Venture capitalist, Loyola University professor and racing fan TK Kuegler dove into the Thoroughbred industry with the creation of Wasabi Ventures Stables in 2017. Less than three years later, more than 400 people call them-selves members and own anywhere from 0.5 to 4.99 percent of at least one racehorse.
With the growing roster of customers, and horses, Wasabi’s racehorse business is off and running at the track, at the sales and on the farm with an expanding group of broodmares.
So what’s next?
A stallion. Kuegler and Wasabi will be a complete Thoroughbred entity in 2020, involved in virtually every aspect of the industry with the purchase of Force the Pass for stud duty.
The Grade 1 winner and millionaire joins the roster at Maryland’s Anchor and Hope Farm in Port Deposit, Md., this year. Kuegler the entrepreneur loves a new venture. Kuegler the racing guy loves the chance to find another niche. And Kuegler the businessman is really excited.
“It’s the one part of the industry that acts like a real business, if you think about it,” he said in November. “You have an asset, you sell pieces of that asset off like you do with any other product and if you do well it turns out well. Now, some of that’s dumb luck just like it is in any other business but as a start-up guy, a guy who has made investments in technology start-ups my whole life it feels about the same. You pick one, you do the best you can. You won’t know for three or four or five years if it actually did well. It felt very natural for me to do.”
Wasabi considered 20 potential stallions before settling on the son of Speightstown. Yes, 20, and the team combed much of the Thoroughbred world while looking for the right horse.
“He was still running when we put him on the short list and then we were just lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right moment to make the right offer to get him,” said Kuegler. “We had some others we were looking at, some sons of Galileo (Ire) because there’s a vacuum there, even some horses in Ireland and England. We were scouring the planet to bring one in and he kind of fell into our lap. He was here. He was in New Jersey. We made an offer within an hour of him running his last race.”
Force the Pass made 21 starts for breeder Colts Neck Stables and trainers Alan Goldberg and Jorge Duarte Jr., winning five (including the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational in 2015) and earning $1,359,114. Unraced at 2, the chestnut won four times and was never worse than third in eight starts as a 3-year-old. He won a maiden race and the Cutler Bay Stakes at Gulfstream Park, finished second in the James W. Murphy at Pimlico, won the Penn Mile-G3 at Penn National, pulled a mild upset in the Belmont Derby, finished third in the Secretariat-G1 at Arlington and Commonwealth Derby-G2 at Laurel Park. At 4, he placed in four stakes without winning and after missing 2017, won the 2018 Cliff Hanger Stakes at Monmouth Park.
A turf runner, Force the Pass will stand for $4,000 and joins Bourbon Courage, Holy Boss, Imagining and Long River at Anchor and Hope but is owned solely by Wasabi. Kuegler will make sure the horse gets supported early by purchasing mares himself, selling lifetime breeding rights for $6,000 and creating a Force the Pass Select program targeting mares purchased at auction that match up well with the first-year stallion. They get a free season.
“The reaction has been good, really good,” said Kuegler, who showed off Force the Pass at Laurel Park’s stallion showcase day Nov. 30. “When you’re playing the regional market and you’re new it’s interesting because there is a finite number of mares and a finite number of mare owners. We’ve sold about half the lifetime breeding rights already and we’re close to 30 mares committed already. For this early, that’s good.”
The regional stallion business requires creative thinking.
“There’s no forcing function like you have in Kentucky,” Kuegler said, sounding every bit the college professor. “If they put a new stallion up, they sell everything in an hour. We don’t have that here, so you’ve got to work and hustle and tell the story to make it work. The decisions get made way later here.”
Kuegler said he sold two seasons at the stallion showcase, and expects the Wasabi broodmare band to number 35 by spring. The target for Force the Pass is 100 mares.
Force the Pass is a rare new player in the regional stallion market this year as most farms stood pat with stallions launched in the last few years.
Nobody generated more buzz late in 2019 than Maryland-based Golden Lad. Standing at Northview Stallion Station, the son of Medaglia d’Oro’s first crop included stakes winners Hello Beautiful and Laddie Liam. Hello Beautiful won the Maryland Million Lassie and Maryland Juvenile Fillies Championship, and ranked among the country’s top 2-year-old fillies by speed figures. Laddie Liam finished third at the Maryland Milion, but won his next two including the Maryland Juvenile Futurity and sold for $450,000 at the Fasig-Tipton December mixed sale.
“Golden Lad is doing well and it’s going to get more exciting,” said Northview’s Paul O’Loughlin. “It’s actually nice to see the competition doing well too, with Bourbon Courage and Imagining. They’ve had good first years, too. That’s good for all of us. I think the Golden Lads will do even better as they go a bit further and get a bit older.”
Though missing a star along the lines of former resident Not For Love, who died in 2016, Northview’s Maryland division boasts a deep lineup also including Bandbox, Great Notion, Irish War Cry, Madefromlucky and Redeemed. Across the state line in Pennsylvania, Northview stood the richest stallion to retire to the region (with $4.7 million earned on the racetrack) in Hoppertunity. The son of Any Given Saturday’s first foals arrive this year and he leads a lineup that also includes Bullsbay, Medallist, Peace and Justice and Uncle Lino. The gang was trying to make up for the loss of regional leader Jump Start, who died in May.
“Hoppertunity helped,” said O’Loughlin. “We bred horses from everywhere – California, Arizona, New Mexico, Canada, everywhere. That was exciting and his horses are coming. Soundness, that’s why people bred to him. He has a following, he’s a good-looking horse and he retired sound. He’s the flagship.”
Without Jump Start, active regional leadership fell to Warrior’s Reward. He moved to Pennsylvania’s WynOaks Farm from Kentucky in time for last year’s breeding season, bred 115 mares and made an immediate impact. Co-owned by Donny Brown and Tom McClay, Warrior’s Reward looks to back up 2019 popularity with another busy year.
“We didn’t have him this time last year, so it’s been really quick,” said Brown in November. “We already have a significant amount of signed contracts this year, which leads me to believe we’ll have another pretty good year. We certainly are not going to attempt to cover any more mares than we did last year. He had a pretty full plate, but every indication is he’s going to have another good year.”
Brown and McClay own 40 mares together. Almost all are in foal to Warrior’s Reward, so consider the partners as invested as any breeder and they feel that their horse’s proven record – his 2020 crop will be his seventh – helps him stand out.
“He’s a proven stallion and that helps us,” Brown said. “We’re grateful to have him and the response has been good. I like the established game more than taking a chance on a new stallion. The stud fee is the least of your problem. Keeping that mare healthy for 12 months and getting a foal on the ground is the hard part.”
Like Golden Lad, Pennsylvania-based Flashback made plenty of late-year noise as the sire of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies-G1 winner British Idiom. The Kentucky-bred, part of Flashback’s second crop (when he stood at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm), won all three of her starts for trainer Brad Cox – a sales-price restricted Saratoga maiden race, the Grade 1 Alcibiades at Keeneland and then the Breeders’ Cup.
The big-stage success prompted at least a little discussion about the gray son of Tapit moving back to the Bluegrass, but so far he’s staying put at Glenn and Becky Brok’s Diamond B Farm in Mohrsville.
“The phone’s been ringing for sure,” said Glenn Brok in November. “We’re hoping British Idiom will be champion 2-year-old filly, which would be really good for him. People want to sign contracts on him, one person at our stallion show wanted seven.”
Flashback bred 22 mares in 2019. Expect the number to climb. The Diamond B lineup also includes Eastwood, Talent Search, Social Inclusion and the improbable Uptowncharlybrown. All have found success at various levels. Brok called Talent Search his most underrated horse, likes the Speightstown line of Eastwood and thinks there’s a chance Social Inclusion could catch lightning with his first runners this year.
But nobody matches “Chuck.” Straight out of the Peanuts comic strip, Uptown-charlybrown’s nickname might be humble, but he’s managed to create a raft of winners from limited foal crops. His first four crops include 38 foals of racing age, 27 starters, 19 winners and progeny earnings of nearly $2.4 million through Dec. 16. He’ll stand for $7,500 this year, $5,000 for mares foaling in Pennsylvania.
“He’s pretty amazing, he’s the real deal,” said Brok. “When I go to Kentucky and say he stands at my place, they go ‘Oh really.’ Whether we get any mares from outside the state, I don’t know. I’m not going to fib and say I’ve got 30 mares booked from Kentucky, but he’s a talking horse even outside the state.”
Brok, O’Loughlin and virtually any stallion owner/manager in Pennsylvania will quickly point to a resurgence of sorts in the state’s breeding industry. Credit new-found stability in the incentives for breeders, owners and stallion owners. State money seemed to annually come up for discussion within the legislature, and that prompted at least some breeders to look elsewhere or foal some mares in other states with more stable structures in place.
“We went through a period a couple years ago where the program wasn’t secure and people weren’t confident and they didn’t breed mares or weren’t as active,” said Brok. “People asked what we were going to do. We didn’t have a choice. This is what we do. We had some success when everybody wasn’t game enough to believe in the Pennsylvania program for a while. Now, people are coming back. Now you’re seeing confidence again. That’s a compliment to the [Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association] office and everyone there. We increased the mares, last year we had an influx of stallions . . . it’s growth and progress.”
Maryland’s stallion roster took big jumps in recent years with the addition of a phalanx of new stallions over the last few years. Golden Lad, Bourbon Courage and Imagining all had their first runners in 2019 and occupy the top three spots on the region’s first-crop sire list. Grace and Louis Merryman’s Anchor and Hope Farm survived all the foibles of a new business – and a barn fire – to finally see some action on the racetrack in 2019. Through Dec. 16, Bourbon Courage had six winners while Imagining had five – good for second and third behind in-state rival Golden Lad (whose crop included at least 13 more horses). The racing results gave Anchor and Hope a push.
“It’s fun,” said Louis. “The day Raging Whiskey won the Capote was amazing, really exciting to watch. Bourbon Courage had a couple of winners first time out, Double Crown and Stone Courageous, which was really cool. Imagining has some nice-looking horses coming too. Monday Morning Qb won his second start and looks like a nice horse.”
The Merrymans carried 25 mares to help get their stallions started, and count on Maryland breeders’ awards to push the business even further.
“Our first big crop is only 2 and we’ve done OK,” said Louis of the bonus payments. “It helps you, but on the other hand you’d like for the business to support itself. We’re getting there and it all goes back into the farm. It’s all connected.”
Anchor and Hope lost its main barn (but no horses) to a fire in August and Imagining showed just how nearly disastrous it all was while taking part in Laurel Park’s stallion showcase day Nov. 30. The now 12-year-old chestnut has a few scars across his back from embers, though his attitude would make you believe he put out the fire by himself and served coffee and donuts to the first responders. He strutted around the Laurel paddock, stared down some human visitors while getting up close and personal, and saved his longest looks for a few gallopers on the racetrack.
“He was awesome,” said Grace Merry-man. “He’s a good boy. He’s so into his routine at home, but he travels really well and he’s a sweet horse. The first horse went by on the track after the break and he was like, ‘I remember this.’ ”
Bonita Farm’s Bill Boniface didn’t bring one of his three stallions to Laurel for the showcase, but was there to talk up Alliance, Dortmund and Kobe’s Back. All entered stud in 2018, meaning they’ll have yearlings this year.
“Business is very competitive,” said Boniface. “We came with three new stallions in a year  when there were seven other new stallions. But we’ve got three nice horses. They’re all interesting and I’d like to see them get more mares.”
Bonita and Dortmund’s owner Kaleem Shah have been offering free seasons to filly/mare stakes winners in Maryland for the last two years, and offer travel incentives for mares from Kentucky or New York. In addition, Dortmund’s stud fee will be refunded if a yearling doesn’t bring more than the $5,000 stud fee. Alliance, owned by Larry Karp’s Barlar LLC, got a nice boost when Pennsylvania-bred Mirth won the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive Stakes in 2019. Her dam Di’s Delight produced an Alliance foal in 2019 and was back in foal to him for 2020. Boniface called Kobe’s Back “hickory as they come,” and touted his foals.
“We’re going to find out soon enough how it works,” the veteran horseman said. “It takes so long to get them to the races.”
With the early success of Golden Lad, Bourbon Courage, Imagining and even Murmur Farm’s Hangover Kid (whose tiny first crop produced stakes winner Miss J McKay), racing success matters. This year will include the first runners for Mosler, Uncle Lino, Peace and Justice, Social Inclusion, Barbados, Golden Years and Juba. Of that group, the first two bred more than 100 mares apiece in 2017 so could have the most impact.
Country Life Farm’s Mike Pons is anxiously awaiting Mosler’s first runners, as the son of War Front has proven to be popular with breeders and yearling buyers. Country Life has 18 now 2-year-olds training at Merryland Farm, with another four headed to Middleburg Training Center in Virginia.
“We haven’t felt this way about a first-crop stallion since Malibu Moon left,” said Pons. “It’s just the reaction his babies get from people and the way they’re stamped. You don’t have to get too close to them to figure out who their daddy is. There’s a little buzz about him.”
Country Life’s Friesan Fire sired his second consecutive Maryland Million Classic winner in 2019, and holds a spot in the region’s top five with more than 50 winners and nearly $2.7 million in earnings through Dec. 16. Super Ninety Nine will have to statistically weather small crops in 2019 and 2020, when he missed time due to injuries, but topped $1 million in progeny earnings for 2019. Divining Rod’s first foals are yearlings of 2020, and there should be plenty as he bred 102 mares in 2018. In early sales action, owner/breeder Lael Stables spent $14,000 on a Divining Rod weanling at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic in December.
Beyond the new and relatively new guys, old pro Great Notion is still cranking out winners from his Maryland base with Northview.
The 20-year-old was third on the regional list of active sires – behind just Warrior’s Reward and the West Virginia-based Fiber Sonde with more than $3.1 million in 2019 earnings through Dec. 16. Anna’s Bandit led the way with nine wins and $401,830. Northview bumped his fee to $7,500, which will limit his book without doing much to his popularity. The rest will be up to the veteran stallion, who bred 76 mares in 2019 and has lifetime progeny earnings in excess of $21.5 million.
“I think he still is a bonus at that price,” said O’Loughlin. “He will breed what he breeds. The phone has been ringing for him since September. People want to breed to him. He’s great. He’s an easy doer. He gets them in foal, but we’ve also got to have something coming along behind him and I think we do with some of the new horses.”
The region’s only son of Quality Road at stud, Blofeld, will have yearlings this year and continues to draw attention (with somewhat smaller books) to Maryland’s Murmur Farm. Bred like Great Notion, via Elusive Quality on the sire side and Northern Dancer on the dam side, Blofeld will get a chance thanks to 30-mare books in each of his first two seasons.
“People love his foals,” said Murmur’s Audrey Murray. “It can be hard because people always want to go to the new stallion that comes along and hope they hit.”
Blofeld garners the most attention at Murmur, which Murray runs with her son Kent after the death of her husband Allen in 2013, but the farm also stands Hangover Kid and 27-year-old Petionville. Hangover Kid has been limited by small crops, but his only starter turned out to be 2019 stakes winner Miss J McKay. Murray said that filly’s full-brother recently sold privately for $75,000.
Like all regional stud farms, Murmur counts on the breeding and stallion incentives.
“It’s very important,” Audrey said. “You get that check, and it’s ‘I can pay some bills’ or ‘I can do some things on the farm I’ve been putting off.’ We stress employment, the farm, the work we do. That’s what the bonuses do for stallion farms. We buy hay and straw from our neighbors, we buy feed locally. There’s a lot to it.”
Shamrock Farm’s Jim Steele agrees, and sees the impact daily. Shamrock stands Baltimore Bob, Barbados and the veteran Outflanker (still going strong at 26). They’re not going to compete with Northview’s big squad, but fill a niche nevertheless.
“There was a long time, you had to breed in Kentucky,” said Steele. “Maryland is starting to come back, but it’s not easy and it’s not fast. We have such a great economic engine in the horse industry. There’s so much to it, but it’s a slow process. Kentucky is so business-oriented. If in three years it’s not working, stallions are out of there. They get a little more time in regional markets.”
Outflanker’s 19th crop made it to the races in 2019, and he passed 330 winners and $29.3 million in progeny earnings. Barbados, a son of Speightstown, is the new kid and his first foals are 2-year-olds of 2020.
“I’m excited about him,” Steele said. “He was good sprinting on the dirt and a lot of the others are turf horses or ran longer. He ran 1:09 and change [for 6 furlongs], he stamps his foals and a few are in good hands to be precocious 2-year-olds.”
Legislation passed in 2019 in New Jersey, providing a subsidy of $10 million a year for five years to the Thoroughbred industry, for purses and bonuses to breeders and stallion owners, is creating more interest to breed in the state, said Mike Campbell, executive director of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association of New Jersey (TBANJ). “There is a lot of interest from people who hadn’t bred here in the past who are bringing mares in, or those who were in New Jersey before. People realize things are moving in the right direction.”
The stallion population is about the same, but an addition last year was Sea Wizard to Sam Fieramosca’s long established Colonial Farms in Colts Neck. “The industry is starting to show an increase and interest,” said Fieramosca, who got a dozen mares to Sea Wizard in 2019, and as of mid-December, had even more action for the winning son of Uncle Mo, with 15 mares already booked. “We’ll be a little busy for the first time in a few years,” he added. “We’re very hopeful. And I think things will pick up. We’re on an upswing right now.”
Trainer Bill Hogan retired Ali to stud late in the season last year, and hopes to see more interest in the son of Pioneerof the Nile and the stakes-placed Tapit mare Tap Softly. Hogan’s first stallion received a big update in his pedigree when half-brother Silver Prospector won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes-G2 (worth points on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard) in November. Hogan stands Ali at Greenfields Farm in Colts Neck for private contract.
Hogan noted that a recent TBANJ meeting spurred more interest. “People are waiting to see if there is going to be something there in four years. Breeding is a long-term investment – I don’t want to breed and when ready to run there is no place to run. Now that we’ve settled on the funding for the tracks, as we go along people will be more convinced.”
“They see the racing days, the purses – last year Jersey-bred purses were up 57 percent from 2018, and our total awards program was up 61 percent,” he said. “People are taking notice.”
NOTES: West Virginia’s stallion lineup continues to thrive, with the likes of Fiber Sonde, Windsor Castle and Limehouse cranking out runners and wins at Charles Town. Fiber Sonde’s success took another leap forward in 2019 with graded stakes winner Runnin’toluvya. Second-crop sire Capo Bastone had eight winners from just 16 runners . . . Veteran Smarty Jones (now 19) was still going in Pennsylvania, at Equistar Farm. His 2019 runners included stakes winner Someday Jones . . . Virginia’s small stallion roster included Mr. Sidney, who had 20 winners in 2019 through Dec. 16. The son of Storm Cat is at Riverview Farms in Quicksburg and stands for a $6,500 fee. Friend Or Foe’s 2019 statistics included six winners from just eight runners, and $497,001 in earnings, led by stakes winner Mr. Buff. The son of Friends Lake stands at Smallwood Farm in Crozet, for a $1,000 fee and also breeds for the sporthorse market . . . Pennsylvania’s Pin Oak Lane Farm added Grade 1-placed Normandy Invasion to the roster. The son of Tapit had 16 runners and two winners in 2019. He joins Lord Shanakill at Pin Oak Lane . . . Maryland’s Roland Farm stands Larry Johnson’s Street Magician, who continues to be a versatile stallion with stakes winners on the dirt and turf. His 2-year-olds of 2019 totaled nine, but as the year wound down, seven had started and his son So Street was a stakes winner. With six crops to race Street Magician was in the top 10 active sires regionally with almost $1.5 million in earnings and will stand for $2,000 this year. He and the West Virginia-based Our Entourage are the region’s only sons of Street Cry (Ire). Roland also stands Editorial, a son of War Front whose first foals are yearlings of 2020.
Additional reporting by Cindy Deubler.