Hightstown, NJ — Rick Wahlstedt owns fine-dining restaurants across the U.S., so his ownership of racehorses provides a welcome distraction from the demands of his everyday business life.
Even if it’s not always a relaxing distraction.
“I’m more nervous at a horse race than I am opening a restaurant,” Wahlstedt said with a laugh. “The restaurant, I can control. I can’t control the horse.
“But it’s a great hobby. I was brought up with it. I enjoy speaking to my partners about it in the racing business, and I enjoy speaking to the trainers. I guess you could say it’s a bit of a therapy from the restaurant world.”
Wahlstedt is among the owners of 2-year-old male trotter In Range, who competes in Friday’s second of three Bluegrass Stakes divisions for freshman colt-and-gelding trotters at Red Mile. In Range, trained by Marcus Melander, has won four of six races this season and finished second twice, most recently in the Pennsylvania Sire Stakes championship behind undefeated Captain Corey.
A 58-year-old native of Sweden, Wahlstedt began following harness racing as a child.
“My dad used to take me as a little boy to our small country track,” Wahlstedt said. “First, it was just to go to the track, have a nice lunch, do some gambling. Then my father started to buy some horses, and I followed that.”
Participation in another sport, squash, brought Wahlstedt to the U.S. when he was in his early 20s and, ultimately, led to his career as a restauranteur. Wahlstedt was playing squash professionally and visited New York for the U.S. Open Squash Championships, after which he was offered a job in Dallas as a teaching pro.
“I had nothing better to do at the time, so I did that,” Wahlstedt said. “I moved back to New York after about a year and continued playing the (squash) tour. Squash sort of brought me into the restaurant business. I was teaching an English guy, a great restauranteur in New York, Keith McNally. He loved squash. He was a client of mine and he gave me my first job in the restaurant industry.
“It was perfect. I could work at the restaurants late at night and make some money and during the day I was practicing and training for the tournaments on the weekends. It was a perfect combination. I took a liking to it and started to open my own restaurants in the late 1980s. They’re all fine-dining restaurants of different types.”
Wahlstedt’s involvement in harness racing lapsed but he returned to the sport a decade ago when he partnered with a cousin to start a stable in Sweden. In 2016, his trainer, Reijo Liljendahl, bought filly trotter Bay View at the Lexington Selected Sale and asked Wahlstedt if he wanted to join the ownership group. The horse went to Melander, who was in his second year as a trainer in the U.S., and launched Wahlstedt’s involvement in the States.
“Marcus has done great,” Wahlstedt said. “He’s a talented young man, and a modest young man. When I started with him, he had just started with the farm. He’s done very well. The proof is in the pudding with horses like In Range.”
In Range is a son of Bar Hopping out of Ilia. He was purchased for $185,000 at last November’s Standardbred Horse Sale and his family includes Grand Circuit stakes winner Long Tom, who was trained by Melander, and state-bred stakes winner Tight Lines.
All his races this season have been Pennsylvania state-bred stakes. Now on the Grand Circuit, he is eligible to the International Stallion and Breeders Crown in addition to Friday’s Bluegrass Stakes.
“In Range is not that focused before a race, but once the race starts, he certainly knows where the finish line is, and he certainly likes to pass horses,” Wahlstedt said. “A horse that knows where the finish line is and wants to be the first over the finish line is something special. I think he might be one of them. I’m not sure we’ve seen everything he can do. I think he can do better than what we’ve seen so far.”
In addition to following his horses and running his restaurants, Wahlstedt continues to play squash. In March, he won his age group’s title at the U.S. Squash Doubles Championships in Minnesota.
“I’m still competitive,” Wahlstedt said, adding with a laugh, “I probably want to win more than ever. The older you get, the more of a sore loser you are.”
As for his hectic schedule and love of racing, he said, “I’m busy, but it’s a good busy. I’ve been fortunate. The racing stable in Sweden has done well, and when I say well, I mean it breaks even or makes a little bit of money. If you can break even, for me, that’s a big win and it brings a lot of pleasure and excitement.
“I’m really enjoying the racing in America. I’m not a big gambler, have never been. Racing for me, it’s about the beauty of the horse. In the old days, I was taking my kids out to see them train. There is something very special about that. It’s more about the excitement of racing, and winning, than it is about making money. Once you start to think you’re going to make money with it, or you are going to get upset because you are losing money, then it is probably time to exit.”
Racing begins at 1 p.m. (EDT) at Red Mile. For Friday’s complete entries, click here.