Staking Claims: Midwest Thoroughbreds - By Esther Marr

(Originally published in the July 23, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

One of Richard Papiese’s fondest childhood memories while growing up on the south side of Chicago was going to the old Washington Park track with his mother.

“I grew up watching my mom try and figure out a trifecta bet one or two ways, because she could only afford two tickets,” said Papiese, 53, whose Midwest Thoroughbreds is currently the leading owner in North America by earnings and winners.

“I pinch myself every morning. For me, to have only one horse was a big deal. The goal has never been to win a crazy amount of races; we want to be the best we possibly can at what we do.”

Papiese started with just two horses in 2001, and his stable grew to a handful of runners that had moderate success over the next eight years. When he formed Midwest Thoroughbreds and hired trainer Jamie Ness in 2009, however, his operation took off. Midwest Thoroughbreds has around 180 horses in training this year, has won 196 races from 669 starters, and has amassed $2,796,812 in earnings through July 14.

Ness conditions the majority of Midwest’s runners from his East Coast base, but the stable also employs trainers Brad Cox and Roger Brueggemann.  

“We do a lot of homework, watch a lot of replays,” said Papiese of his winning strategy. “We’re not throwing darts, but obviously you can do all the work in the world and it’s still very difficult. I try and stay out of the way…most of our successes have been created through our trainers.”

Papiese said all his trainers have a hands-on approach and proactively claim quality horses on his behalf. Ness’ training record clearly shows he can spot a good claim. In 2010 he won an impressive 291 races, and in 2011 his horses have already won 162 times with a strike rate of 33%.

In 2010 Midwest dominated meets at Presque Isle, Tampa Bay, Hawthorne, Penn National, and Thistledown. This year Midwest won a second title at Tampa Bay and raised the bar by leading the Churchill Downs and Oaklawn owner standings for the first time.
Known as “an aggressive, blue-collar racing stable,” Midwest races mostly claimers, and while the outfit has never competed in a graded stakes race, it has won four ungraded black-type events, most recently with See I A in the Pelican Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in January.

“When you train for Richard, he doesn’t have you on a leash; you’re allowed to do whatever you feel like you need to do as far as claiming, entering, and training,” said Cox, who claimed stakes winner My Irish Girl for $15,000 during her 3-year-old season. “He allows you to play the game and be successful.”

Providing the monetary fuel for the Midwest racing stable is Papiese’s successful family business, Midwest Store Fixtures, which manufactures, ships, and installs custom product display cases, kiosks, and employee workstations for retail outlets. Headed by Papiese’s wife, Karen, and located in University Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, the company has a woodworking division, a shipping department, an electronics zone, and assembly lines.

Midwest Store Fixtures has consistently expanded revenues since 2003, defying the economic downturn. Papiese hopes Midwest Thoroughbreds’ own good fortune will continue.

“You have to have very good people, give them what they need to be successful, and try not to meddle too much,” said Papiese of the management approach to both businesses. “You do the things you do best and let (your employees) do the things they do best.

“I don’t tell my trainers what to claim or where to run horses. We talk about things and have dialogue constantly, but they make those decisions. It’s my job to support them; it’s their job to be successful.”

Papiese believes in self-sufficiency, proven by his 2009 purchase of Thunder Ranch, a 137-acre training facility near Anthony, Fla., where he keeps his lay-ups and many of his horses in training. The facility is headed by Hector Magana, a former 20-year assistant to trainer Bobby Frankel. Thunder Ranch has a refurbished three-quarter-mile training track and a new 40-stall barn to complement an existing 130-stall facility.

“Hector puts the foundation in the young horses and he’s an incredible caregiver for getting horses back (in training) that are sore and need time,” said Papiese, who also buys about 40 yearlings a year at auction.

Added Magana: “Whenever I get a horse from the racetrack, if it needs three months off, I give four; if he needs four months, I give him five. Richard is OK with that. We give the horses the right time off, and if the horse is not 100% sound, I never send it back to the track.”

Papiese’s appreciation of the racing industry is pure and simple. “To me, racing is the purest form of athletic competition there is,” he said. “The horses do it because they love it. And to me, that’s something incredible.” 

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