Luck certainly helps, but being a front-runner in the thoroughbred racing game takes nerve.
With horses, Auburn’s Keith Swagerty has called and hit some difficult shots, just as he did throughout his heralded hoops career.
Swagerty, a former All-American inside force in his college days, who went on to play in the ABA and coach at Seattle Pacific University, has hit his stride as a horse owner and breeder.
Together with his trainer and business partner, Vann Belvoir, Swagerty came up big in a season under the sun at Emerald Downs. Behind the emergence of super homebred filly No Flies on Doodle, the Swagerty-Belvoir double-team produced 27 wins last year, setting a single-season meet record for an owner.
“It all came together,” a humble but proud Swagerty said as he watched one of his prized horses take to the track for a morning workout at the Auburn oval.
When an owner wins 20 percent of the time, it’s considered a good season. But Swag Stables performed even better last year, winning 36 percent of the time in 74 starts and finishing in the money a staggering 69 percent of the time. Swag Stables was second in earnings at the track with $241,390.
Swagerty is at a loss to explain it, let alone come up with an encore as Emerald Downs opens the chutes on its 15th season, an 89-day meet that begins tonight. First post is 6 p.m.
No Flies on Doodle, now a 4-year-old, is expected to debut in an allowance race on tonight’s card. A deep Swag Stables also will feature a co-star this meet in Forener, a 3-year-old Lost Soldier gelding with a winning background.
Swagerty and Belvoir, who own and operate the 22-acre West Coast Training Center near Flaming Geyser Park, boldly took some calculated risks and made them pay off in 2009.
“You have to be able to make a decision, whether it’s right or wrong,” said the 6-foot-7 Swagerty, who routinely brokers major deals as a financial planner when he isn’t tending horses. “If you don’t make the decision, nothing ever gets done. Even if you make the wrong one, you’re not stewing on it any longer.”
As an athlete, coach and businessman, Swagerty understands the importance of preparations, assessments and adjustments. He works closely with Belvoir to make the right decisions for the right runner at the right time.
“He’s as good as there is at finding what works for each horse. He does things the right way,” Swagerty said of his trainer.
That teamwork and mutual respect produced a fantastic run last year.
“We felt we had a good string of horses, and we had a couple of quality 2-year-olds,” said Belvoir, a former riding champion who saddled a career-meet-best 54 winners a year ago. “We felt we had a chance to have a good season.”
Super filly delivers
The stable eventually placed the speedy No Flies on Doodle, a Washington-bred by Storm Blast, in stakes company. She responded by seizing the $50,000 Washington’s Lottery Handicap and later, the $75,000 Washington Oaks, both at distances longer than a mile with veteran Gallyn Mitchell in the irons.
Unraced when the meet began, No Flies on Doodle went on to win four races and $91,225 in purses last year.
“It was huge because No Flies on Doodle was supposed to be a sprinter,” Swagerty said of the gate-to-wire victory by a neck. “We still thinks she’s a sprinter, but it so happened … the only race available at the time was the stakes.”
Like a manager and a coach, Swagerty treats his horses as if they were his players. Each takes on its own personality, and each responds differently to instruction.
“It’s like running a sports franchise,” said Belvoir, once a standout wrestler at Kentwood High School before embarking on a successful career as a jockey. “Our horses are our players, and the owner and trainers are the coaches. Hopefully, you get your good players together, keep them fit and get them playing well against the right competition.”
For Swagerty, competition meant basketball long before thoroughbreds.
The San Jose, Calif., native became an Academic All-American forward at the University of Pacific in Stockton. A potent scorer and fierce rebounder, he led Pacific to two conference championships and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances.
In the 1966 NCAAs, Swagerty scored 16 points and had 19 rebounds in a first-round 83-74 loss to Utah. He scored 26 points and collected 23 rebounds in a 102-91 loss to the Elvin Hayes-led Houston Cougars in the consolation game.
A year later, Swagerty led Pacific to a 72-63 first-round win over defending national champion Texas Western. He scored 11 points and had eight rebounds in an 80-64 second-round loss to John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins, which featured center Lew Alcindor.
Swagerty went on to play two seasons in the ABA with the Houston Mavericks and the Kentucky Colonels. He also played in Italy before becoming a physical education instructor and coach at Seattle Pacific University from 1974-80. He compiled an 87-61 record and led the Falcons to the NCAA Division II Tournament with a 20-9 mark in 1976-77.
Swagerty left coaching in 1980 to work as a financial advisor. He stays involved with church commitments, community work and other duties.
Raising thoroughbreds, however, is still his passion. He grew up watching races on the California fair circuits and soon got involved as an owner through friendships he established in the industry.
Swagerty, who has owned horses for 15 years, decided to purchase a training center on the Green River. He has 10 mares and hopes to one day produce a great champion.
“I probably got into it so that I could go ahead and run the horses where I thought they belonged,” Swagerty said of becoming a combination owner and breeder. “My wife (Jan) and I enjoy watching them grow up in our own back yard.”
The Swagertys also are enjoying the winning ride.
“You do like the success … the money is just part of it,” he said. “I just enjoy horses.”
Key stakes races at Emerald Downs
2010 meet (April 9-Sept. 26)
May 2: Hastings Park Handicap; May 16: Seattle Handicap; May 23: Auburn Handicap; May 31: WA State Legislators Stakes; June 6: Irish Day Handicap; June 20: Budweiser Handicap; June 27: Pepsi-Cola Handicap; July 4: King County Handicap; July 25: Seattle Slew Handicap; Aug. 1: Boeing Handicap/Mt. Rainier Handicap; Aug. 8: Premio Esmeralda; Aug. 14: Washington Oaks; Aug. 15: Emerald Derby; Aug. 22: Emerald Distaff; Aug. 22: $250,000 Longacres Mile (Grade III); Sept. 12: Washington Cup VIII (six stakes); Sept. 26: Gottstein Futurity; Sept. 26: Stanislaw Ashbaugh Claiming Challenge