Taking Stock: Philanthropy and Racehorses Define Gary and Mary West

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Gary West (right) with Ben Glass (left) | Sid Fernando

By Sid Fernando

Gary and Mary West’s hot pink and black diamond silks will be flown by two high-profile colts in the Breeders’ Cup races at Churchill Downs this weekend. Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg}), undefeated in three starts, a multiple Grade l winner, and the pro tem leader of his division, will be favored in the Gl Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Friday; and West Coast (Flatter), the champion 3-year-old colt last year, will be the likely second choice after Accelerate (Lookin At Lucky) in the Gl Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday. The Wests are in an enviable position to sweep the two most prestigious Breeders’ Cup races for stud prospects, with millions in breeding values and purse monies at stake over the next two days, not to mention an Eclipse Award for Game Winner, but Gary and Mary West are pragmatic owners who have raced horses for nearly 40 years and know better than most that anything can and will happen in a horse race. They’re confident going in but are not taking anything for granted. As for the millions on the table? Well, they’re self-made billionaires in second careers as hard-core philanthropists who have given away more than $200 million to date through their Gary and Mary West Foundation, primarily to help reduce healthcare costs and improve quality of life for the low-income elderly. [Full disclosure: The Wests and their racing manager Ben Glass are retained clients of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc.]

The Wests, both 72 and married for 50 years this year, now live in tony Rancho Santa Fe in San Diego but are straight out of a Horatio Alger story that began for them in the backwater of 1960s Omaha. “I was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but our family, when I was about four or five years, moved to a little town, a little farming community called Harlan, Iowa,” Gary West said. “That’s about 50 miles away from Omaha. My dad owned a four-lane bowling alley. We grew up poor-to-lower middle class. Both of us came from poor-to-lower-middle-class families, so we learned early in life what it was like to struggle, and that was a good thing.”

Mary West was born in Miami and moved to Omaha with her family when she was a teenager, and that’s where Gary West met and later married her when they were 22, in 1968.

Their improbable rise to the heights began when they started a business together. “Our families could not afford to send us to college. So neither one of us were formally educated with a college degree. We’ve done okay in spite of that. Would I have liked to have gone to college and got a high-powered education like other people? Sure, but it was one of those things that wasn’t even possible. So we kind of scuffled around and ended up finding a real business opportunity that, uh, just exploded, and we rode that wave for 20 or 25 years, and it was a company that kept growing and growing and growing, but I kept getting older and older and older and I knew that at some point in time we had to have a liquidity event, i.e., selling the business or part of the business to do some of the philanthropic stuff that my wife and I both swore to do some day because we had been so lucky.”

In 2006, Forbes listed West at #354 on the list of the 400 richest Americans with a net worth of $1.1 billion and noted that the couple was to receive $1.6 billion and 20% of the new company after their publicly traded West Corp., an audio and video conferencing company, went private through a leveraged buyout with Thomas H. Lee Partners and Quadrangle Group. The following year, Mary West, co-founder of West Corp., was ranked #95 by Forbes among the 100 most powerful women.

The Gary and Mary West Foundation was established in 2006 and has been the couple’s main focus since, except for the horses. “Mary thoroughly enjoys watching our horses run. I enjoy watching anyone’s horses run. I’m a racing fanatic, and it is really the only hobby that I have. I still work about 100 hours a week in terms of being the chairman of the board and the founder of our philanthropic organizations,” West said.

Compassion for people and horses

The Wests were inspired to concentrate their philanthropic efforts on helping seniors because they had first-hand experience caring for their own aging parents and saw that government attention to this at-risk segment of the population was minimal. “We love elderly people and had a special compassion for them, and so we are pretty much devoting our life now to them. We’re out of the money-making stage of life, and with the wealth that we’ve accumulated we’re helping the poor, elderly population with their medical needs and their social service needs or anything like that, and that just gives us warm, warm, warm feelings. It’s kind of like winning a Breeders’ Cup race, when we get up every day and know that we’ve helped tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people have a better life later in life when nobody else is there for them,” West said. “We don’t have any children, so when we pass away, 100% of everything that we have is going to go into our endowment and foundation. And the good work that our staffs are doing will continue for years as a result of that.”

Horses became their passion in 1980, a few years after they’d started one of their first businesses, WATS Telemarketing, in 1978. They claimed a 3-year-old named Joe Blow (Son Ange), who was trained by Ben Glass at the now-defunct Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha. Joe Blow never got claimed again, though he raced for the Wests until he was eight and retired with 21 wins from 118 starts and $145,784 in earnings in 1985. “Benny was out in a small town just north of Omaha. And at that time he and his dad had a horse farm, and so he was the only person in the area that we knew of that had a horse farm, and we went out and visited him, and I liked Benny from the minute I met him. He was a good, honest person, which is not always the case in the horse business,” West said.

They’ve been together ever since. The West stable started to grow and improve. It went from claimers to allowance horses and then to national-level stakes runners like Rockamundo, winner of the Gll Arkansas Derby in 1993 for Glass and the Wests. After training for them for 13 years, Glass became the couple’s racing manager, a position he’s held now for 25 years. With Omaha-based veterinarian Dr. Doug Brunk in tow, he’s a regular at the Keeneland September sale shopping for the Wests, who’ve been among the sale’s leading buyers for most of the last decade. They eschew turf types and concentrate on buying only dirt horses bred for the Classic distances. West Coast was a $425,000 purchase in 2015 and Game Winner was a relative bargain at $110,000 in 2017. “He had a few issues, but we thought he could run through them,” Glass said of Game Winner. “Nobody else liked him. I was the only one that scoped him.”

Together, the Wests and Glass have experienced the highs and the lows of the game over four decades, from hardscrabble claimers in the early years to elite graded winners nowadays. It’s that longtime experience with dirt horses from the bottom up that has formed West’s opinions on Lasix. He views the use of the controversial drug as a therapeutic necessity for the compassionate treatment of racehorses.

“For me, it’s a humane thing,” West said. “Here’s the way I look at it: If I had a son or daughter, and the doctor told me that if they go out and run cross country, they’re going to bleed in their lungs. Alternatively, they could take a water pill and they wouldn’t bleed in their lungs. What would I do if it was my kid? Because horses are like kids to us. We really care about the animal. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, and I’m not the god of racing, but I just don’t understand why people think it’s okay to let horses do something that you know every time they do it, they will bleed.”

West estimates that he’s scoped his horses more than 3,000 times over the course of nearly 40 years and has his own bank of data on which to base his opinion. “People who say that very few horses bleed just haven’t scoped all that many horses or they’re getting their information from a source that’s not really reliable,” he says. “Just because blood isn’t gushing out of the nose doesn’t mean a horse didn’t bleed [in the lungs or trachea]. A lot of horses even bleed a little bit with Lasix. But if it prevents the worst bleeding, you know, you minimize it to a real significant degree.”

Game Winner and West Coast

Game Winner and West Coast, like all the West yearlings, were broken in Ocala by Jeff Kirk, a longtime member of the team. The Wests’ burgeoning broodmare band is boarded at Dell Ridge Farm in Lexington under the auspices of manager Des Ryan, another valuable cog in the operation as the homebreeding part of the equation increases, with more colts going to stud. “Des does an absolutely outstanding job for us,” West said, “and Jeff has been breaking our yearlings for 25 years. We have never had a trainer who has not said, ‘Gary, the 2-year-olds that you send us, we don’t consistently get any better, well-behaved, well-schooled, well-trained horses from anywhere than we do from your guy.'”

Bob Baffert, of course, trains Game Winner and West Coast, as he has most of the Wests’ recent California-based graded stakes winners, and he fits their programs on several fronts. For one, he’s based in the same state as them and it’s a convenient trip to see their horses run, especially at Del Mar, which is four miles away from the couple’s residence. And he’s primarily a dirt trainer, a natural fit for the Wests’ program. He’s developed all of their recent stallion prospects, such as Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day (Street Cry {Ire}), Grade l winner Power Broker (Pulpit), and Grade ll winner Flashback (Tapit)–all of which all started off at Hill ‘n’ Dale, and Grade lll winner American Freedom (Pulpit), who’s at Airdrie. West Coast will stand at Lane’s End next year after he’s retired, and the offers are coming in strong for Game Winner, said West, who plans on supporting his best stallions with his best mares as a commercial-breeding enterprise. “We will sell at auction in the future some of our best yearlings from our best mares in order to promote and make our stallions,” he said.

As a dirt man, West’s bucket list is made up of four Grade l races: the Kentucky Derby, Travers, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He’s won two of the four already and will shoot for the Classic on Saturday and, hopefully, the Derby next spring.

He’s cautiously optimistic for the weekend. He noted that West Coast was only “70 to 75%” ready for his last start and should improve, and that Game Winner is “push-button and will do whatever the rider asks,” but West’s main hope is that his– everyone else’s–horses come back okay. “People can believe this or not–and they may think this is bullshit–but the first thing I say is a prayer for everybody’s horse to come back safe after the race. Okay. That’s my number one thought. Then number two, I want our horse to win the race, and if he doesn’t win the race, I want him to do as good as he can do. I’ve been on the bad end of horse problems in races, and I know that gut-wrenching feeling it is for people who love their horses so much, and I don’t wish that on anybody.”

Those are the refreshing words of someone who has the welfare of others on his mind, even in the heat of battle, and they define both Gary and Mary West.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

 

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