Weekend Interview: Mark Vondrasek

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Mark Vondrasek might not be a name that many people in racing know well. They might also not know his Eklektikos Stable. They undoubtedly know the two best products of Vondrasek’s small breeding operation in La Verdad and Hot City Girl, New York-bred half sisters who collectively helped push him to the top of the Empire State’s breeding program in 2015.

Vondrasek, an executive with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, didn’t always set out to be a leading breeder. He admits it happened by chance, after a promising filly he owned suffered a career-ending injury and he was left with that feeling of “what now?” that so many in the industry are left with under similar circumstances.

Vondrasek got word earlier this month from the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. that he was chosen as the organization’s breeder of the year for 2015. He’ll be honored during the NYTB’s annual awards dinner Monday, April 4 at Saratoga National in Saratoga Springs. La Verdad, winner of the Eclipse Award as champion female sprinter of 2015, and Hot City Girl are both among the finalists for several championships that will be handed out that night.

This Is Horse Racing’s Tom Law caught up with Vondrasek earlier this week to talk about his success, La Verdad and what might be next.

This Is Horse Racing: Congratulations on a spectacular year with La Verdad and Hot City Girl and you being named breeder of the year by the NYTB.
Mark Vondrasek: Thanks. I’m really excited about it. It’s a terrific honor.

TIHR: How did you get involved in racing?
MV: It’s funny, I tell people I don’t ever remember not being at the track. My grandfather was very much in the horse racing business so my very first memories in life are being out with him at Hawthorne Park, Arlington Park in Chicago. It was in the blood pretty early on. I can remember being very young and being out there on weekends with him.

TIHR: And the breeding end of the business?
MV: The breeding thing kind of fell to us. We’d owned horses before but when that big mare got injured so early in her career I didn’t know anything about the breeding game. That was the first foray.

TIHR: The big mare being Noble Fire, correct?
MV: Yes. You have an option with a young mare who got hurt on the track and seemed to have a little bit of promise. Maybe it’s a game you want to take a shot with. To be honest it was a bit of a flyer and I didn’t know anything about it but it’s worked out so well. She’s proven to be a great broodmare.

TIHR: Do you still own her and what’s your involvement in the industry today?
MV: No, we sold her to Three Chimneys. Noble Fire was our only mare. We planned to breed Tamarind Hall, another (stakes-winning) filly we had, but in the end that didn’t work out. We’re not a big breeding shop. We’re just now getting back into looking at other mares after the success of these few, but we’ve really stayed very small.

TIHR: Where did you board Noble Fire when you owned her?
MV: At Chester Broman’s farm and eventually shipped her to Three Chimneys. Chester and his team did a great job, they were extremely professional, great horseman and always treated us with respect. I have all day for Chester and his team.

TIHR: They certainly have a great history of success, all the way up there in Chestertown.
MV: It’s amazing. I think they literally named it after him. Pretty remarkable.

TIHR: How about the future, do you think you’ll get involved again someday?
MV: We’re going to be a bit more aggressive. Some folks have reached out and want to partner up on some stuff. I think because we’ve had so much success, and really we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just La Verdad. (The industry) is a fascinating space and I think we’ll do a lot in it over the next few years.

TIHR: What is it about the breeding aspect that you enjoy?
MV: To me, and this is going to sound a bit Pollyanna-ish, but the thought of I had a hand in this. I studied hard about which horses to breed the mare to. I didn’t have a lot of help, that was something I did on my own, and to see that come to life the way it has, just to know that La Verdad wouldn’t have been created if we hadn’t put that mix together at that time, it’s almost more fulfilling and exciting to me than if you buy a 2-year-old horse in training or you pick up a young horse. That has it’s own tremendous excitement for this sport, but there’s something about being involved literally from the genesis of these horses that makes it extra special. To see them grow up and be that successful.

TIHR: Many breeders feel the same way.
MV: You’ve got to be willing to play a longer game. It’s takes long time to get them to the races and it usually doesn’t end quite like this. It’s certainly a great aspect of the sport.

TIHR: Last question, when you were starting out what did you want to accomplish?
MV: I had two goals in racing, one was to have a horse that was an Eclipse Award winner and the other was what we almost got done and that was to win a Breeders’ Cup race. Had (La Verdad) not taking that interim race (running in the Iroquois a week before the Filly and Mare Sprint) and rested a little bit we might not have let Wavell Avenue turn the tables on us. … To accomplish those things, it’s almost hard to explain how satisfying that is.