02/13/2014 5:18PM

Midwest Thoroughbreds sets a new course

Tom Keyser
Richard and Karen Papiese have won the most races in North America four straight years. Their 542 wins in 2012 is a record.

Every empire has its own arc. There are slow-growing, durable dynasties, and there are supernovas, where power explodes beyond manageable limits, fading just as quickly.

Horse ownership can breed dreams of empire. A certain type of owner starts winning races and can’t seem to stop, and such organizations usually fall into the latter class of empire: Sharp lines of rise and fall. But quietly, and without much formal acknowledgement, Thoroughbred racing has been ruled the last five years by one of the strongest ownership empires in the sport’s history.

Midwest Thoroughbreds Inc., the domain of owners Richard and Karen Papiese, began serious expansion in 2009, winning 236 races, and Midwest has sustained its frenetic pace ever since, easily leading North American owners in wins in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. In 2012, Midwest won more races in a year, 542, than any owner in the sport’s history, and easily led all owners in North American purse earnings with $10.14 million.

But no empire is eternal. Midwest, by Rich Papiese’s admission, is officially contracting after reaching peak expansion in 2012.

“You get to the point where things get difficult to manage,” said Papiese, 54, who, along with Karen, also runs Midwest Store Fixtures, a thriving business based in University Park, Ill., south of Chicago. “I have a full-time job already. With the stable that large, it was like having three full-time jobs. I’m not going to get out of racing, but I want it to be easier to manage.”

Midwest started 378 fewer horses and won 141 fewer races in 2013 than in 2012. The operation first topped 1,000 starters in 2010, reached its zenith with 1,857 starters in 2012, and dropped back down in 2013 to 1,479 runners, about the same number as in 2011. Papiese (pronounced pa-PEACE) said Midwest isn’t going to shrink radically. The operation is too large for that, and there is no economic urgency to quickly cull holdings. Midwest might start 1,000 horses this year, perhaps 800 in 2015.

“I’m used to running a company like a jet ski: We kind of wound up with a barge here. You don’t stop a barge right away,” Papiese said in a recent telephone interview.

Midwest’s durability has been rare among owners who decide to plunge into empire building. Marion Van Berg and Dale Baird hold the record for consecutive years as North America’s leading owner, at 11. Van Berg’s run lasted from 1960-1970, Baird’s from 1990-2000. Both men also were trainers. Training your own stock cuts down expenses and lessens the strain on human relationships that inevitably comes from running operations on such an immense scale. Owners that don’t train who decide to go all-in tend to flame out faster.

Dan Lasater came from nowhere to lead North America in wins and purse earnings in 1974, 1975, and 1976, but Lasater quieted soon after, and by 1984 had dispersed his stock. After Baird’s run ended, four other empire-builders emerged. Rick Englander maxed out at 405 wins in 2001 and has not won a race since 2009. Mike Gill won 486 races in 2004, popped back onto the scene to lead in wins again in 2009, and has not won a race since 2010. Louis O’Brien, based at little Fairmount Park, chased and chased and finally got his title in 2007. He climbed the mountain, looked around a minute, and scurried back down: O’Brien had three starters in 2009, none since. Maggi Moss is the stayer. She only led North America in wins once, with a relatively light 211 in 2006, but every year racks up solid numbers.

Midwest’s 401 wins in 2013 marked its fourth straight year with more victories than any other owner, something no owner since Baird in 2000 had done more than two years in a row. Only Gill in 2004 and 2005 managed to win more than 400 races in consecutive seasons: Midwest has done that four years in a row. Between 2009 and 2013, Midwest won 1,897 races. In 2012, they smashed Lasater’s record of 494 wins in a year by sending out a remarkable 542 winners. Lasater, running a stable composed similarly to Midwest’s (heavy on claimers, lighter on stakes horses), won an Eclipse Award for leading owner in 1974, 1975, and 1976. But in 2012, having put together perhaps the greatest-ever statistical year by a Thoroughbred owner, Midwest was outpolled for the Eclipse 138-50 by Godolphin.

“I was kind of disappointed when they didn’t win the Eclipse,” said Midwest’s major trainer, Jamie Ness. “They set a record for wins. [Papiese] was leading owner in wins at small tracks, big tracks, everywhere, and he won at a high percentage. To not get the recognition was maybe a little kick in the gut.”

Ness’s name has become synonymous with two things – Midwest and massive win totals. Ness, 39, had trained 10 years when he began working for Papiese in 2009. He has since won about 1,200 races for Midwest, including 395 during the banner 2012 season. There have been recent rumblings that Ness wanted to take on other clients, or perhaps even go a different direction entirely, but he said he has no plans to step out of his present role.

“When you’re dealing with horses, you’ve seen owner-trainer relationships – they don’t last too long,” Ness said. “We’ve had our share of differences, but all in all, [Papiese] and I are kind of the same person. I think we got a good relationship, and we work well together. For the foreseeable future I’m not planning on going anywhere, and he tells me he’s not either. I think I’ll continue to train for Mr. Papiese as long as he has horses.”

Ness is one of five trainers Midwest currently employs: Roger Brueggeman is based most of the year in Chicago, but also races at Oaklawn, Prairie Meadows, and Canterbury. Tom Amoss has horses for Midwest, as does former Amoss assistant Chris Richard. In 2013, Midwest hired Laura Perillo to operate a string in New York, where the Papieses would like to be more active.

Papiese said Ness’s outfit, which currently is split three ways between Tampa, Gulfstream, and Laurel Park, is going to get smaller.

“Jamie Ness is a good guy. He has too many horses, is all,” he said. “We need to trim him down.”

Ness has about 70 horses in training. Midwest, Papiese said, has about 185 horses stabled at tracks this winter, down from 250 during its peak. But the racetrack residents are only one part of the empire. Papiese has a farm near Ocala, Fla., run by former trainer Hector Magana and his wife, Cheryl, with full training facilities. At one point, Midwest had a broodmare band that numbered 40, but they have trimmed that number significantly, Papiese said.

And like many of the ownership empires that preceded him, Papiese, having racked up amazing win totals thanks in great part to lower-level claiming horses, says he wants a smaller herd of horses that can perform at a higher level.

“We went to the sales [in 2013] and focused more on quality than quantity,” Papiese said. “We bought about 50 horses at the $50,000 range. We still have a decent amount of homebreds, and we’ve bred to better sires. Numbers don’t mean anything when they’re just numbers. For me, the goal is to get a better-quality product. I never wanted to get into the business just to have a big quantity of anything. You go through trials and tribulations. You see what’s hurting and helping you.

“We’ve had success, but everyone sees the success, and not the failures. I am not telling you we’re in trouble – we’re not. I’d just rather have better stock and less of it. We’ll do some claiming, but I don’t want to claim $5,000, $6,000, $10,000 horses unless the right one comes along.”

Papiese, who has 10 grandchildren, went to the track with his mother as a child. Tracing what motivated him to build a racing empire is elusive. He says he’s not an “action junky,” but Papiese, by all accounts, closely follows his operation, contacting almost without fail his trainers whenever one of his thousands upon thousands of starters the last half-decade has been in action. He is a hands-on owner, suggesting claims to trainers and asking for all the information he can be provided, but Papiese generally stays out of the way, leaving trainers to do their work. He and his wife seem genuinely to care about equine welfare, and Midwest, without fanfare, has been charitably active within the industry. Last year, for instance, they built a 20-stall barn at Remember Me Rescue, a Texas re-homing facility for retired racehorses.

But Richard Papiese wants to scale back his empire before he finds his personal Waterloo. He has taken over territory on a scale rarely, if ever, seen in racing. Now it is time to rein in the troops.

“I just can’t watch all these races anymore,” Papiese said. “There are way too many ups and downs here. I do not want to feel like a yo-yo. The fun I had before was figuring things out. Now, I’m in the Racing Form constantly, I’m on the Rag sheets constantly. I have to pay attention to other things in life here, or eventually it’s just going to be me and the horses.”

Midwest Thoroughbreds by the numbers

Year Starts Wins Seconds Thirds ITM Earnings
2014 149 36 15 26 51.70% $617,088
2013 1,479 401 250 189 56.80% 7,230,797
2012 1,857 542 357 256 62.20% 10,145,328
2011 1,423 418 272 216 63.70% 6,307,278
2010 1,157 310 222 157 59.60% 4,197,614
2009 993 236 169 129 53.80% 3,176,826
2008 43 2 2 2 13.90% 55,354
2003 8 3 3 2 100% 24,710

ITM - In the money
2014 - Through Feb. 9