Enter a couple of racetrack novices named Walter and John Szczepanski, father-son owners of a 100-acre standardbred breeding farm smack-dab in the middle of Michigan. They bought Manfred Hanover for $8,500 in 1983. Of course, people now say they stole him at that price.
"He looked good to me," Walter says, "and he was well bred. But it was a gamble. I bought six horses at that sale, and he's the only one that turned out."
In fact, the Szczepanskis, who started the business in 1980, went through 25 or 30 racehorses before they hit pay dirt. To date, their $8,500 gamble on Mr. Fred has paid off more than 100 times over.
It's 7 a.m. the day after the Saginaw race, and the owners of Equinox Farms are having breakfast at their regular table in the K & A chow house near Clare. There's a lot of joking and horse talk, though Walter's still fretting over that high nail they found in Manfred's hoof the night before. Manny has a date back at the farm later on; he's due to be bred that afternoon.
Walter, now 56, had been an independent contractor who built a lot of houses around Warren, Mich., before going into real estate. John, 35, is a doctor of osteopathy, though he's had to cut his office hours to afternoons since Manfred trotted into his life. Until six years ago neither Walter nor John knew anything about standardbreds, although John's wife, Glenda, who competes in dressage, at least knew which end of the horse ate. "We originally were going to raise Polish Arabians, as a hobby," says John. "But Dad wanted standardbreds, and what Dad wants, Dad usually gets."
A 92-year-old real estate client of Walter's, Paul Hoffman (now deceased), got the Szczepanskis into the horse business. Hoffman talked Walter into attending a couple of yearling sales with him, and the next thing he knew, Walter was bidding on the animals. "I could be retired now, if it wasn't for Paul," says Walter, who gave up the real estate business only to find himself up to his hocks in standardbreds. "But we taught ourselves about horses. We're still learning. You pick a little up here and a little up there. You choose the best information you can and pick the best horses you can find. We had a couple of slow years, and then we got Manny."
The Szczepanskis soon discovered why they got the horse so cheaply. Mr. Fred had an unfortunate habit of regularly breaking stride at either the quarter or three-quarter pole. Walter, who had taught himself to drive, took the horse out on the jogging track again and again, trying to cure him of the problem. Meanwhile, Manny was given the lowliest assignment on the farm, teaser for another stallion. His job was merely to arouse the mares, not to be bred to them. "It humbled the hell out of him," says Walter. Just the same, Mr. Fred did his lowly duty in the breeding shed during the 11 months it took him to finally stop breaking stride, and in 1984, his 4-year-old season, the Szczepanskis raced him a dozen times. He won five of those races.
But 1985 was the year Manfred Hanover really came into his own. A classic late bloomer, he went to the post an astounding 46 times and won 24 races and $456,905. For his efforts he became the No. 1 stud this season at Equinox, a farm with 96 mares and only one other stallion. As this year's 16 straight wins illustrate, Manny's arduous duties in the shed don't seem to have slowed him down a whit.
Maybe Manny's secret is the Gatorade. John started giving it to him about a year and a half ago, because he believes it replaces the potassium and electrolytes lost when the stallion exerts himself. The horse tosses down about 800 quarts of the stuff a year. He's heavily into the orange flavor, drinking it right out of the bottle after a race. And a couple of shooters after a session in the breeding shed keep him in fine fettle. Besides, he hasn't developed a taste for oysters yet.
The Szczepanskis settle their check at the K & A and head back to the farm. There's a full day of breeding ahead. Manfred looks none the worse for wear this fine summer morning. A little tired maybe, but he definitely perks up when he sees his femme du jour, a nice looking bay mare.