By Joe Bianca
Marshall Gramm is a numbers guy. Imbued with economics teachings and a lifelong horseplayer, he understands risk and reward, and when it makes sense statistically to take the plunge and invest heavily into something. So when his Ten Strike Racing syndicate found themselves with a potential Triple Crown contender who wasn’t nominated to the series, he agonized. But in the end, horse racing is about taking chances when opportunities are there to be seized, and Gramm and his partners ponied up the $150,000 to supplement their ascendant 3-year-old Warrior’s Charge (Munnings) to Saturday’s GI Preakness S.
“The lesson learned is if we have a promising colt, and we’ve always really liked this horse from day one, you put up the money,” Gramm said. “I try not to stew over that.”
Not stewing over it is made easier once Gramm reflects on the humble beginnings of what would become Ten Strike, and the growth made in just over a decade to reach this opportunity: running a contender in one of the country’s most important races. Gramm, who is now a professor of betting markets at Rhodes College in his hometown of Memphis, claimed his first horse for $5,000 in September of 2008 as an obsessed racing fan but a novice when it came to ownership. And just as soon as he entered the game, he could have gotten out of it just as quickly.
“My whole life was about horse racing, and I was following this mare named Aunt Dot Dot–she had a nice pedigree and had worked her way down the claiming ranks, and when she ran for $5,000 at Philadelphia Park, I got my brother and one of my college friends to chip in the money and go claim her,” Gramm remembered. “We didn’t have any idea what we were doing. We won a three-way shake, and I got offered $10,000 on the spot. Being very green, we turned it down. Nowadays, the idea of making $5,000 quickly like that would’ve been a no-brainer. So I could’ve made five grand and walked away and never been a horse owner.”
Instead, they kept the mare and raced her a few times. She never won for Gramm, but became his first broodmare, one who has subsequently produced a pair of stakes winners. From there, it was off and running for Gramm’s Truxton Stables. Focusing mainly on the claiming ranks, they grew to the point where they won owners’ titles at Monmouth Park and Parx Racing. And in 2014, Gramm put together a core group of partners that would become Ten Strike. Two years later, they hooked up with star bloodstock agent Liz Crow, and began buying horses at auction. Right off the bat, Crow gave them a chance at a champion.
“When Liz first went out on her own, she was shopping the Keeneland September Sale and bought two fillies, an Uncle Mo and a Tapizar,” Gramm said, chuckling at where this story was heading. “We were offered a chance to buy either one, and we of course chose the Uncle Mo. The Tapizar filly was Monomoy Girl.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Gramm isn’t stewing about that one, saying, “In many ways, that would’ve ruined us. I don’t know if you want a horse like that so early in your ownership process.”
But they may have one now, that is, if Warrior’s Charge continues his current trajectory.
Crow was at the McKathan Brothers’ farm in Florida watching horses train when she noticed the then-yearling colt, owned at that time by Al Shaqab Racing. And some previous physical issues with the youngster turned serendipitous for her and Ten Strike.
“I spotted him and he was just galloping at that point, he’d just been broken,” Crow said. “He had colic surgery as a foal, so he couldn’t go through public auction when Al Shaqab sold their yearlings. He was going to maybe sell at a 2-year-old sale, maybe sell privately, so I saw him on the farm and decided to buy him privately.”
The colt was sent to Brad Cox as a juvenile and started training well. So well, in fact, that Sol Kumin got wind of him and decided to purchase a 20% interest under his Madaket Stables banner. But Warrior’s Charge’s racing career didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start. He debuted with a third going 6 1/2 furlongs Thanksgiving weekend at Churchill. Then he was third again at six panels Jan. 26 at Oaklawn.
“Part of the reason we were in the predicament of supplementing is, in January, he was a sprinter who’d finished third twice, so the idea of running in a Triple Crown race seemed insane,” Gramm said. “We just assumed he was a sprinter.”
Crow concurred, but the jockeys who rode Warrior’s Charge in his first two races didn’t.
“He’s a Munnings, so you assume he’s going to be a sprinter,” she said. “We kept thinking, ‘He’s gonna be a good sprinter, he’s gonna be a good sprinter,’ and every time the jockeys would get off him they’d say, ‘I think he wants to go further,’ and his gallop-outs were all really good.”
Stretched out to two turns Feb. 18 in Hot Springs, he broke a bit slowly and closed decently, but again finished third. Then, on the GII Rebel S. undercard Mar. 16, the lightbulb went off. Cox and rider Jose Ortiz decided to be aggressive and sent Warrior’s Charge to the lead for the first time in his career. The result was a six-length romp under minimal urging. That validation of the talent they had long seen in the mornings officially got the Oaklawn-based Ten Strike dreaming big.
“Our goal has been to win the Arkansas Derby, and whatever happens after that is gravy,” Gramm said. “We thought seriously about running in that spot after his maiden win, especially when it looked like it might rain, so we gave it a good hard look, but ultimately decided since he wasn’t Triple Crown nominated, it didn’t make sense and let’s just take it step by step. Let’s build up his experience and not do anything crazy. Instead, one race later we’re doing something crazy.”
Put on the engine again going 1 1/16 miles Apr. 12, this time under Florent Geroux, the colt could not have been much more impressive, dominating a field of allowance horses by 6 1/2 lengths. Warrior’s Charge had arrived, if a few races late. Then, once the top contenders from the Derby started dropping out, Gramm’s eyes turned to the Preakness and the partnership eventually bit the bullet.
“We don’t take our decision to supplement lightly and we were only going to go there if we thought our horse fit,” he said. “We know we’re asking a lot from our partners and a lot from the horse to take this kind of shot, but once the field started to shape up the way it did, with the main contenders, the ‘two winners’ from the Derby dropping out, we thought it was worth really talking about. Our horse fits on paper, we’ve run as fast as the other horses, we have good tactical speed and the horse is training superbly. We were pointing to the Sir Barton anyway, so it’s not like we had to alter our tactics. We’re coming in off five weeks rest, a lot of other horses are coming in off shorter rest, and we think we fit.”
The Preakness also holds special significance for Gramm. Growing up in Washington, DC, the son of senator Phil Gramm, many of Marshall’s formative moments as a racing fan came on the third Saturday in May.
“When I was a kid, the Preakness was the biggest thing, the biggest weekend,” he said. “I remember vividly Tanks Prospect setting the track record in ’85, Easy Goer and Sunday Silence in ’89, Deputed Testamony scampering through the mud in ’83, so these are memories I have as a kid from that race and it’s really exciting to be part of it.”
Ultimately though, true to form, the decision for Gramm and close to 50 Ten Strike partners on whether or not to run in the Preakness mostly came down to numbers. And even with the hefty supplemental fee, Gramm says the potential windfall of a victory outweighed the risk.
“From a mathematical standpoint, with the purse money and the added value as a stallion prospect, we thought it was worth the gamble.”
Taking those kinds of gambles has generally paid off for Gramm. For proof, look no further than a $5,000 claimer named Aunt Dot Dot.