Resilience's Kentucky Derby hopes carry a memory and a legacy

Kentucky Derby hopeful Resilience works out at Churchill Downs Wednesday, May 1, 2024, in Louisville, Ky. The 150th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 4. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
A jockey rides Kentucky Derby hopeful Resilience during a workout at Churchill Downs on Wednesday in Louisville, Ky. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

A little after 6 p.m. on Saturday, Resilience will be pulled from his stall in Barn 19 and readied for the walk from the backside to the paddock at Churchill Downs. He’ll be accompanied by his trainer, Bill Mott, who will make the walk for the 11th time with his 13th entrant in the Kentucky Derby.

Also in tow will be owners Emily Bushnell and Ric Waldman, each making the storied stroll for the first time. But missing will be the person who made Resilience possible, who made Wall Street dreams for many probable and who, at one time, was the king of California thoroughbred breeders.

Martin Wygod sits at a table looks forward during a ceremonial draw at Santa Anita in 2005
Martin Wygod, who parlayed his financial success as an executive in the healthcare industry into becoming a prominent owner and breeder in thoroughbred racing, died in April. (Danny Moloshok / Associated Press)

Martin Wygod died in La Jolla on April 12 after struggling with lung disease. Emily is his daughter and Ric is his longtime bloodstock agent. Resilience was not an inheritance gift by Wygod, the horse was free.

Bushnell said this was the only horse her father ever gave her.

“He sold me a few horses, but he had never given me one,” Bushnell said. “He hadn’t broken his maiden yet. We all liked him, but we had no idea what the road was we had in front of us. We had no idea this was going to happen.”

Wygod made all his money in home medical services and pharmaceuticals. In 1993, he sold his mail-order prescription company for $6.5 billion. He was later chairman of WebMD, which he also sold.

The thread that runs through his life is his love of horse racing. For about 25 years he was on the board of Del Mar, a position he held until his death.

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“Marty certainly knew his way around a business, he was a very, very successful guy,” said Joe Harper, Del Mar’s longtime president and chief executive. “He was just one of those guys who came up with the right answers.

“He made some of my employees a little nervous in the boardroom. It was a good thing. He wanted to know why and it was a little more enlightening when he would explain why it should go this way. You had to listen to a guy like Marty because was basically always right, at least in the business sense.”

Wygod loved business, his family, horses but he had a real passion for practical jokes.

“He had a wicked sense of humor,” Bushnell, 38, said. “He tortured us with his humor growing up … and his practical jokes.”

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“I recall the time on the backside at Del Mar when we were taking entries and one day little 11-year-old Emily walks into my office and said, ‘Mr. Robbins, you write a terrible condition book and you need to write more races we like.’ I looked out the window and there is Marty and [jockey agent] Tom [Knust] in a golf cart laughing.”

Tom Robbins, Del Mar executive vice president and director of racing

Wygod was born in Manhattan and made his first million before he was 30. But he always loved the horses even serving as a hot walker in high school. One of his early influences was Fletcher Jones, who made his money in computer services and whose name still adorns several car dealerships in Southern California.

In 1995, Wygod traded his farm in New Jersey for another one emphasizing breeding in the Santa Ynez Valley, where Jones had a farm. Wygod built up River Edge Farm and was the top California breeder in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

“I was just obsessed with horses,” Bushnell said. “They used to find me in the barn all the time. We moved out to San Diego when I was in the third grade. And we were so close to Del Mar, it was like a ritual to go out to the track and see the horses. Growing up we would be at River Edge all the time.

Read more: California horse racing is at a crossroads. Can it survive?

“I was so lucky to be around people who loved horses, really loved the sport, did the right thing by the horses and just learn from them and absorb as much as I could.”

In 2010, Wygod shifted his operation to Kentucky and set up a small stable at Lane’s End.

There are competing theories as to why he left California, both of which could be right.

“Marty believed that Cal-breds were not going in the right direction, so he sold the farm,” Harper said. “He got out of it.”

Bushnell saw a different reason.

“I think our broodmare band was about 115 horses and my dad’s goal was to get to a more boutique size,” Bushnell said. “So we went to one of the best farms in Kentucky in Lane’s End. I think we have about 15 broodmares now."

“One prank involved a certain lady that was married and very fashionable. It was opening day and I’m in the director’s room and Marty says, ‘You’ve got a big problem, I’m not kidding you.’ He said Mrs. so-and-so was just taken out of here and arrested by the sheriff’s department for prostitution. I said, ‘That’s total BS.’ He says, ‘Joe, I’m not kidding you.’  So, like an idiot, I go down to the sheriff’s holding pen on opening day and say, ‘Do you have Mrs. so-and-so here.’ They look at me and say, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Joe Harper

Resilience was never supposed to be this good. He didn’t break his maiden until his fourth start. Then he jumped into stakes competition and was fourth in the Risen Star at the Fairgrounds. His breakout race was his last one, a win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

“He really thought the horse was going to do something in the Wood,” Robbins said. “He had a rough trip in the Risen Star and wasn’t beaten all that far. I texted him after the Wood and congratulated him, as [racing secretary] David [Jerkens] did, too. We heard shortly thereafter that he had passed.”

Resilience holds a special place in the Wygod family as the colt’s mare was Meadowsweet, whose mare was Tranquility Lake. Martin and Pam Wygod owned all three horses.

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“Having it come from this family which has so many ties to all of our history is unbelievable,” Bushnell said. “The whole thing is just kismet. I don’t even know how to explain it.”

Resilience will wear the No. 19 saddlecloth and break from gate 18 at 20-1 on the morning line.

“I was in the eighth grade and with my girlfriends at the barn watching a movie, possibly the 'Amityville Horror,' and we started hearing this tap, tap, tap on the window. We turn around and there is my dad in a full gorilla suit at the window and it scared the living daylights out of all of us. Then he and my mom tried to get away by car and there is this boulder on the side of the driveway. My mom accidentally drove onto the boulder and the car was like a see-saw on top of the rock. And he was out of the car yelling at my mom in a gorilla suit.”

Emily Bushnell

“I’m in a state of disbelief,” Bushnell said. “Obviously so many things have happened in the last few weeks. Now to go to the backside and see the horses and to do it with my [three] kids was really special.”

It brought back memories and Bushnell’s voice started to crack and she paused.

“I think of him every minute,” she said.

So, what would Martin Wygod do if Resilience were to win the 150th Kentucky Derby.

“He would start thinking about what the next race was.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.