An approach to a favorable outcome; Benzel enjoys success in both art and Thoroughbred racing
By Ben Baugh
The subject matter and practical experience have taken artist and horseman Seth Benzel to destinations that are not only inspirational but compelling in their unique and poignant nature.
Art and horses have danced back and forth in Benzel’s life, taking his attention places, often simultaneously. He recognized his two passions early in life, and has found success in both highly competitive fields.
“I’m just letting them play out, very high goals in both, but at the same time, not stuck to those goals, so much that I lose perspective of life, and what it can offer you, making the most of it,” said Benzel.
Innovation and Adventure
He recently launched an art project, the largest of his life, one where he will stay in Barcelona, Spain for two months, having already done two similar projects through the Kickstarter site. The project is called Abstract Spain. He will be traveling throughout the country, going to Spain’s major cities and their surrounding environs, reacting through his sensibilities, drawing, sketching, painting and coming back to the States and producing a body of work.
“I had the Dubai art project in 2017, and last year was the L.A. Art Project,” said Benzel.
“In both of those, I went to those places, lived and worked and made a body of work from those experiences.”
Guidance and Direction
When Benzel was growing up there were two major influences in his life. His father, John L. Benzel, was an architect and a painter, who fostered his love for both art and horses.
“As long as I can remember, he was painting and doing architecture, and had me painting from a very young age, “said Benzel. “In school, I was always interested in and fascinated by art, and took to it naturally from the beginning. The interesting thing, in my life when it comes to art because of my father, the conversation was always on a very high level, even as a kid, we were talking about Picasso, Kandinsky and some of the other abstract expressionists.”
Benzel’s thought process when it came to art was never about thinking small, it was on a much larger scale, chasing the people that he had admired, discovered and idolized. And it’s still that was today, as he’s continuing to make a name for himself leaving a uniquely indelible footprint, one that resonates powerfully with those who collect and appreciate his paintings.
“When I’m making a painting, I’m thinking about the history before me, and where I am in that history, trying to add to that history, on the same level before me, people that I really respect as painters, the height they saw, even not in their lifetime, after their lifetime and they come to be known as pioneers in painting and art in general,” said Benzel.
“I hope at the end of the day, I see the fruits of that in my life or not, and that’s something that I’m able to achieve. And that’s always the foremost important thing when it comes to painting for me. That was kind of my position in art. “
A School Master’s Influence
However, the other part of Benzel’s youth found him learning about the Thoroughbred industry, another passion he shared with his father. Benzel would often accompany his father to the racetrack, visiting the backside. In 1986, when Seth was 11, his father bought his first Thoroughbred, a filly named Silly Millie, who would become an important variable in the future Thoroughbred trainer’s life.
“She introduced me to so many things,” said Benzel. “She introduced me to the thrill of racing, even though we were just racing at our local Finger Lakes Racetrack. For me to go and watch her races was like an out of body experience. For a kid, for me, it was a hit on every level, what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. I would join her trainer and her jockey on the backside. It was just being on that whole scene at a very young age.”
Learning the Ropes
The industry itself would introduce Benzel to a whole series of new facets as his father began breeding Silly Millie as father and son would go to horse farms to select stallions for the mare to be bred to. When Silly Millie produced her foal, Benzel would have the good fortune to play with those foals in the fields. His father would acquire two other broodmares, with the focus being toward the races at Finger Lakes, said Benzel.
“He didn’t have a huge budget for it, but always made incredible memories,” said Benzel. “He was actually very successful as a breeder on that level, and had many winners. He had one filly named Bella Rouge, who made the most money for him as a homebred. She broke her maiden at Belmont Park, which was a big thrill for us. The breeding end of it, the racing end of it, Finger Lakes Racetrack, all of that was very prominent in my early days.”
Horses were destined to be a part of Benzel’s future. He learned how to ride when he was 14 years of age at a local show horse stable, which just added to his continued interest in Thoroughbred racing. He would sneak onto the backside of the racetrack.
“One of my father’s trainers was having me jack up my stirrups, and I was going around the shed-row like a jockey, and had that in my head as a possible idea to ride as an apprentice, and that kind of started my hands on, working with the horses, and that lasted a couple of years. I soon realized that I liked to eat too much and being a jockey wasn’t in my future.”
Moving toward his Objective
The idea of not being able to be a jockey was hardly a deterrent to Benzel, who then set his sights on another opportunity that would keep him in the barn, his objective was to be a Thoroughbred trainer.
“I went to the next best thing, and at an early age, say around 15 or so, I decided I wanted to become a horse trainer,” said Benzel.
“At the time, my father was using a trainer by the name of Davd Markgraf, on the backside, and I began to work for him. When I wasn’t in school, I was breaking 2-year-olds in Ocala, Fla., and at the same time working for him on the racetrack grooming and riding. Once I got to that level, I basically worked my way up to his assistant at Finger Lakes Racetrack.”
Evolving from the Nascent Stages
The hard work, his vision and dreams were about to become reality as he took out two trainers’ licenses, when he was working for Markgraf at Finger Lakes. The first horse he ran in his name was Inamilliesecond, a full-sister to Silly Millie. It was his father’s horse and he gave the filly to his son to train.
“I trained it when I was 17,” said Benzel. “I didn’t have my license then, but at 18 I was able to get my license. I won my first race at Finger Lakes Racetrack with Inamilliesecond. I was 18 then, and getting ready to go to school. That was kind of my sendoff. I trained a winner and then went off to Lake Erie College, where I studied equine science and was a double major in fine art.”
Inamilliesecond and Benzel would become inseparable. He would take the filly to school with him, retraining her as a show horse during the winter. He would go back to Finger Lakes with the mare the following summer and she would start again.
“I did everything with her; I trained her how to be a show horse, won races with her at the racetrack, she taught me an awful lot,” said Benzel.
“It was my first experience training. I proceeded to go to college and study, and while I was in college I was showjumping competitively. I was showing horses at a high level my junior year of college.”
A Propitious Opportunity
It was while he was in college Benzel interned through his school at a farm called Hacienda Siesta Alegre in Puerto Rico, a facility that was owned by Greg and Linda Jackson.
“I went there for four months, in a pretty intensive but beautiful internship, where I was a rider, stable manager and had many experiences that I could’ve never had on the backside of a racetrack,” said Benzel. “I was riding 15 horses a day, all 2-year-olds that were being broken by us, so starting the horses off from their first stages and bringing them up then. In the afternoon, I would take care of a stable of horses, which had me doing medications, including medications that involved IVs and injections, where if you were here in the states, you had to be a vet to do that stuff.”
Benzel made the most of the opportunity, not only increasing his equine knowledge and the variables associated with being a trainer and running a barn, but also learning Spanish and eventually becoming fluent in the language, and for school credit reacted artistically to the environment he found himself in, as he painted, drew and kept a journal, acquiring a body of work adding to what was already an enriching cultural experience.
“It was probably the most advanced level of riding that I ever got to do with both race horses and show horses,” said Benzel.
“That was my junior year, and then I went back to Lake Erie College, it was right after Cigar, it was in his final year, that I approached Bill Mott during the summer and told him that I trained on my own at Finger Lakes and about my experience. I told him I would do anything he wanted me to do.”
A Continuing Education
It was from that conversation, that Benzel was asked to meet the Hall of Fame trainer at his stable in November of 1997 at Palm Meadows in Indiantown, Fla. He hadn’t yet graduated from college because of his double major.
“I had four years of school, and for me I thought I was just leaving for a little while, but from that point on, I never went back to school,” said Benzel. “So, I never attained a degree, even though I had a lot of credits. I was on the verge of getting both degrees…I worked for Bill for 4 ½ years. I made my way up from an exercise rider to his assistant trainer.”
The opportunity to work for such a well-respected conditioner allowed him to join a stable where horsemen of renown were also part of Team Mott including Tim Jones, Ralph Nicks, David Wallace and Dave Keely, who all went onto establish themselves within the Thoroughbred industry.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Benzel. “You can imagine a kid from Finger Lakes arriving in his truck at Palm Meadows and going down the shedrow and seeing Escena and Ajina, some of these horses were champions and some of them were going onto be champions. Pedigrees that just made your head spin. I can remember for the first month, I would just go down the shedrow and would just pinch myself that I was around those kind of horses all of a sudden.”
Benzel spent the next couple of years in the winter working for Mott, assuming the assistant trainer responsibilities during that time of the year however, in the summer months another assistant would join him, reducing his role to a part-time assistant’s position.
Increasing his Workload
At the end of the 2001-2002 season he was ready for a change to take on a greater role and was looking for full-time responsibility.
“At the same time, I knew in Bill’s operation there were plenty of guys who had more time in, it was just a matter of having time in, not necessarily whether or not you could handle the responsibility.”
However, a propitious opportunity would present itself and Benzel found himself in the right place at the right time.
“I had heard through the grapevine that George and Cindy Weaver were going out on their own, and that there was going to be a vacating spot at (Todd) Pletcher’s barn,” said Benzel.
“So I immediately reached out through the right channels and interviewed with Todd, and he hired me and I started with Todd in Saratoga with George in April of 2002.”
Learning from the Best
Finger Lakes provided Benzel with an incredible foundation, allowing him to learn about horses, about the industry, the basics of how to ride, how to take care of a horse, even though it wasn’t the largest or most prestigious of racetracks. However, his time while working for Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher, allowed him to refine his skills and improve his ability so when he went out on his own, he was able to find success at the sport’s top level.
“Without their help, I wouldn’t have had that confidence to later take clients that I ended up taking on,” said Benzel. “So for me, they have totally different strategies or philosophies of getting to the winner’s circle, but they both arrived just as many times as one another. So, I have equal respect for both of them. I think they both have strength in their individual outlook. I was very fortunate to kind of assume different roles with each.”
Mott was a developer and an incredible horseman, who once he gets his hands on a horse, crafts out a campaign in an amazing way, said Benzel. He has deep admiration for the man from Mobridge, S.D.
“You know that if he has a horse in the hunt, that he’s brought that horse to that point in the perfect manner without any kind of rush or sense of pressure,” said Benzel. “I always had an amazing respect for the way he came into the game, that he started off at small racetracks and just built his stable to what it was both before and after I got there.”
And to this day, Benzel loves to see Mott in the winner’s circle, and is appreciative of the opportunity that the hall of fame conditioner provided him with because he thought he would never leave him.
“I always thought I would stay with him to the end, and then go out on my own,” said Benzel.
“Going out and being my own trainer was always my goal, but at the same time, Bill always gave me a challenge. He challenged me at every point. I never felt like I was stagnant, and even though he’s running this big operation, I didn’t need to be a priority of his. He always challenged me in so many ways.”
Expanding his Knowledge
His experience with Team Mott allowed Benzel to make a smooth transition when accepting a position with Team Pletcher.
“I can’t say enough about that initial experience with Bill because it took me from dealing with small $3,000 claimers to all of a sudden horses who were champions, going to the Breeders’ Cup, the (Kentucky) Derby and everything like that in a short time, so that was just amazing,” said Benzel. “
When Benzel accepted the position with Pletcher, he found himself in Saratoga with the 2-year-olds, something he didn’t have as much experience with when he was working for Mott. He had the opportunity to work with the juveniles when he went to Payson Park, but that changed when he transitioned to staying at Belmont Park year round, where he wasn’t working too much with the 2-year-olds.
“Before I went out on my own, I wanted to have that 2-year-old experience, so the posting with Todd was perfect,” said Benzel.
“I was able to oversee 60-t0-70 2-year-olds a year that came to me May 1 at Saratoga. I always knew out of that group, you’re going to find four or five horses that are going to be on the Derby path, be a champion, and the list is lengthy of the horses I was able to work with that did accomplish those things. So, it was the perfect fit.”
A Model Mentor
Pletcher, like Mott, made a powerful impression on Benzel. His personality, equanimity, class, demeanor, and how he interacts with people separate him among conditioners, said Benzel. His accomplishments on the racetrack speak for themselves, with the volume of champions, stakes winners and year-end honors.
“To this day, I haven’t met anybody on the track that I think is more of a normal, classy human being than Todd, and who has been able to get results in a business that’s pretty cut throat when it comes down to it,” said Benzel. “Now that I’ve been through the whole chain of the industry at large, I can really respect Todd for being the way he is, being able to be as successful as he is.”
Benzel spent six years with Pletcher as an assistant, winning multiple Saratoga titles, and then representing the seven-time Eclipse Award winning Trainer at Belmont during the winter, which he found incredibly satisfying because of the amount of responsibility he assumed.
“Even though we were talking everyday about the horses, he gave me a lot of freedom to train the horses, to pick the races, even though they were obviously all finalized by him,” said Benzel.
“There was nothing I was doing on my own, but he let me navigate those waters, make a lot of judgments on my own and he trusted me. Probably in my lifetime, I will never have a professional relationship like that again, to where he was doing amazing things and that I knew he trusted me 100 percent with what I was taking on as far as his responsibility in the stable. It was a hard job to leave.”
Making the Leap
The horseman/artist said he could’ve held onto the job with Pletcher and have been very happy. But new challenges were awaiting Benzel, and he made the decision to go out on his own in 2008, and the timing was right to transition into the next phase of his life, one that would take all of his energy, and he was at an age where he possessed the physical and mental wherewithal to take on the challenges associated with running his own barn.
“That was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make…I felt like it was then or never,” said Benzel. “It was always my goal, no matter how good my situation was anywhere, that I would assume my own responsibility and try it myself.”
When he went out on his own, after five years in New York, Benzel’s perspective evolved both in life and professionally, even his attitude toward the business changed. The trainer experienced so much as an assistant while working for Mott and Pletcher, having the opportunity to go to the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup, watching champions come and go, and with those experiences having the bar set extremely high, a level he would have to try to attain.
Success and Belief
“For me, I was undaunted by that, I had full-confidence that I could do the job, that I could garner that kind of respect with my owners and my fellow trainers,” said Benzel.“I had a great run. Many personal things as far as my life and my priorities had changed in those five years. But I have no regrets. A lot of people probably look at what I’ve done and say, ‘I bet you wish you would have stayed with Todd.’ I have no regrets whatsoever. I put everything on the table that I had to offer the game. And at the end of the day, I think I experienced everything I could’ve experienced.”
Finding his Purpose
When Benzel made the decision to leave New York, he had come to the realization that he had more to give in art, than horse racing was going to give him, if he was going to continue with a particular discipline for the remainder of his life. The premier calling for Benzel was art.
“While I was training, I was still thinking about art,” said Benzel. “I wasn’t producing as many paintings just because of the sheer magnitude of my responsibility with training. I was thinking about it. I actually got to a point one day, where I was in my home in Saratoga, I made a painting, and I heard a little voice inside of my head that said, ‘If you don’t paint every single day of your life from here on out, you’re wasting something that shouldn’t be wasted.
“I think that was the moment I realized as painful as it was going to be on many levels, it was a hard decision to make and some hardship came after that, that I had to go through , and I can say now, it was the right move,” said Benzel.
“It was what I was meant to do, and I’m very happy that I was able to do all the things that I did in horse racing. The one thing that culminated even though I had accepted an opportunity that came up to train in Dubai, taking that responsibility, I pretty much knew I was saying goodbye to my career in the states. But it was something interesting for me and it gave my career with horses a little bit more oomph to continue it, even though I knew in the back of my mind there was going to be a lot of changes coming down the way.”
Connections and Relationships
Benzel had the good fortune of having great clients, and created some indelible memories, among those finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon, and being placed second with Gabriel’s Hill at Churchill Downs.
He also had a number of young horses that were responsible for creating lasting remembrances.
“I got to train for Live Oak Plantation; Mrs. Weber was also a great friend of mine and still is,” said Benzel. “She gave me a great chance with Dyanaslew. And Super Spectacular, half-brother to Zenyatta was a great thrill. He had been through some hardship. I got him as a 3-year-old, and won three races with him in a row, which was very exciting.”
Once he went out on his own, the artist/horseman had the opportunity to train for Robert Evans and Eugene Melnyk. He enjoyed success with the stock he received from Melnyk, with the runners performing well, at a time where he was beginning to ease his way out of Thoroughbred racing, said Benzel.
“I always appreciated his support, we would get one claimed, he’d send three more in,” said Benzel. “That five years of training felt like a lifetime to me now. When I think of all the races, all the experiences, and then to go over to Dubal and win a race over in Dubai as an international, once you get over to Dubal, you realize for people internationally who come in and win a race during the carnival is a very unique thing. (He saddled Dux Scholar to win a $100,000 handicap race). Most of the horses that win those races are either Godolphin or horses that are locally based, with local trainers. So, for me to win a race over there, with a small group of horses was one of the biggest thrills of my life.”
The horse who had won the race for Benzel, would later find himself on the international stage against many of the world’s best in the Dubai World Cup on Dubai World Cup Night, in the Al-Quoz Sprint. He would have the good fortune of going back with a horse of Ahmad Zayat’s , Zee Bros that performed well in the carnival and ran sixth in the Golden Shaheen. When Benzel talks about those experiences it brings back a flood of memories.
An Indelible Imprint
However, the opportunity to go out on his own, win races and run a stable was an incredible experience for Benzel.
“I have immense respect for people that in the game,” said Benzel. “Right now, as a whole, I’m a little concerned for the game and even when I got out, I was concerned because there were some definite things that needed to be addressed. I think the sport in general needs to move into a new era as painful as that’s going to be with something that holds so much tradition.”
John Benzel’s influence on his son’s life has been profound, serving as an adviser offering his advice throughout his careers in both the Thoroughbred industry and with art.
“Growing up, I would say my largest was my father, who was definitely my greatest influence throughout my life because I was fortunate that he was able to mentor me the whole way,” said Benzel. “I was always able to send pictures to him, and get his opinion no matter where I was.”
Several masters have played a large role in influencing Benzel’s work, including Kandinsky and Gorky, who were on the forefront of what he was seeing and what he had wanted to do as an artist. Benzel’s evolution as an artist has seen his work impacted by Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn.
“Those guys I think did a tremendous service to art in general, especially all these being painters,” said Benzel. “So, I would say those are my influences. Picasso obviously is. I think for everybody, he was the ringing artist. The popular one; and I think as I’ve gotten further into it, I’ve probably gotten closer to these gentlemen then necessarily to Picasso.”
The tranquil mystical qualities associated with the abstract expressionist and representational styles of Diebenkorn have had a profound influence on Benzel. He was impressed when he first saw the artist’s work because that was exactly what he had been working toward.
“There’s always been this sense that I wish I had lived in the 40s because I think for both horse racing and painting, it was like the premier time; the 60s and 70s as well,” said Benzel. “For me, those are the guys that I just marvel at. Dekooning as well, inspired me. That was such an exciting time in painting, when it came to the abstract expressionists. As a group, they probably had more impact on me (as an artist).”
However, there was another abstract expressionist painter born in Armenia, who emigrated to the United States and was known for his lyrical abstraction, and would make a definitive impression on Benzel. Arshile Gorky’s influence resonates powerfully with the artist. A painting that hangs in the Whitney Museum in New York City is one of Benzel’s favorites.
“Actually, I love the portrait of him and his mother, that as a figurative abstract painting,” said Benzel. “I got one of his books when I was very young, and I just loved the way a line was firm and also fluid. There’s a fluidity to his work and just a harmony. It’s probably between him and Kandinsky. I really got this sense that in abstract painting, the possibilities are endless, to this day, that’s what enchants me the most about painting, every time you go to the canvas or go to a work art, the possibilities you have are endless.”
Direction and Objectives
But there are some tenets that those artists have that Benzel has followed, and it’s apparent in his own work that he’s adhered to those guidelines.
“The one thing those guys mastered were harmony, balance, movement and color,” said Benzel.
“If you look at all of their work it’s just poured out there, in a very soulful way. So, I immediately responded to painters that I felt there was a feeling. There was a sense of their soul, of what they were saying about the world, not literally, but through color, shape and form. These are the things that still intrigue me about painting.”
A Distinctive Niche
Benzel has been able to see beyond the ordinary separating him from other artists in the process.
“You know there’s a lot of perfect painting going on, and a lot of these painters who are successful today, for me lack a little of that feel, that soul, that would be my critique of a lot of the work that I see,” said Benzel. “I almost don’t even feel part of that. I feel separated from that somehow. But that’s okay. I think every artist has something to say in an original way.”
The artist refers to himself as a deconstructionist. Benzel’s has always felt that he’s not painting objects, but painting the space around it and into an object, in what he refers to as being in a kind of deconstruction mode.
“There’s a plain canvas in front of you, a white canvas, how am I going to establish the space around things, and the movement around things, and what will happen inside of that space,” said Benzel. “And that can be seen throughout the work that I do, especially if you had a video of the way that I approach work, from beginning to end. I enjoy the idea that I really don’t know what’s going to come out of it.
“And there are even some paintings that I’ve finished in a technical sense and in a feeling sense, but I might not even be a big fan of the painting, but I know somebody will because there’s always somebody to relate to a painting. I don’t necessarily worry about that as much. I just worry about being true to what the painting is trying to say, the spirit that the painting has.”
Enduring and Ageless in Quality and Character
It’s the artist’s hope that the painting has a start, middle and finish, but after that the experience never stops and that through the viewer it gains momentum and its own life. Benzel’s work has a timeless quality.
As an artist, it’s been Benzel’s goal to create work that’s timeless, and he says that the word timeless is the most important word for an artist because of the unknown.
“There was a great quote from Walter Robinson, ‘You never know when the art world is going to be ready for you.’ Or even art history, you just have to be ready for it, and do what you do, and present something that’s legitimate, and that’s timeless. When you talk about timeless, it’s what makes a painting a masterpiece. If you’re lucky enough to accomplish that during your lifetime, to literally do a masterpiece. So, yes that word (timeless) is the most important word for me as I go further in my experience, in my painting career.”
The artist has had several large scale shows. One was at the Dede Martin Gallery, which provided him with the opportunity to show in the New Orleans area.
“Dede has a great spirit and has a great experience through art,” said Benzel. “It was really nice working with her. “
A Lasting Impact
Benzel and his father, who worked closely throughout their lives, final project together before he passed, found them establishing the 8th Avenue gallery in Ocala, Fla.
“We were working on it, knowing he was sick, and it was just a matter of time, both his paintings and spirit live on here, and once I was able to open this gallery, I took all of my work and just wanted to have it here now,” said Benzel. “That’s not saying I’m not looking for opportunities with galleries, but I just felt like it was a good time to get it all here, and get a nice perspective of where I am as an artist. And hopefully move forward, which is always the goal. The goal is just to get a little bit better and to move forward.”
A Place Called Home
However, Benzel is hardly a stranger to Marion County in central Florida, he would come down to Ocala, accompanying his father to see the babies being broken, and eventually take part in the process.
“I’ll never forget, we used to fly down and it was always an amazing trip, and we would go out and see our horses train and have hopes that they would be our next champion, obviously as I progressed, I would come here to Ocala and actually work,” said Benzel.
The city has always played a role in Benzel’s life, a place where he wouldn’t stay for very long, visiting one of the places to have earned the designation of Horse Capital of the World, even when he was based in Dubai, he came to Ocala with Zee Bros. When his father became ill, John Benzel knew he wanted to be in Ocala.
“He had lived in Ocala for close to seven or eight years, and produced art work here, so this was a special place for him during retirement,” said Benzel. “He has a lot of friends here and just felt really connected to Ocala. At the time, I was taking care of him and doing anything he needed.”
The father and son opened the gallery for a place for the men to paint, expanding the space, with John Benzel’s experience as an architect allowing him to draw up plans and he was able to see the project up to completion.
“He saw what it was going to be, and the paint was literally drying on the walls, before he unfortunately had to go to hospice, and a week later, he passed,” said Benzel. “He was well-aware that it was on its way. I would use it for many things, events, I teach out of here, and at the same time, it’s very manageable, in the way that if I have to go somewhere, it’s not much overhead that I have to worry about that.”
The art world is evolving allowing for far more flexibility in terms of marketing, with much of the networking being done online, where people don’t necessarily have to come to an artist’s gallery if they’re interested in buying a piece, said Benzel.
“I think overall that’s a positive,” said Benzel. “It’s kind of the changing scene within the art scene.”
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