Prominent Owner-Breeder Marty Wygod Passes Aged 84

Marty Wygod | Benoit

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After a long lifetime marked by notable wins on the racetrack and in the business world, prominent owner-breeder, entrepreneur and philanthropist Marty Wygod has passed away aged 84.

“I have so many good memories of Marty Wygod. I was telling Emily [Bushnell, Wygod's daughter] this morning, one of my favorite things about Marty was he had a great sense of humor,” said trainer John Shirreffs, who conditioned some of Wygod's heaviest hitters on the track.

Wygod, said Shirreffs, was also something of a prankster.

“The first time I met him at the barn, he was standing in front of this horse, and he's studying it very carefully. I remember thinking to myself, 'I wonder what he's doing,'” recalled Shirreffs.

“He then leaves the horse and he walks down to me, and he says, 'John, that horse has a headache.' I didn't know what to think–that's Marty Wygod. He told me the horse had a headache. I'm not going to question that!” said Shirreffs. “From that moment on, we had a really good relationship.”

The hub of Wygod's breeding empire-which he owned and operated with his wife, Pamela-was the 250-acre River Edge Farm, in California's Santa Ynez Valley, close to Santa Barbara.

There, they stood several successful stallions, like Bertrando, Tribal Rule, Benchmark and Dixie Chatter. But it's the many talented performers Wygod bred, owned and co-owned that he's arguably best remembered for in the racing world.

The Wygods bred Life is Sweet (Storm Cat), a two-time Grade I winner who took the 2009 GI Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic. Sweet Catomine (Storm Cat) won the 2004 GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Tranquility Lake (Rahy) was a seven-time graded stakes and dual Grade I winner and went on to produce a $9.7-million Keeneland September sales-topper. Idiot Proof (Benchmark) claimed the 2007 GI Ancient Title S. at Santa Anita and was runner-up in that year's GI Breeders' Cup Sprint.

In 2010, Harmonious (Dynaformer) took two G1 scalps: the American Oaks at Hollywood Park and the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup S. at Keeneland.

“Harmonious wins the Queen Elizabeth and Marty and I are the two out of towners. We go up to the director's room for a celebratory drink, and I think we were off standing by ourselves in the corner after that!” said Shirreffs, who trained both Life is Sweet and Harmonious, among several Wygod-owned luminaries, remembering that win as one of their sweetest.

The Wygods' latest work of art is the Kentucky Derby-bound GII Wood Memorial S. winner Resilience (Into Mischief), co-owned by Bushnell.

“That has been one of the best things for him these past few years–he was very excited about that,” said jock's agent, Tom Knust, who struck up a firm friendship with Wygod stemming from his days as Del Mar and Santa Anita racing secretary.

Over the years, Wygod's list of trainers included Julio Canani, Dan Hendricks, John Sadler, Clifford Sise and Bill Mott.

Wygod sat on or was involved with several prominent racing boards, including the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, as a trustee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and as a member of The Jockey Club.

“Marty's inclusion on our board proved to be a blessing over and over again,” said DMTC's longtime CEO Joe Harper. “His insights and feel for both the world of business and our racing game helped us repeatedly make the kind of good decisions that have seen us rise to the top of the national racing community. We will dearly miss him.”

As a businessman, Wygod's fortunes were forged through various successful companies, perhaps most notably WebMD, a widely used online repository for medical news and information, through which he rose to the position of chairman.

“He'd come to the barn at Del Mar because he lived at Rancho Santa Fe, and he'd sit on a chair at the front of the office and conduct his business over the telephone,” said Shirreffs.

“It was kind of a thrill for me to sit next to him and listen to him on the phone talking to whoever he was talking to about his business. He was such a logical person who appreciated all sides of every conflict or interest,” said Shirreffs.

“Anybody in the horseracing industry that had any medical problems, he was right there to help them. It didn't matter if you were a groom or a hotwalker,” said Knust, who credits Wygod for twice saving his wife's life, connecting her with much-needed medical advice and help.

Like Shirreffs, Knust remembers a man with a wicked sense of humor.

“About 10 years ago, Marty brought a really good 3-year-old into Del Mar. He was by a $300,000 stallion out of his best mare,” Knust remembered. “He said, 'Tom, I'm giving you a share of this horse, it'll be your retirement. I just want you to call Pam, tell her that I'm giving you a share in this horse, and to figure out the paperwork.'”

When Knust called Pamela Wygod, he said she seemed a little confused, but assured Knust that she would straighten it out with her husband.

“I just kind of felt strange about something,” said Knust. “So, I went and looked up the papers and it was a gelding. That was Marty's sense of humor. He had a great sense of humor.”

Said Shirreffs: “He was just a great guy. We was a fantastic individual. A brilliant man. A great horseman. He was something special to be around.”

Aside from his daughter Emily and wife Pamela, Wygod leaves behind his son Max.

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