By Bill Heller
Telling the stories behind a selection of owners who won Grade 1 races this spring.
Dr. Joel Politi - Serengeti Empress
Challenges have defined Dr. Joel Politi’s life. Feeling constricted while working in a small practice as an orthopedic surgeon in Columbus, Ohio, he helped form Orthopedic ONE, the largest physician-owned orthopedic and sports medicine practice in the state, in 2016. “We’ve taken our small group and merged with other groups,” he said. “I’ve been a managing partner. I’m very proud of it.”
Think live TV is a challenge? Politi allows his surgeries to be live-streamed to the local science center COSI (Center of Science Industry), which sends the signal via the Library Science Center in Jersey City to six high schools around the country. Politi estimates the program, called “Surgical Suite,” has cumulatively reached more than 300,000 high school students who are building careers in medicine the last 15 years.
“It’s live and I have a microphone on me,” he said. “I narrate the operation to them and field questions.”
At the end of the surgery, he introduces everyone—nurses, surgical technicians, anesthesiologists, medical device representatives and physicians’ assistants—and each one describes his or her role, training and education they received to get to this point.
“He’s not only a very successful surgeon, he’s developed tools for others,” his Thoroughbred trainer Tom Amoss said. “He’s a giver. He’s not just a client, he’s a friend.”
In his lifestyle as a newly-minted 50-year-old who is thrilled to be blessed with four daughters, Rachel (22), Leah (20), Annie (18) and Nina (14), Politi and his wife Julie have challenged themselves by running in five marathons and more than 20 half-marathons. “We run together and talk together the whole time,” he said. “We’re not winning any races, but it’s kind of our sanity.” Just to make the challenge of long-distance running a bit more daunting, they’ve signed up to do a half-Ironman: a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike race and then a half marathon (13.1 miles). “I’ll see if I’m still alive after that,” he laughed.
But the deepest-rooted challenge in Politi’s life is Thoroughbred racing, tracing back to the days he shared with his late father Jacques, a pediatric allergist who had a 12-horse barn of Thoroughbreds in their backyard. “My priorities are work, family, exercise and then horse racing,” Politi said. “But I love horse racing. I grew up with a barn in my backyard. I’d get the newspaper every day just to see the horses running at Thistledown and Waterford Park (now Mountaineer). In the winter, we used to drive an hour Friday night to get the Racing Form just to look at before we went to the track at Thistledown the next day. I was 12, or 13. I got into it. I really got into it.”
Politi and his three older siblings, Diane, June and John, earned 25 cents to feed the horses each morning, and they spent as much time as possible watching them race. Most, but not all of those Thoroughbreds were low-end claimers. “We had $1,500 claimers at Waterford and Thistledown,” Politi said. “That’s where I grew up. My dad owned and bred a bunch of Ohio-bred stakes winners. That was a really big accomplishment, especially with a home-bred. I said, `Wouldn’t it be great to win a little stakes?’”
That challenge wasn’t addressed until Politi became a Thoroughbred owner. “In 2005, I put together my first partnership with a bunch of friends,” he said. “We called it Giddy-Up Stables, from Kramer’s line in a Seinfeld episode. We claimed two horses with Bernie Flint.”
Serengeti Empress, whom Politi purchased for $70,000 as a yearling at Keeneland in 2017, took Politi to another level, when winning Politi his first Gr1 triumph, when she captured the Gr1 Kentucky Oaks by a length and three-quarters.
“I don’t know if I’ve recovered from it,” Politi said three weeks after the Oaks. “I would say it’s the greatest thrill—that race, that win. I’d love for her to win a bunch more races (she then finished second after an awkward start in the Gr1 Acorn at Belmont Park), but winning that race that day was a dream come true...a true dream come true.”
Politi acknowledged he’s come a long way from Waterford Park: “Oh my gosh, yeah.”
Bill and Corrine Heiligbrodt - Mitole and co-owners of Mia Mischief
Let’s face it. Bill and Corrine Heiligbrodt did just an awful job of getting out of the Thoroughbred business in 2011. Eight years after their dispersal sale, they enjoyed an afternoon at Churchill Downs few owners could even imagine. They won two Gr 1 stakes on Kentucky Derby Day, the Churchill Down Stakes with Mitole and, in partnership with Heider Family Stable and Sol Kumin’s Madaket Stables, the Humana Distaff with Mia Mischief.
“It’s pretty hard to win a Gr1 race, so winning two in an hour and a half was pretty good for a cowboy like me,” Bill Heiligbrodt said.
Who could imagine another incredible thrill awaited them when Mitole stretched his winning streak to seven by taking the Gr1 Met Mile with perhaps the deepest field the gloried stakes has ever offered, at Belmont Park on June 8?
Good thing the cowboy got back into racing, right?
In July 2011, the Heiligbrodts sold 80 broodmares, horses of racing age, yearlings, a stallion, and, in a separate dispersal sale, 12 foals. The decision wasn’t made lightly because the Heiligbrodts, bridged to Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, had been consistently successful, finishing in the top 10 leading owners nationally every year from 2007 through 2010. They campaigned, either on their own or in partnerships, 118 stakes winners, including 45 graded stakes winners. None were better than Lady Tak, who won multiple Gr1 stakes, including the Ballerina when she set a track record at Saratoga, and earned more than $1 million with 10 victories from 19 starts before being retired and sold in 2005.
Asked why he got out of racing eight years earlier, Heiligbrodt said in June, “I wasn’t a youngster. “My children were going in different directions. I thought that it was a good thing for me. I always enjoyed the racing, but I had been involved in breeding. I decided to sell it all.”
But horses had always been in his life growing up in Bay City, Texas. “There were 7,000 to 8,000 people there back then, basically ranchers and farmers,” he said.
Heiligbrodt met his lifelong partner Corrine, in high school, where they became sweethearts. “We were together in high school and then in college,” he said. They’re still sweethearts. “I think the big thing is we enjoy the same things,” Heiligbrodt said.
Dreaming of playing football at the University of Texas, Heiligbrodt was recruited in high school by legendary UT Coach Darrell Royal and received a full scholarship. “You played both ways then,” he said. “I was a running back, split end, defensive end and defensive halfback. Of Royal, Heiligbrodt said, “He was a great individual—a very good judge of people and a very good judge of talent.”
Heiligbrodt started on the freshman team, but an injury brought a premature end to his football career, though he remained on full scholarship through his final year.
After finishing graduate school, Heiligbrodt moved to California, taking a job with United California Bank. “I went to work in California and went to the races in California,” he said. “I liked it. We went a lot. I did handicapping. I got thoroughly indoctrinated in that.”
He returned to Texas in 1967 to work for Texas Commerce Bank in Houston, where he would eventually become a vice-chairman.
Twenty years later, he took a job with United Service Corp International, one of his bank’s former customers. He became president and CEO before leaving to work for two other companies until he retired in 2015.
He’d been involved with horses much earlier, using Quarter Horses in cutting—a western-style equestrian event with horses and riders working together as a team to handle cattle before a judge or a panel of judges.
“Then I got involved with a Thoroughbred trainer looking to race in Kentucky, Arkansas and Louisiana,” he said. “I got involved and I liked it. My wife and I picked our own horses. The kids were working in the business. It was a family business.”
They didn’t need a long time to pick out their racing silks: white and burnt orange, the colors of the University of Texas. “We’re pretty big Texas fans,” he said. “She’s the only one who bleeds more orange than me. She’s pretty tough, too.”
The Heiligbrodts bought their first Thoroughbred, Appealing Breeze, in 1989 and he won more stakes than any two-year-old in the country that year. But in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he was hit in the eye by a chip of a rock and missed nearly a year before returning to finish his career, earning more than $600,000.
Despite ongoing success, the Heiligbrodts got out of the business in 2011. Fortunately for them, it didn’t take. “I couldn’t resist getting back into racing,” Heiligbrodt said.
Asmussen has said that he may have saddled more than 1,000 winners for the Heiligbrodts. And if Asmussen surpasses Dale Baird for most career victories in the history of racing, he’ll have the Heiligbrodts to thank.
That’s not bad for a cowboy.
Gatto Racing and All Schlaich Stables - Vasilika…
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