09/09/2010 1:11PM

Forward thinker

Barbara D. Livingston
Marty Wygod celebrates after Life Is Sweet's victory in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic last year.

The headline never really had a chance, buried as it was by the subsequent onslaught of momentous events. “California-bred Shocks Mr. Prospector in Derby Trial” was about as much attention as it got, and then, as the tide of history rose, the rest of the week was awash in news of Secretariat, Sham, and all things caught up in the immediate sphere of the 99th Kentucky Derby.

Still, the events of Tuesday, May 1, 1973 – four days before that running of the Derby – loom large in the personal racing history of Marty Wygod, eventual owner of such significant runners as Sweet Catomine, Life Is Sweet, Exotic Wood, and Tranquility Lake, and one of the most successful breeders the West Coast has even seen. That was the day he watched his colors carried to victory at Churchill Downs by Settecento, a colt bred at a farm near the Monterey coast and trained in New York, who defeated an odds-on hotshot named Mr. Prospector in front of a stunned Kentucky crowd.

“They were already talking about syndicating Mr. Prospector at the time,” Wygod recalled. “And here he gets beat by this Cal-bred by Promised Land. But what I really remember about that day was Settecento leaning into Lefty Nickerson while he was being saddled and fracturing his ribs” – Lefty’s, not Settecento’s – “Of course,” Wygod added, “Lefty never let on.”

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Nearly 40 years later, Wygod is on the cusp of going full circle, at least in terms of his Thoroughbred endeavors, which have been based in California at his 170-acre River Edge Farm in the Santa Ynez Valley town of Buellton. Earlier this year, Wygod announced that he would be dispersing his California breeding stock and selling River Edge while concentrating his bloodstock at Lane’s End Farm in Kentucky and looking more toward the competitive arenas of the East Coast for his racing stable.

“It was a macro decision on whether I wanted to continue to breed out here or focus on what I’m doing in Kentucky,” Wygod said one recent morning at Del Mar, where he had horses spread among trainers John Sadler, Cliff Sise, and John Shirreffs. “Let’s face it, the future is uncertain in California. How things go will determine how much I’ll be racing out here. And right now, the opportunities in New York are intriguing.”

Wygod never really tried to separate his business self from the side that drove his Thoroughbred passions. A native Long Islander, he was aboard jumpers from a young age and cut his racetrack teeth rubbing horses at the track for Homer Pardue and Woody Stephens. Later, as a Wall Street whiz in his 20s, he encountered computer software pioneer Fletcher Jones, who was already well on his way to establishing empires in both business and horse racing. The two men collaborated to create the breakthrough company Computer Sciences.

“He was a brilliant guy,” Wygod said. “He saw computer software as an industry before it was an industry. I learned about computers from him, and he learned about Wall Street from me.”

Jones also gave Wygod two racehorses for his 25th birthday.

“He warned me that he wasn’t doing me any favors,” Wygod said. “But I would have gotten into the game anyway.”

In November 1972, at age 41, Jones was killed landing his plane at the airstrip of his Westerly Farm in Santa Ynez. The dispersal of the Jones horses, in the winter of 1973, made headlines around the world. One of the prime offerings was Typecast, the 1972 Eclipse Award champion older mare.

“I was the underbidder, and I really wanted her, but so did Zenya Yoshida, and he wouldn’t stop,” Wygod said. “He was then the head of Sony − it was like bidding against the Arabs.”

The hammer fell at $725,000, a record for a mare at the time. Fifteen years later, Wygod spent considerably less to strike his own version of broodmare gold. The Flying Paster mare Symbolically represented one of those serendipitous acquisitions that looks fine at face value, certainly worth the reasonable price, then mushrooms to exponential heights when hidden assets are revealed.

“Marty picked her out and had me claim her for $40,000 from Laz Barrera,” said trainer Ron Ellis, who also trained major stakes winners Exotic Wood and Twice the Vice for Wygod. “She was tough − we could only work her out of the gate − and she had an old tendon injury. We ran her twice for $55,000 and won a race, then lost her for that price. About a year later she ended up at Golden Gate, in for a $32,000 tag. That’s when Marty claimed her again and sent her straight to the farm.”

Four of Symbolically’s first seven foals were stakes winners, including Pirate’s Revenge, a Grade 1 winner of the Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park. In 1996 she produced Sweet Life, a daughter of Kris S. who was good enough to finish second in Grade 1 company for Wygod before commencing a broodmare career that has resulted in champion Sweet Catomine and Breeders’ Cup winner Life Is Sweet.
“Sweet Life bounced around two or three trainers without revealing her true capability,“ Wygod said. “And I just wanted to breed her to Storm Cat − I thought she had the family that deserved it − and I get Life Is Sweet and Sweet Catomine. That’s luck. There’s no skill involved.”

Wygod’s $250,000 yearling purchase of the Rahy filly Tranquility Lake blossomed in a more conventional though no less spectacular manner. As a racehorse, she won seven graded stakes and $1.6 million. As a broodmare, she has produced the major stakes winner After Market and his full brother Courageous Cat, who finished second to Goldikova in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Yet, as far as Californians are concerned, the horse who put Wygod on the map was Pirate’s Bounty, a son of Hoist the Flag who was trained in New York by Lefty Nickerson. Pirate’s Bounty won a small stakes and hit the board in two others, but once he opened for business in California, installed at River Edge Farm, he founded an empire of his own.

Before his death in 2006, at age 31, Pirate’s Bounty sired 57 stakes winners, nearly all of them in California, and 94 runners who at least hit the board in a black-type event. Among them were the major stakes winners Pirate’s Revenge, Private Persuasion, Hajii’s Treasure, Pacificbounty, and Feverish.

“When I brought him to California, people didn’t know what a Hoist the Flag looked like,” Wygod said.

It was that kind of in-your-face innovation that has kept Wygod on top in his health care businesses as well, beginning with Medco Containment Services, which was later sold to Merck. His latest enterprise has been WebMD, of which he serves as executive chairman.

“I still deal with the Street a lot,” Wygod said. “It’s more challenging, but it keeps you on your toes. There’s a different type of person in there today. But there are still people in there who understand relationships, and the right way to do business. They’re in a minority, though, so they have to be smarter than anyone else because they’re playing with a disadvantage.

“For the last 30 years, all of my companies have had the same theme: to bring down the cost of health care and improve patient outcomes,” he said. “When you do that and you can create the right business model off that, you get the gratification of really accomplishing something, making a difference, as well as going ahead and making money.”

Wygod turned 70 in February, which hardly puts him among the young lions.

“If you think about it, I’ve evolved into having a cutting-edge Internet company providing health care services to physicians and patients,” he said. “So I’ve been able to be an agent of change as times change. I haven’t gotten stuck in that rut of ‘this is the way we always do things.’ ”

For someone who has owned racehorses for more than 40 years, Wygod has had relatively few trainers, including Richard Mandella, Mandella’s former assistant Dan Hendricks, Ellis, Shirreffs, Sise, and Julio Canani, who trained Tranquility Lake and Sweet Catomine. This does not mean the waters have been always smooth.

“I’m interested in what’s going on, and I ask a lot of questions,” Wygod said. “I’ll challenge a trainer. I’ve been around for enough years to have a few ideas. So I’d say I’m probably difficult, yeah.

“I think it’s good for an owner to be as active as they want to be,” he said. “It’s a learning process, and things that they’ve learned from other walks of life can be applied here and help the game. In fact, that’s been a problem. There are fewer and fewer owners that you see on the backstretch.

“I worked on the legs of horses for six years, and for two seasons up at Saratoga I ponied my own horses for Lefty,” Wygod said. “I remember whenever I’d forget to wear my gloves, my hand would be raw from where the horse would reach over and bite me.”

Rarely a day goes by when Wygod is not reminded of his days on horseback. A collection of crash landings finally took its toll, resulting in a major surgical procedure nine years ago required to fuse seven vertebrae in his neck.

“I waited too long to have it done,” Wygod said. “I was losing the feeling in an arm and using a walker to get around. The surgery was complicated, and the recovery was long. I’m sure there was depression to go with it. But I’m feeling great now, even though I don’t have a lot of movement in my neck.”

Wygod said he predicts there will be another generation picking up wherever he leaves off in the racing world. His son, Max, is 22 and an enthusiastic racing fan who splits his summers between Del Mar and his surf board. He is heading for a graduate studies program while also working as an analyst for WebMD.

Emily Wygod, 24, holds a sociology degree from Duke that she has applied to efforts on national programs dealing with child health and welfare sponsored by the WebMD Health Foundation and through the California-based Rose Foundation, established by Wygod and his wife, Pam. However, such concerns were not the reason for Emily’s call on this particular morning. She was itching to get to Kentucky, where the yearling sales were about to commence, and was asking her father when she should make the trip.

“Emily is totally intrigued and very taken with Thoroughbred breeding,” Wygod said. “She has gotten off show jumping now, which is great. After hip surgery and two concussions, I think reality has set in. But she loves the horse. She’s my right-hand assistant right now.”

As she grows into more responsibility, Emily Wygod will be helping her father keep track of 30 mares in Kentucky at Lane‘s End Farm, along with the careers of present and future stallions After Market and Courageous Cat. Wygod also holds a significant interest in Candy Ride.
As for turning the page on California, the process will unfold over the next several months.

“We’ll be putting all the mares and weanlings through the California sales system,” Wygod said. “That will keep the broodmare base mostly in California, which is what I committed to do, as well as sell the stallions here. If I don’t get top price and someone else can be advantaged by them, God bless ’em.”

Don’t assume, however, that Wygod is turning his back on California. Besides his home in Rancho Santa Fe and the family’s philanthropic attachment to such local institutions as the University of California at San Diego and Rady’s Children’s Hospital, Wygod is also a member of the board of directors of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. He sees Del Mar as playing a key role in the future stability of the game, and he wants to be part of that evolution.

“Racing has been a great escape for me,” Wygod said. “It gets me away from my work. The great thing about horses and bloodlines, they keep your mind working. You can’t tell me it’s not a challenge when you’re going back seven generations to find answers.

“The business side of my life, that’s a matter of skill and luck,” he said. “The racing and breeding side is all luck. It’s the racing and breeding gods that have smiled on me.”