Banner Year Decades in the Making for Wachtel

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Adam Wachtel & Junior Alvarado in Saratoga's paddock | Horsephotos

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The 2020 racing season was fraught with many challenges, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and halted racing in New York for about three months, continuing to wreak havoc with on-track attendance at many of the nation's racing venues throughout the remainder of the year. And while for many it was a time of turmoil and struggle, it proved to be a banner season for Wachtel Stable, campaigning not one but two Eclipse champions in 2020–Vequist (Nyquist, Champion Juvenile Filly) and Channel Maker (English Channel, Champion Turf Male).

“Unfortunately, I never made it to one single race–I haven't been to a race in 14 months,” said Adam Wachtel. “There was some time in the spring where there was no racing, and it was frustrating not knowing where to send a horse and what to do with them. There was some uncertainty, but the industry did a great job in keeping racing going. Overall, it didn't impact my decision making. I was still able to go out and find some talent, make some deals and continue with business as usual. In the end, 2020 wound up being a great for us.”

Highlighting the 2020 racing season, Vequist, who Wachtel campaigns in partnership with Gary Barber and the filly's breeder, Tom McGrath's Swilcan Stable, capped her juvenile campaign with a confident two-length win over Dayoutoftheoffice (Into Mischief) in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland Nov. 6. Trained by Robert 'Butch' Reid Jr., the filly also annexed the GI Spinaway S. and finished runner up to Dayoutoftheoffice in the GI Frizette S. in October.

“Win or lose, we knew after the Breeders' Cup we were going to give her some time off and point her to the GI Kentucky Oaks [in May],” explained Wachtel. “She ran so well in the Breeders' Cup that just seemed like the logical thing to do.”

“Butch decided to relocate down to Florida for the winter, and I think she had a lot to do with it, because he's essentially a Philly-based trainer. We sent her down to Ocala to get a little rest and start her back up there. She then went to South Florida to Butch.”

Returning to the races for the first time in 2021, Vequist encountered a setback in her sophomore campaign in last Saturday's GII Davona Dale S. at Gulfstream and finished ninth.

“She came out of the race sound,” confirmed Wachtel. “She had mucous upon scoping her after the race. We'll get that cleaned up, regroup, and let her tell us when she's ready to race again.”

Following her Breeders' Cup win, the tentative plan was for her to head to Kentucky to make her next start at Keeneland, the site of her Breeders' Cup victory.

“We wanted to work backwards from the Oaks, so we decided we'd try and give her two races, hoping that she'd stay healthy and everything would go well leading up to the Oaks,” said Wachtel. “There is no specific target at this point.”

While there appeared to be a general consensus that Vequist would take home a divisional title in 2020, it didn't appear to be as cut and dry for Channel Maker. Campaigned by Wachtel, Gary Barber, Randy Hill and Dean Reeves, the Ontario-bred won two of eight starts in 2020–the GI Sword Dancer S. at Saratoga in August followed by Belmont's GI Turf Classic Invitational S. in October. However, it was the result of the Nov. 7 GI Breeders' Cup Turf that, somewhat surprisingly, may have clinched the title for the Bill Mott trainee. Sent off at 9-1 in the $4-million test, the chestnut took to the front and was overtaken late to be close-up third behind a pair of formidable fillies–Tarnawa (Ire) (Shamardal {Ire}) and Magical (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}), both receiving three pounds from their male counterpart.

“It took two really special European fillies–who had a big weight advantage–to run him down and he was clearly the best of the North American horses,” he said.

When asked about his thoughts regarding Channel Maker earning the title over a pair of European horses who beat his horse home in the Breeders' Cup, Wachtel asserted, “I don't think it's right for a horse to come to the United States, run once and take home the Eclipse Award. Whether it was Channel Maker or another horse, I'm glad it was a North American-based horse. And I do believe he really earned it. I would have been disappointed for him and the other partners if he hadn't won it.”

Ever the world traveler, Channel Maker, who missed an intended start at last year's cancelled Dubai World Cup Carnival because of the COVID-19 outbreak, kicked off 2021 with a second-place effort behind another filly–True Self (Ire) (Oscar {Ire})–in the Neom Turf Cup at King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“From there, Channel Maker will go to [G1] Dubai (Sheema Classic Mar. 27) and then make maybe one start at Belmont before going to Saratoga. After that, hopefully, we can point him back to the Breeders' Cup [at Del Mar].”

And, the key to the 7-year-old's longevity?

“He's been great since he's a 2-year-old,” said Wachtel. “We've tried to do the right thing by him in spreading out his races. That's a big part of my philosophy that you treat them right. You run them at the right time and take care of them, and they will reward you. And he really has.”

All in the Family

Wachtel received his earliest lessons about racing from his father, Edwin Wachtel, a prominent owner/breeder in New York dating back to the 1970s. The senior Wachtel campaigned New York-bred stalwarts Claramount and his homebred son Stalwart Member, in addition to 1997 GII Gotham S. winner Smokin Mel.

“My dad introduced me into the sport when I was seven or eight years old, taking me to the trotters at Monticello,” recalled Wachtel. “In the early 1970s, when I was about nine or 10 years old, he bought his first racehorse and gave it to Howie Tesher, who was our trainer for a long time. I would go to the races with my dad and go back to the barn and immediately fell in love with the sport.”

Wachtel, who studied business and law and earned a pair of degrees from Emory University in Atlanta, decided to follow his passion for the sport following his graduation in 1988.

“As a young guy, I knew that this was something I'd want to do someday. I went to college, business school and then law school, but that was something that was first a foremost on my mind, to pursue a career in racing, so I built my life around it, professionally.”

Operating in tandem for many years, the father and son team reaped the rewards of sharing a sport they we passionate about.

“My dad was there every step of the way,” said Wachtel. “I took over the stable about 15-20 years ago, but he would still come with me. Saratoga, in particular, was always a very special place for my dad and my family, so we'd go up there for the summers. I don't live that far, so we would drive back and forth, and we had some great memories there.”

“He had a great influence on my life in general, but in particular, he introduced me to this sport and I learned an awful lot with him. We learned together. He passed away some years ago but I know he would have been awfully excited and proud if he could have been here for some of the horses we've had over the last 15 years.”

Building on Success

Since taking over the reins of his father's racing and breeding operation, Wachtel gradually incorporated a lot of his own philosophy into the present-day version of Wachtel Stable, which typically numbers 50-60 horses.

“I wanted to treat it as more of a business than strictly as a hobby,” explained Wachtel. “I didn't want to get attached to the horses and I wanted to be able to sell the horses just at the right time which is a very important part of the sport if you're going to survive you need to be able to sell at times. And my dad and his buddies didn't really do much of that. Along the way, I have sold either all or part of some of the best horses I've ever owned, including Channel Maker. It's worked out really nicely for all of us.”

He continued, “I've also cut back a little bit on the breeding end from what he was doing. He had about 15 or 20 mares and when I took over, I cut that back to maybe seven or 10 mares. I've focused on what I felt were better quality horses.”

Among the pillars of his predecessor's management style, Wachtel continues the tradition is standing at least one stallion to serve his small band.

“In the late 1970s, my dad retired [Claramount] and made a stallion out of him. Ever since then, we have always owned a stallion in New York, so I have always had my own stallion to breed to. Right now it's [GSW and MGISP] Al Khali [Medaglia d'Oro], who was a super turf horse trained by Bill Mott. I pretty much breed him to my mares, and although we do get some outside interest, the intent wasn't really to make a commercial stallion out of him. He had a great pedigree and was great looking, and since I don't like to pay big stud fees, it allows me to breed to my own stallion. Conversely, one of the stallions that I retained an interest in is Tourist [Tiznow], who won a GI Breeders' Cup Mile for us [campaigned in partnership with WinStar Farm and Gary Barber]. He stands at WinStar. I bought mares specifically to breed to him that are in Kentucky now. But typically, I do not breed my mares to outside stallions, unless there is a compelling reason.”

Need for Speed

In the quest for better racing stock, Wachtel has built a career of unearthing 'live' racing prospects, a diamond in the rough or a horse that has gone off-form and that may not be an obvious commodity at first glance. Case in point is multiple Grade I winner Ron the Greek (Full Mandate). Winner of the GIII Lecomte S. early in his sophomore season, Ron the Greek went on a five-race losing streak, and two trainer changes, before Wachtel–in partnership with Nils Brous–entered the fray and purchased a majority holding in 2011. Turned over to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, the Florida-bred finished second in his first two starts for the new connections, before taking the GI Santa Anita H., giving Wachtel his first Grade I win. He went on to add wins in the GI Stephen Foster S., GI Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational S. and Sunshine Millions Classic for the partnership before selling him right after his Gold Cup win.

“I bought my first horse when I was 18 with my dad, and I'm now 58, so I have been doing this a long time, and the vast majority of the horses that I've purchased over the years have been off of sheet figures,” Wachtel explained. “Some people look at Beyers and I look at Ragozin numbers. After 40 years of experience, my number one criteria in buying a 'made' horse is to buy fast horses. Ones that had the kind of sheet that suggested to me that they were still improving and were of value. We sometimes call them 'buried' horses whose sheets may suggest they might be more valuable than the public might realize.”

Fast forward to 2020, and the same principal applied to the decision to buy into Vequist off of a losing effort in her career debut last July.

“We identified her in her maiden race, where she was actually second at Parx,” he recalled. “And her [Ragozin] number made her the second fastest 2-year-old filly in North America behind a filly she ended up tangling with a couple of times after that, Dayoutoftheoffice, so I was very encouraged by that first effort.”

He continued, “When we were able to finalize the deal, I told Butch 'you're going to think I'm crazy, but I wouldn't run her in a maiden race. I think she's special and fast, so let's point her to a stakes race at Saratoga.' We did, and of course, she destroyed the field [in the Spinaway] and that set her on a path to the Breeders' Cup.”

Another method used by Wachtel for many years to upgrade his stock while spreading the risk is partnerships, which appear to have become the norm in recent times in both racing and the sales.

“I'm always trying to buy into horses that I hope can become stakes horses,” he said. “In doing so, that's why I'll partner with one or two guys rather than buy 100% of a horse. I'd rather 25 or 50% of an even better horse. Pretty much I won't buy unless I can have a minimum 25% stake in a horse, that's not to say that I think there is anything wrong with taking less than that. I did that with Exaggerator [Curlin], who won the [2016 Xpressbet.com] GI Preakness S. You won't see my name in the chart and since I'm not in it for the publicity, I didn't really care about that. But that was an exception because I thought he was something special and I thought he had a chance to win the Kentucky Derby, a race that he finished second in. Typically, I don't want to take less than 25%. It's just my own personal preference.”

Looking back on four decades in the game, Wachtel underscores a non-negotiable factor that he has built the success and longevity of his operation on is the people he has surrounded himself with.

“I just want to be involved with reputable people,” he affirmed

“I have a lot of horses with Gary Barber. And in case of Vequist where Gary and I would have bought the whole horse, the breeder and our partner Tom McGrath, decided he'd like to stay involved. So, I'm never opposed to partnering on horses, as long as it is somebody I want to be associated with.”

He continued, “A lot of my horses go to Bill Mott. Often times we give trainers a chance, like we did with Butch Reid and with Jerry O'Dwyer, who trained Shotski, who won the [GII] Remsen S., for us. We also did the same thing with Tim Keefe, another MidAtlantic trainer. There are some trainers in our sport that are controversial and you're not going to see my name in ownership with those particular trainers. It's not worth it to me. My integrity means a lot.”

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