04/22/2004 12:00AM

After working for free, Benchmark hits payday

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Longtime California owner and breeder Marty Wygod has a lot of good reasons to go racing over the next week, and three of them trace back to a common source: his stallion Benchmark.

"One of my favorite subjects," Wygod said recently.

It's easy to understand why Wygod is so enthusiastic about Benchmark. Benchmark is the sire of Silent Sighs, a Wygod homebred who is pointing for the April 30 Kentucky Oaks. He's also the sire of two probable starters at Hollywood Park's Gold Rush Day on Saturday: Don'tsellmeshort, entered in the Snow Chief Stakes, and The Yellow Sheet in the Warren's Thoroughbreds Stakes.

Silent Sighs is the best of Benchmark's runners so far, but she isn't his only good horse. From three crops to race, Benchmark also has sired Grade 3 winner Standard Setter and stakes winner A to the Z, as well as four stakes-placed runners.

Those achievements are even more remarkable when you consider that until 2003, Marty and Pam Wygod's River Edge Farm in Buellton, Calif., was breeding Benchmark for free in an effort to get mares to the horse. In retrospect, that seems incredible for a horse whose five-season race record yielded a trio of Grade 2 victories and more than $630,000 in earnings. But, as River Edge Farm manager Russell Drake explained, he and Wygod had reason to believe Southern California breeders might shy away from Benchmark. Actually, they had two reasons: Benchmark was a son of Alydar and he had started his racing career late because of sore shins.

"I didn't think people would be all that interested in breeding to a son of Alydar, because horses by Alydar were not making sires," Drake said. "And he'd been so late getting started, people finally got to see what he was about when he was a late 4-year-old. But that's what the horse business is about. You never know where the good one will come from."

So how does a horse go from having no fee at all to being a top California stallion with a $7,500 fee and a Grade 1 winner to his credit? Not by genetic power alone. It also took a lot of persistence on the part of his owner and manager.

"He was so brilliant when he was right, I felt strongly we had to give him a chance," Wygod said. "We bred him for free because no one would pay us to breed to him, and we needed to get a certain number of mares to him just to progeny-test him. He came through for us."

Benchmark inspired optimism in his connections from the beginning, when Wygod bought the weanling Alydar colt for $475,000 at the 1991 Keeneland November sale.

"At that time, Alydar walked on water," said Drake, Wygod's farm manager for 28 years. "Benchmark was a really good-looking weanling, one of the nicest I'd seen in a long time. And his family was kind of nice to us."

Benchmark's dam, the Danzig mare Winters' Love, produced Tranquility Lake, whose outstanding record included a pair of Grade 1 wins and $1.6 million in earnings for the Wygods.

So when it came time to bid on the handsome, well-bred Alydar weanling out of Winters' Love, Wygod and Drake had no doubts.

"I fell in love with Benchmark," Drake recalled. "He was one of those weanlings that kind of takes a hold of you. The thing I liked about him then and to this day is that he's so smooth and neat. Many of the Alydars were a little plain, and Benchmark looked a little more like Danzig."

After the sale, Benchmark shipped to River Edge, where Drake and his staff raised him. When they put him in training as a 2-year-old, they had high hopes for him.

"But he bucked shins about three times," Drake recalled. "The second time, he was still 2, and we stopped on him. Coming back as a 3-year-old, he bucked shins again. So we pinfired him and gave him some more time. Even when he was at the track as a late 4-year-old, he had some trouble with his shins. [Trainer] Ron Ellis was very patient.

"But even by that time, we knew we might be in trouble with him as a stallion because we were starting to see that some pretty nice sons of Alydar that had gone to stud weren't doing the job."

Benchmark never started at 2 and made only one start at 3. At 4, he finally got into gear, winning twice and placing twice in four races. But the horse was still troubled by sore shins and other misfortunes. Once, when Benchmark was stabled at Hollywood Park, Wygod recalled that Benchmark reared and got his front hooves hooked over a stall partition that separated him from his next-door neighbor. He then flipped over backwards.

His light race record reflected his troubles, although by 1997, when he was 6, Benchmark showed some of the talent Wygod had always believed was there. He started seven times, was never worse than third, and won three Grade 2 handicaps - the Goodwood Breeders' Cup, Del Mar Breeders' Cup, and San Bernardino - in the best season of his career. He raced twice in 1998, finishing third in the Grade 2 Triple Bend and the Grade 3 San Diego Handicap.

"He had more trouble than you could imagine," Wygod said. "And yet he had such brilliance. He had so much potential. I think if things had gone differently for him, he would have won the Breeders' Cup."

Still, as Wygod pointed out, "regardless of how you feel about a racehorse, you never know how he'll do at stud."

Drake, the farm manager, was sure about one thing, anyway: There was little market for an Alydar horse by the time Benchmark arrived to start his breeding career at River Edge in 1999. Wygod was unfazed, Drake recalled.

"He told me, 'We're going to stand him, but you pick the stud fee,' " Drake said. Drake eventually suggested standing Benchmark for free, just to get a sufficient number of mares to him so the farm could determine whether he had any ability as a sire.

"He wasn't happy about it," Drake said of Wygod's response. "But he agreed. But he said, 'Just pick the best mares.' "

Drake said he turned down 25 or 30 mares who applied for free Benchmark seasons.

"He needed numbers of mares, but some of the mares were pretty light in pedigree and record," Drake said. "Benchmark is a pretty horse, and once people saw him, they started showing some interest. Whenever they'd come to see another stallion, we'd show them Benchmark, too, and people got to liking him. We bred him to 67 mares that first year. Quite a few of them were ours, but people gave him a shot. Not too many people get to breed for free to a horse that earned $600,000.

"Each year, his book kept getting bigger. Even a blind man could see his foals looked the part. They were correct and they stayed sound, and some of them were very good-looking."

River Edge bred Benchmark for free for his first three seasons, long enough to get his first runners to the races. Graded winner Standard Setter and stakes winner A to the Z were both products of that first crop.

One of the major beneficiaries of Benchmark's early success has been Wygod, whose Benchmark filly Silent Sighs won the Santa Anita Oaks, Ocala Stud Oaks, and California Breeders' Champion Stakes.

"It's not only a Grade 1 winner, but it is out of a mare that was a maiden," Wygod said of his star filly. "It's out of a family that is somewhat nondescript. I don't want to knock it, but she doesn't have a pedigree that will dictate distance or anything else that is outstanding.

"She showed brilliance from the very beginning," he added. "At the training center, they picked her out as the number one filly in every work she ever had."

In 2003, River Edge gave Benchmark a $2,000 stud fee. This year, Drake said, the horse was so much demand they've raised his fee to $7,500.

"The quality of mares has started to pick up, too, so we could be a little pickier," said Drake, who estimated that Benchmark would breed about 115 mares this year.

"It's hard to prove a stallion," Drake added. "If you can afford to breed your own mares to him and don't mind doing that, that's what it takes. And you have to get lucky and raise them right and have them turn out to be runners at the track.

"Benchmark is lucky Mr. Wygod owned him. That's what I admire so much about Marty, his persistence. This is partly a result of his having a farm for 28 years and working to have good stallions there."

Now that Benchmark's light is no longer hidden, will he stay at River Edge?

"I don't think I'll ever sell the horse," Wygod said. "I feel awfully good about him. All I want to do is go to Kentucky with Silent Sighs and win the Kentucky Oaks."

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen