Imprimis isn’t just the name of a Hillsdale College publication.
There’s another — but you won’t find this one in a mailbox. Trek down to the horse racetrack in Ocala, Florida and meet Imprimis, a thoroughbred racehorse, one of the fastest in America.
“Imprimis actually means ‘first on the list,’ and I named him after Hillsdale because I love Hillsdale, and it did great things for me,” Craig Wheeler, Hillsdale alumnus ’78 and Imprimis’ breeder, said.
Wheeler began his thoroughbred management career right after graduating from Hillsdale, where he studied philosophy and economics. He always knew he would go right back to the “horse thing.”
“On my way to the milk store, I would beg my mom to stop so I could run to the riding rink at riding school,” Wheeler said. “Years later, I would clean up the stalls so I could be around the horses. I read every book on horses. It was just me. It didn’t come from my family.”
While studying at Hillsdale, he owned a horse and worked at horse farms in Virginia during the summer. After graduation, the Irish National Stud became home for a year — a top-class graduate school for thoroughbred race horse farm management with a 3% acceptance rate.
Two Americans got in that year. Wheeler was one of them.
Twenty-five dollars a week. That’s how much each student earned at the Irish National Stud. John O’Meara, longtime friend of Wheeler and now owner of Milestone Farm in Lexington, KY, said the days consisted of chowing down quick meals, working long days out in the farm, and sitting in one lecture each day.
“One day it could be on the quality of feed, lectures on how to take care of the horses, how to feed them, how to take care of their feet,” O’Meara said. “They’d be showing us how to present the horse for sale, how to walk the horse, how to make it look good, and the work that it took. There would be a veterinarian who would come in and give us a lecture on vaccinations, for example.”
Wheeler came home one year later and became the assistant manager at Hobeau Farms, one of the largest thoroughbred farms in Florida. Twenty years later, he started his own.
Wheeler’s farm is an anomaly. While most farms focus on one specific area — training, selling, racing, or breeding — Wheeler does all four. With 20 breeding mares, 30 horses in training, and 15 horses up for sale, Wheeler runs a family operation with more than 60 head total horses and 20 outside client horses.
“We prefer to sell them as two-year-olds, but it’s time-consuming,” Wheeler said. “If you can come up with one that can have great times on the track, this warrants them being looked at as a really, really good horse, and the opportunities are limitless. The top end of the market can sell through the roof, and the lower end is weaker. It’s a very bipolar industry.”
The more horses, the greater the probability of raising a champion, Wheeler said.
That’s how Imprimis came along.
“He had an injury early on and he missed the sales, but we kept giving him plenty of time, and I knew we were going to have to race him because we already missed all the sales,” Wheeler said. “Then I named him. He won his first two races so easily, and we were in business. The beauty of it is, I sold him to good friends of mine, and I’ve gotten to enjoy his success all along the way.”
His current owner, Mike Hall, friend of Wheeler and owner of Breeze Easy farms, said he knew Imprimis would be a good horse primarily because of his trust in Wheeler.
“First of all, Craig wasn’t even at the sale, but I just bought the horse,” Hall said. “I knew Craig never would have sold me a bad horse. He’s just not that type of person. He’s like a legend. And on top of all that, he’s a hard worker. This guy goes from daylight to dark and then some. He just doesn’t quit, and I trust him so I knew this would be a good horse.”
It’s a horse that’s won seven races so far and more than $440,000 in prize money. He’s traveled the world, from finishing third in the Fountain of Youth race, a prep race for the Kentucky Derby, to racing in front of The Queen of England in the Royal Ascot. He finished fifth, only a little more than three lengths behind Battaash — the world’s top rated sprinter for 2019.
It’s been two years of surprises, and some of the very best, Wheeler said. Imprimis proved everyone wrong at the Shakertown Stakes in Kentucky. After picking Wheeler up in his private jet and enjoying cocktails in the sky, Hall and the team arrived at the races. The gates opened, and Imprimis fell straight to his knees.
“We thought it was over,” Wheeler said. “But he started picking up horses, picking up horses, picking up horses. Well here he comes in the stretch and he was thriving with all his heart and then he got up there, and he won.”
Their celebration lasted late into the night, but they were high on excitement for days, Hall said.
“There’s nothing like a win in a big race,” Hall said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. I don’t know what more to say. It was like a dream come true, and the biggest thing. With a horse falling, you don’t know if he’ll even place, but he won.”
Imprimis won’t opt out of his worldwide travels anytime soon, and neither will Wheeler.
“You don’t ever really retire from it,” Wheeler said. “They say, ‘every time you have a new crop of two year olds, you’re always dreaming because there’s always a champion.’”
And though his Hillsdale chapter finished more than 30 years ago, Wheeler still flips back to it. He says he’ll carry — and has carried — his education through his entire career.
“It’s the most simple thing I learned,” Wheeler said. “But it’s this: If there’s a will there’s a way. No matter what obstacle you come out of in life, if there‘s a will to get past it, you can … If you really believe in it, it works.”