Tawny Port Another strike for Wente
He really seems to have a kind of Midas touch right now. And many people, hitting on a formula that has paid off with such remarkable consistency, would be tempted to up the ante. But it’s not just the fact that Tommy Wente knows perfectly well the other chance, so routine in this business, that will prevent him from getting carried away. Because even if he believed that his model could be adapted to a higher level of the market, he would miss the simple buzz of beating the ratings.
“I can’t go out there and buy these mares for $200,000 or $300,000,” Wente says. “They just aren’t going to work for me. You would be so invested, at that time, it wouldn’t be fun. And that’s what keeps me going every day, pleasure. Trying to find young mares with virgin mothers, and just sit on them for a few years, and see if their families can go to work for you. Because when they do, it’s so much more exciting if you took a shot on something no one wanted.
And who knows, maybe there’s something about this tempered response to her recent success that explains why her program is working so effectively in the first place. Perhaps the kind of person who would go giddy convinced of his genius would never have had the clarity to spot the same bargains.
Wente first caught our attention last fall, thanks to the very first production from a handful of mares acquired, about five years prior, after moving his program from Indiana to St. Simon Place in Kentucky. . Four of these juveniles had competed in “Win and You’re In” races for the Breeders’ Cup. Three won; the other ran second. Their roadblocks had cost Wente and his partners a total of $32,400.
Everyone asked him what his secret was. He shrugged. “Am I really, really lucky? he asked his pal Tommy Eastham of Legacy Bloodstock. “Or is something going on here?”
“Well, I guess anyone can get lucky once or even twice,” Eastham replied. “But man, you just do it over and over. You must be doing something right.
The right thing to do, then, was to close the round by cashing in on a few of those mares. Wente had bred GI Breeders’ Futurity winner Rattle N Roll (Connect) of Jazz Tune (Johannesburg), found for just $20,000 at the November 2016 sale at Keeneland. Back at the same auction last fall, Hunter Valley Farm bought her for $585,000. CJ’s Gal (Awesome Again) had been even cheaper, selected for $9,500 in the same ring in January 2016. His daughter Hidden Connection (Connect) winning the GIII Pocahontas S. by nine lengths, Woodford Thoroughbreds donated $450,000 for the mare.
Time, one would have thought, to let the dust settle for a while. But Wente was just getting started. Since then, a few other mares that caught his eye have also made a name for themselves.
The least surprising thing to emerge from Rich Strike (Keen Ice)’s success in the Kentucky GI Derby was that his dam Gold Strike (Smart Strike) was sold to Wente at the 2019 Keeneland November Sale, for just 1,700 $. Admittedly, this was a rather different case: an older mare, chosen for a friend. But last weekend Tawny Port (Pioneerof the Nile), who finished seventh at Churchill, confirmed himself as one of the most progressive colts of the crop in the GIII Ohio Derby. And it turned out that her dam Livi Makenzie (Macho Uno) had also been sold since foaling, to Wente and her partner Scott Stephens, for $30,000 at Keeneland in November 2020.
Wente happily credits this latest move to Machmer Hall’s Carrie Brogden, a trusted mentor since his Bluegrass transfer.
“When I’m at a sale, I never go into the barns to look at the mares,” Wente says. “I never look at a book and say, ‘Okay, let’s go see these 10 today.’ I buy them walking into the ring, and I try to make a deal. And Carrie was sitting there and said, ‘Hey, this mare coming in, you have to look at her: we sold her yearling Pioneer of the Nile for WinStar in September for $430,000.” Anyway, we love chestnuts, and I liked the look of it, and I figured a really good Pioneerof the Nile colt could be anything. I just thought that the mare may have been too expensive. Because she could run, she was a winner of the stakes [and graded stakes-placed]. I thought she would make between $75,000 and $100,000. But I thought, ‘Damn, we’ll give it a shot.’ And we got it.
She came with a bonus, as she wore a filly by Always Dreaming – who has meanwhile gained salvage value as a half-sister to Tawny Port. And while “a very fine colt” by Global Campaign followed this spring, her delivery on April 25 left her dam only a short window and she missed a single stud.
“But it’s okay, she’s at her peak  and the gap year will do him good,” Wente remarks. “She can resume an early cycle next time. But we love her baby, and if Tawny Port can go on and earn a Grade I, then all is well. She’s a really laid back mare, a real darling.
As for Rich Strike’s dam, she was selected so cheaply that Wente considered her ideal for Indian rider Merrill Roberts.
“When I buy these mares, I often think in the back of my mind of the people who asked me to look for one,” says Wente. “This particular mare that I bought strictly for my homie Merrill, because they just had a stallion [Candy Ride (Arg)’s son Looking Cool] and I thought she would be perfect for him, with her track record and her pedigree, if they could put her in foal.
Unfortunately, that last part of the equation proved difficult, and Roberts gave it to Austin Nicks the very week his son came out of nowhere to clinch the Derby. (Nicks, unsurprisingly, wasted no time sending the mare to Munnings!)
As already stated, however, Wente has a well-seasoned perspective on all of this success. In fact, he has an unfortunate connection with Rich Strike trainer Eric Reed, whose career was also nearly upended by a barn fire.
Wente had become enthralled with horses while visiting the barn of his stepfather, former Hoosier Park trainer Tom Hickman. Before long, even though money was tight, Wente found himself buying one of the babies.
“I paid way too much, though!” Wente remembers. “He charged me $5,000 and in hindsight the horse probably wasn’t worth $200. It was for me, however, at the time. I wanted it so badly. I was driving a truck at the time and was giving him about $500 a month for that horse. And I had just paid for everything, and the horse had just had its first race. They were stabled there at the old Quarter Horse track in Henderson, Kentucky, and one night I got a call at 2:00 a.m. that he had lost all those burnt horses in a fire.
“He always told me, ‘You know, if you’re not going to put $1,000 in an ashtray and burn it, don’t get into this business.’ To this day, I still try to remember that. Only in my case it wasn’t bills in an ashtray. It was that poor horse in a burning barn. But I was still hooked. The next day I was back on it, looking for a new one.
Looking back, in fact, Wente wonders if the early difficulties he had to overcome – both in his own life and then in his thoroughbred journey – condensed into a cornerstone essential to his better fortune. now.
“We were raised in poverty,” he says. “And I had my struggles, trying to find my way. I couldn’t save any money. I had everyone. I robbed Peter to pay Paul. But I straightened up. I told myself that I wanted more out of life. And I think the horses did that for me.
“I don’t know if you need it; if you need to know the background to appreciate everything more. But now when I think back to when I was new to the game, and I thought of those really poor horses as the best thing in the world, and my stepdad used to teach me all those things, him being so reverted back to old habits, I think it’s really helped me towards where I am today. Having all of this under my feet gave me a different perspective.
Wente frankly disparages the animals he raised in Indiana, but they sharpened his judgment and taught him to respect every horse as a potential opportunity. Coming to Kentucky only raised the caliber of the disrespectful, the rejected.
Plus, maybe the resilience that Wente himself had learned can be shared with the young stock at St. Simon Place?
“That’s so true,” Wente replies. “If you pamper them, pamper them, for me they won’t be racehorses. They need to get out there, hit some heads, hit some bodies. They need to cut themselves, to be in pain. They need to be in the snow, in the rain, in the heat. They need a fight. Because when I struggled, I got tough. And I think it’s the same with horses.
Maybe that’s at least part of the answer. Few who ask Wente for his “secret” will find it very helpful. It was only as an outsider, on a journey that few would purposely choose, that Wente found redemption in horses. Perhaps it couldn’t have happened if, like so many competitors, he had been born into this way of life, and not into suburban poverty near St. Louis.
“Everyone is shaking their head and they’re like, ‘How the hell are you doing that!?'” Wente laughs. “And like I said, I don’t know if I’m really, really lucky, or if I’m doing something right. But I think people who have the wealth to support themselves would still prefer to buy mares with more page, mares with product underneath, mares that have already proven themselves. But they have the money. I do the opposite. Because I have to buy cheaper mares, I prefer to buy one that doesn’t have a page but might have runners. Because things can change so quickly. I bought Spanish Star (Blame) for $1500 off trail [Keeneland November 2017]and then bam, his brother [Sir Winston (Awesome Again)] wins the Belmont. And now she got One Timer (Trappe Shot).
This colt is currently four for five, his only loss at the Breeders’ Cup. But while a lot has fallen into place, Wente points out that he didn’t do it all on his own. On the farm, Calvin and Shane Crain run a side business growing sod, and he has partners in a broodmare group that now numbers about 40 people. And whatever inspiration Wente may bring to the equation himself, he will only credit himself with the sweat.
“You have to be dedicated,” he says. “You have to live and sleep this business. I’m on it. I like to go out and mow my own lawn. I don’t know if it helps me do what I do, but I know I love it. And ever since I came here, and Carrie took me under her wing, I’ve been fine. I just feel blessed.