Shareholder With a Heart

Let's get something straight up front. Robert Wehle was more than "the man who owns all the stallion shares." He was a passionate student of pedigrees and an enthusiastic teacher of the breeding business.

I interviewed Wehle two years ago about his investment in stallion shares because it was extraordinary. At the time, he owned roughly 110 shares in about 30 stallions. His portfolio over the years included Raise a Native, Secretariat, Mr. Prospector, Gone West, and Kingmambo. I called Wehle because his primary involvement in the Thoroughbred industry was as a stallion shareholder. Earlier I had talked with people who felt investors like Wehle did a disservice to the industry because they sold rather than used their breeding rights. A stallion shareholder should be a breeder, a contributor to the industry, the critics said. If not, then they are nothing more than indifferent speculators.

The criticism did not apply to Wehle, who died July 12. He loved the sport, and his investment in stallions was a way for an octogenarian to be involved without the headaches and expense of running a farm or stable, which he also did between 1977 and 1982. Over a span of 40 years, he stood stallions and raised foals at farms in Alabama and New York. He raced at Belmont Park, Finger Lakes, and in Canada. Through 1982, horses running in Wehle's name won 82 races out of 294 starts. He bred Win, who was the first New York-bred to earn more than $1 million.

Wehle's true passion, however, was breeding. During my three conversations with him, Wehle always strayed onto the topic of line breeding. He believed strongly that line breeding, or inbreeding, was the only way to extract the best characteristics from a pedigree. Wehle proved his theories with English pointers, of which he was the country's premier breeder. It was not unusual for Wehle to breed a sire's daughters to the sire's grandsons. He readily acknowledged that inbreeding intensifies both good and bad qualities, but that "heartless culling" will produce individuals that consistently passed on the best traits.

"Never, under any circumstances, breed either a sire or dam until you are sure they not only fill your standard but are outstanding individuals and have all the natural qualities you want," Wehle wrote in a much heralded hunting dog training book called Wing and Shot. "Good begets good, maybe not directly, but eventually."

Wehle told me he wished he could have accomplished with Thoroughbreds what he did with dogs. His main obstacle was the gestation period of the horse and the time it took for offspring to prove themselves at the track--he simply didn't have enough time.

Native Dancer and his sire line were Wehle's favorite. He raided his stocks and bonds custodial account in 1977 to buy his first stallion share, a $165,000 piece of Raise a Native. The stallion was 16 at the time.

"My friends thought I was insane," he said. Raise a Native lived to 27 and Wehle's investment did so well he never had to borrow from another account again to pay for his other Thoroughbred ventures.

Wehle had a pet peeve with Thoroughbred breeders as a whole. He was troubled that serious breeders regularly chose unproven sires over proven sires. He published letters last December in trade publications that lamented what he saw as a practice detrimental to the breed.

"All the hype and extravagant promotion in the world cannot change the records or make a proven sire out of the here today-gone tomorrow unproven sire," Wehle wrote. Sure, he had a financial stake. Wehle had a lot of stallion seasons to sell. But in my discussions with him, Wehle was never concerned about what he had invested in the business. He fretted about the commercial market's effect on the long-term health of the Thoroughbred. He chastised the breeders of previous generations whose programs were based on the outcrossing of families. Their efforts, Wehle said, set the breed back by several generations. He also lauded the programs of breeders like E.P. Taylor and W.T. Young.

Does Wehle sound like a speculator? A man who treated a stallion share the same as an IBM stock certificate? I didn't think so either.

Eric Mitchell is a senior staff writer for The Blood-Horse.