From Tuna to Thoroughbreds
By Tom Cushman
During a brief tour of the Rancho Santa Fe professional building that bears his name, Edmund Gann points with obvious pride to photographs of his current stars. Medaglia d’Oro, runner-up in the 2002 Belmont Stakes, has matured to a level where many in the racing industry consider him second only to Pleasantly Perfect, generally acknowledged as the finest older Thoroughbred now running. Peace Rules, Gann’s third-place finisher at the 2003 Kentucky Derby, is expected to excel this summer as a 4-year old. For nostalgia, there’s an action shot of Filago. “The best grass horse I’ve ever had,” Gann says.
On a single weekend last August, Medaglia d’Oro won the Whitney Handicap at New York’s Saratoga Park and Peace Rules won the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. The combined $1,150,000 payout from those back-to-back triumphs contributed significantly to a season in which Gann horses returned nearly $6 million, a total that placed their owner fourth among all U.S. owners. His winning percentage (30) was the industry’s best.
Earlier on the morning of my interview with Ed Gann in Rancho Santa Fe, Joe Tankersley, comptroller for Gann’s Caribbean Marine Inc., shared particulars about another of his employer’s noteworthy possessions. The largest of five tuna boats under the Caribbean Marine flag measures 350 by 50 feet and plies its nets among the islands of Micronesia.
“Until you’ve actually seen it, you can’t imagine the volume when they’re unloading 2,000 tons of fish,” says Tankersley, who has been witness to that spectacle.
There’s a point of merger between the two worlds of Edmund Gann. An established force in the tuna industry by the 1960s (his fleet would peak at 15 vessels), Gann did frequent business with Tacoma, Washington–based shipbuilder Arnold Strom. While attempting to establish a spin-off company in Korea, Strom tapped Gann for a loan. When the Korean project foundered, Strom’s offer of restitution was a racehorse he owned, the filly Bold Producer.
“I’d rather have had my money,” says Gann, “but it pretty much came down to take the horse, or nothing. So we brought Bold Producer to San Diego, put her with trainer Tommy Doyle, and first time out, she wins. Second and third starts, she wins. I’m thinking, ‘This is easy.’ Just as I’m deciding to make a long-term commitment to racing, she breaks down.”
Gann recalls putting on swimming trunks and walking his horse down to the sea on an afternoon during the rehab period. “The water was warm, and I thought it might be good for what ailed her,” he says. “We’re walking through the surf when the starting-gate bell at Del Mar sounds. Hearing it, the horse takes off, dragging me along behind her.”
Salt water is a recurring theme in the Ed Gann story. “It’s a very quiet world these days,” he says, over lunch at a fashionable Rancho Santa Fe eatery two blocks from his office. While attending the World Cup in late March at Dubai—where Medaglia d’Oro lost to Pleasantly Perfect by half a length—Gann emerged from a swim in the Indian Ocean (which has an unusually high salt content) with hearing difficulties, which have persisted.
Hearing loss hasn’t trimmed his sails. Preferring a low public profile, Gann nevertheless is a bulldog with his businesses. “Hands-on every day,” says Tankersley, who has a long history of loyalty to the boss, as do several staff members.
As with many a World War II participant, Gann’s Navy days ended in San Diego. “With a few dollars in pocket, most of which were left at the party celebrating our discharge,” he says. Years later, Gann’s mannerisms remain more reflective of the sailor image than of the gentry often associated with the sport of kings.
“He’s direct, he’s tough, but eminently fair,” says Tankersley. “And with more charisma than he realizes. Ed’s the kind of guy who can tell you to go to hell, and you find yourself looking forward to the trip.”
The Gann family migrated west during the 1920s from the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts. First came father Vincent. Once established, he sent for the others, all of whom would become involved in Gann businesses.
“I think it’s fair to say we were ground-floor participants in establishing the tuna-fishing industry locally,” says Gann. “My dad built his own clipper and operated it until World War II, at which point the government took it.” Used for transporting food to U.S. troops, the clipper was sunk during a combat operation in the western Pacific.
Gann went to sea on one of his father’s boats for a time, but he determined that the many older family members involved smothered any chance for rapid advancement. Later, he assumed management of a grocery outlet established by his father and turned it from struggling to profitable. Through food sales to fishing boats, restaurants and movie companies using the city for locations, Famous Market at 631 11th Street became a San Diego landmark.
When local canneries began shutting down some years ago, forcing tuna boats to headquarter elsewhere, Gann converted the Famous Market building into a storehouse for his own fleet. That remained its function until it was condemned and razed during the recent redevelopment effort surrounding Petco Park.
A parallel to Gann’s success in tuna fishing eventually developed on the nation’s racetracks. If Bold Producer planted the seed, purchase of a Kentucky-bred colt during the early 1970s triggered an association that would flower into power. Gann no longer recalls the name of the colt, only that it was plucked from a claiming race by a resourceful young trainer.
“Suddenly, I’m seeing that horse’s worth go from very little to $125,000,” Gann remembers. “And I’m thinking, ‘This guy, Bobby Frankel, must have it figured.’”
So began a relationship between two men whose individual sense of self fortunately was matched by sense of purpose. “I was a young guy looking to get ahead,” says Frankel. “I was recommended to Ed, I think, by the racing secretary, but I know Ed’s wife [Bernice] had input.
“Ed had a string of 10 to 12 horses at the time, all of which were useless. I told him to get rid of them. Ed balked—I don’t think he was accustomed to having his judgment questioned—but eventually he did as I suggested. We then began picking up some nice young stock, and have had more than our share develop nicely.
“More and more, Ed allowed me freedom to do what I thought was best. Every so often, though, Ed drifts off to make a decision on his own and, inevitably, messes it up. When he recognizes he’s been wrong, we correct it and go from there.”
As counterpoint, Gann recalls a day when Frankel revealed that he was removing a horse from a race, the owner said “No,” the trainer pulled the jockey, the owner replaced the jockey, and the horse won.
In evaluations of one another, though, both men move quickly beyond the fractious natures. Gann admits Frankel (now widely regarded as racing’s top trainer) “is uncanny in his ability to spot talent in young horses and develop it. With Frankel and blood-stock agent Mark Reid, I have the two best guys in the business. And with our ability to get Jerry Bailey, the finest jockey on the planet, we’re competitive with anyone.”
At 80, Gann retains a zest for accomplishment that has set him apart. He travels the U.S. in a customized, 12-passenger private jet. In the early ’70s, he purchased the largest tract of undeveloped land remaining in Rancho Santa Fe and—instead of offering it for residential development —converted it into a 40-acre ranch and horse-training facility. “There was trash—hulls of old cars, what have you—on the property,” he says. “I cleaned it up—drove my own tractor to do so.” Several years ago, Gann sold the property to a Microsoft heir.
“He’s one of the big boys, one of the most successful horse owners in the world,” says Frankel. “He’s probably one of the few making a profit. He may not be the best known of the owners, but he has a lot of respect among the racing community.
“We have our differences, but we’re together where it counts. Both Ed and I are willing to bypass the big, expensive purchase, look at young horses and say, ‘Strawberries today, jam tomorrow.’”
There’s a recent example of how profitable their approach can be. In late May, Frankel negotiated a deal on Ed Gann’s behalf for the sale of Medaglia d’Oro to Audrey Haisfield, owner of Never Tell Farm in Kentucky. Although no confirming announcement of the sale price had been made at press time, the figure reportedly was $10 million.