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Volume 23 No. 8
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‘Mattress Mack’ gets into horse racing

Jim McIngvale, long known for whacky sports-themed promos for his furniture stores, takes his high-stakes marketing to the track
Jim McIngvale is using race sponsorships and a $100,000 bonus incentive to tout his horse Runhappy, betting that the exposure will send the horse’s stud fee soaring.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura McIngvale Brown
Jim McIngvale is using race sponsorships and a $100,000 bonus incentive to tout his horse Runhappy, betting that the exposure will send the horse’s stud fee soaring.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura McIngvale Brown
Jim McIngvale is using race sponsorships and a $100,000 bonus incentive to tout his horse Runhappy, betting that the exposure will send the horse’s stud fee soaring.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura McIngvale Brown

“Mattress Mack” has taken his over-the-top promotions to horse racing.

Jim McIngvale, the Houston-based businessman behind Gallery Furniture, has made big headlines and big payouts in recent years for his promotions around the outcomes of sporting events. For example, he’s now offering customers a 100% refund on mattresses sold for $3,000 or more if the Astros win the World Series.

A similar high-stakes gamble cost him more than $12 million in refunds in 2017 when Houston did indeed win it all. Insurance policies, and winning bets he had placed on the team in Las Vegas, helped lower his financial hit.

The whacky promotions have made McIngvale a bit of a celebrity in his home market. Now he’s putting his money, and his luck, to work with a champion racehorse-turned-stallion named Runhappy. The horse was named the champion sprinter of 2015 after he won six consecutive races, including breaking the track record at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Runhappy now stands at stud at Kentucky’s Claiborne Farm, where horse racing legend Secretariat also stood at stud. Under his deal with Claiborne, McIngvale owns 75% of the horse. For the last three years, Runhappy has covered about 140 mares each year, at a fee of $25,000 each.

That’s good money, but McIngvale sees an even larger potential windfall.

Runhappy is the title sponsor of multiple graded stakes races around the country, including the New York Racing Association’s Metropolitan Mile, Hopeful and Travers Stakes. That’s right: The horse is the sponsor.

And just like his many promotions around sports, McIngvale is putting up a cash guarantee to further drive buzz around his horse. He will give a $100,000 bonus to the owner of a Runhappy-sired colt or filly that wins an open maiden race at Saratoga, Del Mar or Kentucky Downs. The total purse for maiden races — those for horses who have never won a race — is typically less than $100,000 and that money is spread among the field.

“What he is doing is unprecedented from a racing and breeding standpoint,” said Tony Allevato, NYRA CRO. “I’ve been involved in horse racing for 30-plus years and I’ve never seen a marketing campaign quite like this — especially for an individual horse.”

Said McIngvale, “I am getting a couple of million dollars a year on his stud fees, but I am spending a lot of it on advertising, so right now it’s kind of a break-even thing. But if he turns out to be a real good stallion, there will be a lot of money on the table.” He’s also advertised Runhappy on horse racing channel TVG and horse racing broadcasts on Fox Sports. 

Runhappy’s first yearlings were for sale at the prestigious Keeneland sale and results were good early on. “Runhappy is the leading first-crop sire of yearlings to date with 32 sold for an average price of $292,531,” said Sid Fernando, CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants Inc., which advises thoroughbred owners and breeders on pedigrees and matings. 

Runhappy was named the champion sprinter of 2015, the same year he broke the track record at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura McIngvale Brown
Runhappy was named the champion sprinter of 2015, the same year he broke the track record at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura McIngvale Brown
Runhappy was named the champion sprinter of 2015, the same year he broke the track record at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura McIngvale Brown

“The marketing has certainly helped, because buyers know of the potential bonus of $100,000 for winning a maiden race,” Fernando said. But Runhappy’s sales have also been helped by the fact he’s standing at the storied Claiborne Farm and by the fact that the horse ran and won without Lasix or any other drugs. 

The horse business is like the stock market in that buyers are betting on the future. Runhappy’s first offspring won’t be old enough to race until 2020, and the stud fee price can go up or down significantly based on how the horses run on the track. 

“I am an optimist and I think the horse is going to do real well,” McIngvale said, “My motto is: Late to bed. Early to rise. Work like hell. And advertise.”

McIngvale was featured on a Fox Sports broadcast early in the morning in Saratoga on Travers race day last month, handing out doughnuts to the backstretch workers, wearing an Astros jacket. He’s getting to be as famous in the horse business as he is in Houston. 

“He’s a community icon,” said Reid Ryan, the Astros’ president of business operations. The team gave McIngvale a World Series ring in 2017, not just because Gallery Furniture is a sponsor, but because of what he did in the community, including helping victims of Hurricane Harvey. 

“He opened his store and let people who lost their homes sleep in his store,” Ryan said. He did the same thing this month when Houston was hit with severe flooding.

McIngvale’s advertising of the Astros helps build excitement in the community, Ryan said, adding that the team’s players showed up at the Gallery Furniture store the last time he gave out the World Series win refund. 

McIngvale won’t say how much he’s on the hook for if the Astros win again this year, or how much it could cost him. But he’s not concerned.

“It’s absolutely worth it because those people are happy they get their money back,” McIngvale said. “They see that we do what we said we’re going to do and they tell their friends.

“It’s the best experience they can have in a furniture store or a retail venue. If the experience is remarkable, they will tell their friends, neighbors about it and post on social media. And that is what we are trying to do — remain relevant and grow the business through remarkable experiences for our customers.”