By Chris McGrath
It's remarkable what people can do nowadays. The company co-founded by Tom McGrath converts glass bottles into lightweight construction aggregate. This stuff starts out as curbside recycling, your emptied beers and so on, and ends up supporting you as you drive over a bridge. But then there's nothing like raising and racing Thoroughbreds to show the latent capacities lurking in refuse material.
Because Vequist (Nyquist), the champion juvenile filly homebred by McGrath's Swilcan Stable, was rejected in the ring twice over. The first time, she was in utero when her dam Vero Amore (Mineshaft) was offered at the Keeneland November Sale of 2017. Still only six, and having run a neck second in the GII Black Eyed Susan S., Vero Amore was valued higher by her owner than by the market and was led away unsold at $135,000. Then McGrath offered Vequist herself back in the same ring, as a September yearling, but again couldn't drum up adequate interest and took her home at $120,000.
“I don't think she even got vetted,” McGrath remembers. “But I'll take good luck any day, you know? The vast majority of people that do this, breeding on a smaller scale, have to be able to turn over in order to have the cash flow. And we're no different. So we just got really fortunate that they both RNA'd when they went through. And then when we sent Vequist down to Barry Eisaman's, he loved her. I was just trying to figure out what other people didn't see that we saw.”
But then Vero Amore had herself confounded the market, found by trainer Robert E. “Butch” Reid, Jr. as a Timonium 2-year-old for just $15,000.
“Butch liked her, it seemed like she was going to be a steal, so he picked her up for me,” McGrath says. “She was only a little peanut, but she has a heart of gold. Small but mighty. She was such a tough competitor, always put a solid effort in.”
Vero Amore made nearly half her career starts at Parx, and it was at McGrath's hometown track that Vequist started out, too.
“Butch always tries to temper my expectations,” says McGrath with a laugh. “So I'm not sure he was giving me the full story the whole time! But I could tell he was excited about her.”
Sure enough, Vequist was beaten only a nose on debut while pulling a city block clear of the third. Promising though that effort was, McGrath was amazed how alertly even Parx maidens are dredged by the sharpest prospectors. After the speed figures came out, Reid called and told McGrath he had been approached about the filly by Gary Barber and Adam Wachtel.
“I have friends that are heavy into those Ragozins, and all the rest of it, but I'd be lost trying to figure them out,” confesses McGrath. “Anyway I guess she put up a really good number in that race, and that got the attention of Adam and Gary. They were really fair, with the offer they made, and it was an easy negotiation. I was thrilled: just based on everything that was happening beyond the racetrack in 2020, it made a lot of sense for us to lay off and open up some of the value. But it was fantastic also to be able to maintain 25% ownership. I really am appreciative of that, and it's been a great partnership with Gary and Adam. It's been a win across the board.”
McGrath's one condition was that the filly stay in Reid's barn. His new partners were wise enough to be agreeable to that, too. After all, here was a guy who has been training for 35 years, closing on 800 wins from nearly 5,000 starts. There won't be many mornings when Reid meets a challenge in the shedrow that he won't have seen before. And when he has had the chance, he has seized it. He knows what a good juvenile looks like–he won the GII Remsen S. with Spendthrift's rookie Maximus Mischief (Into Mischief)–but can also reel out the spool to win a GII Breeders' Cup Marathon with a mature stayer like Afleet Again (Afleet Alex).
Actually it had been the sire of that horse that hooked McGrath into the sport. His Bucks County neighbor at the time, Joe Lerro, was an owner of Afleet Alex and after following the spectacular ups and downs of his Triple Crown campaign (or, more literally, the downs and ups), McGrath asked to be told next time there might be an opportunity to get involved.
Among the first horses in which he partnered was a $90,000 Speightstown colt, purchased by Chuck Zacney at the same Timonium sale that would produce Vero Amore three years later. In Reid's care, Poseidon's Warrior matured into one of the top sprinters in the land, winning the GI Alfred G. Vanderbilt H. in 2012.
Needless to say, he had started out winning at what was then still known as Philadelphia Park. With Vequist, however, Reid has taken McGrath to another level.
“Butch gets a lot of credit for all of this,” he says. “He's doing the day to day, him and [wife and assistant] Ginny and their crew, they do all the heavy lifting. I get the fun job, pop in once in a while and only have to nod and agree. So I'm absolutely thrilled for them. With Butch, what you see is what you get. He will always give you an honest answer. And he cares for the horses, always puts them first. He and Ginny have been lifelong in this, and deserve all the accolades.”
One thing is for sure: without his new partners, McGrath would never have been pressing to fast-track Vequist to Grade I company for her second start. “Gary and Adam had been looking at those numbers, and knew better than I did what the potential was,” McGrath says. “It was a good move.”
It most certainly was. Vequist won the Spinaway S. at Saratoga by a jaw-dropping 9 1/2 lengths and, while just given the slip in the GI Frizette S., she confirmed herself class leader on the day that mattered. Clinging to the rail as a gap obligingly opened into the stretch, she became the third Breeders' Cup winner out of Parx in three years–following Jaywalk (Cross Traffic) and Spun to Run (Hard Spun)–when scoring decisively in the GI Juvenile Fillies.
“What a day,” McGrath says. “It was my daughter's 16th birthday, and there was the traveling back and forth with the COVID going on, but my wife was just like, 'This doesn't happen often. You have to go.' And even though it had to be a little quieter than other years, Keeneland did a fantastic job and there was still a good atmosphere. The whole experience was tremendous. It's hard to describe the feeling of being there at the finish line in the Breeders' Cup, watching the horse that you bred go across the line like that. I had two fists high in the air. It was one of those moments you'll remember forever.”
The newly anointed champion put in a bullet :59.65 workout at Palm Meadows last weekend as she prepares for her resumption, and hopefully a crack at the GI Kentucky Oaks, in the GII Davona Dale S. next Saturday. In the meantime, however, a no less important appointment looms: any day now, Vero Amore is due to deliver an Accelerate foal at Brookdale Farm, Versailles.
All going well, she will then be bred back to Nyquist–not a hard choice, in the circumstances. Since her last visit to the Darley sire she has produced two daughters, a Daredevil yearling and an Astern (Aus) juvenile, offering flexibility to Swilcan's breeding operation whatever the future may hold for Vequist and indeed her dam, who is still only 10.
“We've had some interest, for sure,” McGrath admits. “But if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that while things are exciting, you don't want to make quick decisions. So we're just settling back and seeing how this year starts to play out. The Astern filly will be coming up from Florida to start training with Butch in late March or April: I made a deal with a friend of mine, Glenn Bennett from LC Racing, so he and I are partners on her. We've been fortunate that Vero Amore has had these fillies, that gives us lots of options and we can just figure it out as we go along.”
Indeed, Swilcan Stable has pretty much been a story of one thing leading to another. Once that little nugget Vero Amore had run as well as she did on Preakness eve, for instance, it just looked like it could only be fun to develop her second career, too. And then there was the decision to buy out the other partners in Poseidon's Warrior, and support him at stud with a few homebreds.
Poseidon's Warrior scored a Grade I success from his debut crop in Firenze Fire, homebred by Mr. Amore Stable and still as tough and classy as ever in his fourth campaign last year. After stints in Florida and Kentucky, however, Poseidon's Warrior has now come “home” to Equistar Training and Breeding at Annville, Pennsylvania.
“Unfortunately, we got the deal done pretty late last year, so he came up here pretty much at the last minute,” McGrath says. “And then COVID hit. So hopefully this year will be easier to organize. He was champion freshman in Florida, and has done a lot without a ton of support. We had him at Darby Dan, and I love those guys, but Kentucky just wasn't the spot for him. So now we're just trying to get some awareness about him up here. With the loss of Jump Start, I think he's a good option for folks looking for stallions that have bred Grade I winners. Pennsylvania has fantastic program and, living here like we do, it'll be great to go to the races and see his state-bred runners.”
McGrath is also doing his bit for the local economy as President of the expanding AeroAggregates, based at a former locomotive works in Eddystone and now recycling the equivalent of over 140 million glass bottles per annum. The resulting low-density product is around 85% lighter than most quarried equivalents, and also serves the growing imperatives of the environment.
“We take 100% curbside recycled glass, clean it, mill it into a fine powder, put it through a process, and it comes out about 15 pound a cubic foot,” McGrath explains. “So it's a fraction of the weight of stone and perfect for bridge approaches, tunnels, foundations, a multitude of infrastructure applications. Actually we never pitched it as being green. In construction, when you talk about having this great new recycled material, people just say, 'You know what? It's going to be more expensive and it's not going to work as well.' So we just pitched it on its merits the first five years, and only after getting jobs would we say, 'By the way, if you're interested, this is extremely green.' So it's really starting to ramp up now.”
Exciting times, then, whether he's going into work Monday morning or to the races at the weekend–a more fulfilling pastime, by the sound of it, than the one that gave his stable its name.
McGrath remembers his attorney calling to press him for a name, so that he could finalize the LLC before going on vacation. He looked at the office wall, where he had hung a picture of the famous stone bridge linking the first and final fairways at St. Andrews, and blurted: “Swilcan Stable.”
Strictly as a golfer, however, he disowns any eligibility for that august connection. “I have a wife and five kids, and everybody's a golfer, and I'm the worst in the family,” he confides. “If the dog could play golf, too, I'd be worse than the dog.”
As it happens, despite having supported Poseidon's Warrior with a handful mares, Swilcan was pretty well down to Vero Amore and her daughters when Vequist started to soar. “We'd only ever been making a claim here, going to a sale there, and we had reduced,” McGrath says. “It was a very uncertain time, and unfortunately we lost a mare over the winter. Now we'll see what the future holds. We've been lucky the way we've done it so far, mostly breeding to race, so I think we're going to continue along and see how that all plays out. After this great experience with Gary and Adam, I think I'll be more open to having partners than in the past. But we're excited. Vequist just seems to find another gear. And if you can run long and run fast, the world's your oyster, right?”
Like everyone who understands this business, McGrath knows you have to work to improve the odds but that you will always still need the breaks.
“While I'd love to pretend that all this makes me smart, actually I've just had to be smart enough to say 'yes' a lot of the time,” he reflects. “The bits of luck, though, like those RNAs: they're incredible, part of the mystery of the sport. No question about it, we've been blessed. We've always been competitive, small as we are, we had the Grade I early on. But then the last year has been just unbelievable. To make it through 2020, such a tough year on everybody, and walk away in the way we did… it's not lost on me how big that is. I'm just very grateful for how it all transpired.”