [we do licensing] on collectible items—now, [with Justify winning the Triple Crown] on many, many more items. Also licensing the name and image on art … of course horse art is very popular. Finally, [I’m also] negotiating sponsorship deals, such as the deal with Wheels Up where their name appeared on the jockey’s shorts and on the owners’ hats that they wear.
We do not get involved in the breeding rights side of this practice.
How do you maintain these relationships year to year, as the horses and their owners change?
That’s really the art of marketing as an attorney, is developing relationships with people—people who come to trust you and recommend you to the next group of folks that come along. We did what I think was a very good job in marketing and licensing the merchandise around Smarty Jones. The folks who were associated with Churchill Downs or the Thoroughbred Association recommended us to subsequent owners as people who know how to get the job done. We’ve maintained a level of visibility in the horse racing world.
Do you spend a lot of time at the racetrack this time of year?
Very little this time of year. I will go to the racetrack in the off-season to meet people when there’s more opportunity to meet people. I have attended the Belmont and the Kentucky Derby with owners who were kind enough to introduce me to other owners and merchandisers. But like other legal work these days, a lot of it is done over the phone and email. It’s all very similar to my work that I do for business clients, except it is boiled down to anywhere from a three- week to a six-week period.
How much of your practice does this work make up each year?
Some years, it’s a healthy amount. With Smarty Jones it was a healthy amount. With Barbaro, who was unfortunately injured at the track, it was a healthy amount as well. Most years, it’s a couple of weeks and a couple of contracts.
This year fortunately there will be ongoing sponsorship deals, potentially book deals and movie deals. There are a couple of nice stories to tell about this horse and about the owners.
Do you think there is more legal work to be had this time, given Justify’s undefeated status and success in winning the Triple Crown distinction?
Apart from potential book deals and movie deals and ongoing sponsorship deals, the extent of licensing and the nature of the products on which the mark will go is certainly more significant. The work we do in enforcing the trademark against counterfeiters online is certainly more substantial.
How much does this mesh with the rest of your practice? In what ways does it stand out?
It’s the exact same work in a shorter period of time. The really unique part of this practice is when we work for our business clients, most of the work is lower visibility, does not appear in the newspapers. We like to remain behind the scenes and not interfere with things. This is obviously much more visible to everyone. From a firm marketing perspective, it just happens to be more significant. I have a laundry list of clients who have called me to congratulate me.
Outside of your work with these thoroughbreds, do you have an interest in horse racing?
I am not much of a gambler, frankly. I will tell you I am a nervous wreck at these races, and it’s not good to be a nervous wreck when you gamble.
What I love about the sport is the horses are just absolutely beautiful animals. This has given me the opportunity to see some of these animals off the track, and seeing a thoroughbred racehorse being released in the field and running on his own and dancing in the field is really a spectacular thing to see. That’s the part of it I enjoy more than the track aspect.