Marty Wolfson Was Broke and Homeless Until a Horse Saved His Life

Marty Wolfson with a therapy horse at Mending Fences.
Photo by Katie Le
Marty Wolfson with a therapy horse at Mending Fences.

Beneath live oaks draped with Spanish moss, the lush grasslands of Marion County roll on for miles, sectioned off by two-lane highways and black wooden fences. From more than 600 farms around here come thousands of equestrian champions, show horses, quarter horses, jumpers, sport horses, and thoroughbreds. American Pharoah, winner of the Triple Crown in 2015, was trained here. This is Florida's horse country.

Marty Wolfson spent much of his boyhood here, on a 478-acre farm outside Ocala owned by his father, Louis E. Wolfson, a self-made industrialist and financier recognized as America's first corporate raider.

The elder Wolfson had a tyrannical streak, Marty's sister says. And his conviction on securities fraud charges sparked a scandal that caused the resignation of a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Still, Marty loved his dad.

"It was a dream childhood," Marty Wolfson says today. On a recent afternoon, leaning over the top rail of a paddock about a mile from the old family farm, he strokes the neck of a patient mare while reminiscing about his privileged upbringing. "Summers at the Beverly Hills Hotel, an apartment at the Hotel Pierre in New York, a home in Miami Beach. My father asked me once: 'Is there anyone you'd like to meet?' I said Muhammad Ali. So he had him and his manager, Angelo Dundee, over for dinner at our house on North Bay Road."

Though he idolized his father, Marty did not follow the path Louis had blazed into the wheeler-dealer world of high finance. Instead, the younger Wolfson made a life for himself in the arcane business of thoroughbred racing. At the age of 18, he got a trainer's license and took several of his father's horses to Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens. He would eventually become one of South Florida's most successful trainers, earning purses totaling more than $53 million. He did not win the Triple Crown, as his father did in 1978 as the owner of Affirmed, but in 2006 a horse that Marty trained, Miesque's Approval, won the $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile at Gulfstream Park.

At the peak of his success, Wolfson and his now-ex-wife Karla owned a five-acre farm in Southwest Ranches and a second home in Ocala. In demand as a trainer, he traveled across the United States and Canada to watch his horses run. And because he had become one of the winningest trainers in the nation, there was always plenty of money.

"I was riding high," Wolfson says, "until I fell."

Today, at the age of 67, a very different Marty Wolfson is back in Marion County horse country. Earlier this year, he was struck by debilitating depression. He had been hit with a string of losses on the track, and a number of longtime clients deserted him. He also had a drug problem, battling a dependency on the powerful opioid oxycodone, which had been prescribed to him by his doctor to treat chronic neck and back pain.

His spiral continued when in February he was ousted from his barn at Gulfstream Park. In horse-racing lingo, Wolfson had been "ruled off" at the track when the firm that owns Gulfstream accused him of failing to pay staff and vendors.

By early summer, Wolfson — then destitute and homeless — made a desperate late-night phone call to Rob Miller, a horse owner and longtime client. Miller had turned his farm near Ocala into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

"He said he'd been evicted, didn't have a car, money, or food," says Miller, a developer who owns a Jupiter marina. "He had nothing." Miller insisted Wolfson check into his Mending Fences Recovery Center.

But before he was allowed to begin therapy, Wolfson underwent a three-day detox program to kick his addiction to painkillers.

"I was in denial from day one," he says. "I think I'm still in denial. I did not think of myself as an addict. I've been such a health nut all my life. I did not realize all the things [the drug] could do. Opiates clutter your thinking."

Ironies abound in the story of Wolfson's fall from grace. He was a rich kid who ended up broke. He was a painfully shy young man who later posed nude for a national magazine. And for years he succeeded as a horse trainer before finding himself at a rural recovery farm where he was paired with a thoroughbred that raced but rarely won. In the end, the 11-year-old gelding would save Wolfson's life by demanding nothing at all from him.

click to enlarge Allissa Volpe and Wolfson met at the gym. - PHOTO BY KATIE LE
Allissa Volpe and Wolfson met at the gym.
Photo by Katie Le

Martin D. Wolfson was born in 1951, the youngest of Louis Wolfson's four children. Raised in Miami Beach, he attended Miami Beach High, where he gave up baseball to concentrate on weightlifting, a solitary hobby he would pursue all his life. For years he worked out hours each day, carefully monitored his diet, and, save for a brief flirtation with steroids, eschewed drugs.

He competed in bodybuilding and weightlifting competitions into his 20s. In the early '70s, at 181 pounds, he was Florida champion in bench press and ranked seventh in the nation in his weight division, Wolfson says. The top weight he lifted: 480 pounds. "I was extremely strong," he says.

Wolfson speaks in a soft monotone that reflects his shy, reserved personality. "Marty had a rough time all his life," says his sister, Marcia Elise Wolfson. "Not financially. Emotionally. As a child, he was very insecure."

Though he disputes some of his sister's characterization of his childhood, Wolfson admits there were many troubling events during his teenage years. As he entered high school, photos of his father — well known thanks to his success orchestrating hostile corporate takeovers — began turning up regularly in newspapers and on television. In the '60s, Louis Wolfson learned he was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for the sale of unregistered stock in a company he controlled.

In 1966, Life magazine broke a story revealing that a year after President Lyndon Johnson appointed private-practice attorney Abe Fortas to the U.S. Supreme Court, Fortas accepted a $20,000-per-year post with the Wolfson Foundation. That payment, the Washington Post wrote at the time, was "reportedly the first of what would have been a lifetime guarantee for Fortas and was widely seen as a bribe in the event that Mr. Wolfson would come before the high court."

In 1967, Louis Wolfson was convicted of 19 counts of conspiracy and illegal stock sales. The following year, Marty's mother Florence died of cancer. (Marty's family is unrelated to the Wolfsons who gave their names to the downtown campus of Miami Dade College and a South Beach museum.)

In April 1969 — weeks before Marty's high-school graduation — his father went off to serve nine months at the federal minimum-security prison at Eglin Air Force Base, called "Club Fed," in the Florida Panhandle. In May 1969, Fortas resigned from the court in a cloud of controversy and under the threat of impeachment.

"[It's] why I got so good at lifting," Wolfson says of the stress of his father's struggles. "I wanted to be in the gym all the time."

Marty visited his father two or three times in prison. "It was very difficult," he says. "I had put him on a pedestal, and then to see him in a jail outfit."

At the age of 21, as his career as a horse trainer began to take off, Wolfson wed his high-school sweetheart. The marriage would last just a year and a half, and soon after the split, Wolfson's best friend — then working for Louis Wolfson on his farm — was killed in a plane crash.

Marty Wolfson was never much for socializing. He admits he's made few friends over the years. Throughout most of his life, he would rise early to go to the track, put his horses through their paces, and then head to the gym to lift weights. He did not go to nightclubs. He did not engage in politics. He says he mostly kept his head down and his mouth shut.

"It was very difficult. I had put my father on a pedestal, and then to see him in a jail outfit."

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But in 1978, the same year his father won the Triple Crown with Affirmed, Marty made a public splash by posing nude in Playgirl magazine. He was working in New Jersey, he says, "and they were going around to gyms, soliciting males who had muscles. I was single at the time, so I did it."

Although Wolfson maintains his decision was neither an act of rebellion nor a reaction to his father's success, he knows the photos of him — early Beatles haircut, ice-blue eyes, completely naked — hurt the elder Wolfson. "It upset him," he says. "We never talked about it. But I knew he was disappointed. And I regret it."

In her 2016 self-published biography of her father, titled Super Lou! The Story of Louis E. Wolfson, America's First Corporate Raider, Marcia Wolfson writes, "Marty, the youngest child, is movie star handsome in his father's image. But he incurs Lou's disapproval after he poses nude in Playgirl Magazine in 1978, the year of Affirmed's victories in the Triple Crown. Marty goes on to become a successful horse trainer, but he refuses to work with his father."

Wolfson again disputes some of his sister's account. He says he did not refuse to work with his father, and late in Louis Wolfson's life, Marty did train horses for him at Harbor View Farm. But Marty was the author of his own success, learning from renowned trainers who worked for his father and then from the horses themselves. "I always treated every horse individually," he says, adding that he fashioned a workout regimen for each.

In his nearly 50-year career, horses Wolfson trained have racked up 1,682 wins from 9,059 starts, earning $53.6 million, according to Equibase, a data collection agency. His best year was 2009, when he won 67 races in 275 starts, and horses he saddled earned $4.2 million. Wolfson was "in some ways, the quintessential supertrainer," racing journalist Andrew Beyer wrote in the Washington Post in 2009. "He wins races at a phenomenal rate; when he acquires horses, they frequently improve by many lengths over the best previous form of their lives."

One of the first signs of trouble in what appeared to be a charmed life came in 2015, when Wolfson's horses stopped winning. That year, only 29 of his 197 starts came in first, a win rate of just under 15 percent. The following year, his winners dipped again, to below 13 percent of 127 starts.

The mounting losses on the track came in the wake of the collapse of Wolfson's 35-year marriage to Karla. The two separated in 2011. When the divorce was final, she was awarded the properties in Broward County and Ocala, along with nine miniature donkeys, two thoroughbreds, and two ponies. He received some cash in the settlement, which he says he spent recklessly.

"I lost all track of everything," he says. "I was using up the money, not thinking of the future. It was self-destructive."

By 2017, everything started to fall apart.

Wolfson says his troubles began with what might have been a routine streak of bad luck: Horses didn't win, bills came due, clients were slow to pay, then they drifted away.

"Trainers work on small margins," Gulfstream Park steward Steve DiMauro says. "If you have clients who don't pay for a couple of months, you can be under. You're scrambling. It's a constant, daily thing. It's a tough business."

Wolfson says his spirit was broken. With only a handful of horses to train, he cut back on his hours at the track. By this past February, he had stopped going all together. He was also using oxycodone. "I didn't know how it was affecting me," he says.

"He went into such a deep depression," says Allissa Volpe, whom Wolfson met at a Cooper City gym where they both worked out. The two are now engaged. "He was so depressed he didn't want to race, didn't want to be at the track. It was a downward spiral. His spirit was crushed. It broke his self-confidence; he lost his way."

He was also losing weight. By June, his depression was so deep he had even stopped working out.

"I could hardly get out of bed," he says. "It was a feeling of not wanting to do anything with your life, just hopelessness, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Not suicidal in my case, but not caring if you live or die."

"He incurs Lou's disapproval after he poses nude in Playgirl Magazine in 1978."

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After Wolfson's phone call for help in June, Miller sent him enough money to rent a car and drive five hours north to Marion County. He arrived at Mending Fences July 9 with a suitcase of clothing and one of his most prized possessions: a framed photograph, taken in 1961, of him sitting between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in the dugout at Yankee Stadium.

"I have a lot of pictures and trophies, all in storage, but this picture means a lot to me," he says. "It represents the great times I had as a youth, the situation I was in, and things I was able to do because of the father I had."

Mending Fences takes its name from a racehorse owned by Miller's Farnsworth Stables and once trained by Wolfson. On May 19, 2007, the 5-year-old horse — winner of seven of 27 starts — was running in the lead at the Dixie Stakes at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course when she turned an ankle, suffering a compound fracture. She was later euthanized. Her death was a blow to both Wolfson and Miller.

"It was a devastating loss," Wolfson says.

A year earlier, Miller had opened a therapy center, Kesmarc Florida, as a facility to rehabilitate horses. In 2012, a horse being treated inside a hyperbaric chamber kicked the sides of the enclosure, producing a spark that triggered an explosion. The horse and an employee, a 28-year-old woman, were killed.

Miller said he could not bring himself to rebuild the facility. Instead, after seeing the movie Crazy Heart, in which Jeff Bridges plays an addicted country music star who is saved by a stint in rehab, Miller decided to use horses to help people.

Mending Fences bases its rehab program on "equine-facilitated psychotherapy," in which those with addictions are partnered with a horse they choose to work with throughout their eight-week residential stay. Clients do not ride the horses but spend 90 minutes each day grooming, feeding, and walking their four-legged partners.

"Horses are biofeedback machines, prey animals who mirror the energy and the mood that the human is bringing," says Terri Libera, director of equine therapy at Mending Fences. In turn, the horses help patients recognize how their nonverbal cues might affect their relationship with others.

The horse inside the chamber and an employee, a 28-year-old woman, were killed.

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Wolfson knew he wanted to partner with a thoroughbred, not a plow horse or a jumper. He recognized one named Michael Rules, against whom he'd previously competed.

In a less-than-stellar four-year career, "Mikey," as Wolfson calls him, won only four times in 21 starts and earned less than $80,000.

Like any retired thoroughbred, Mikey is no longer a high-strung, excitable athlete itching to burst from the stall to compete. Still, Wolfson says, "he was a thoroughbred racehorse and had the mentality of a racehorse: smart, quirky. But because of his age, he was in a more relaxed mode. I never put a halter on him. He just stood there next to me."

With Mikey, Wolfson would build a relationship unlike any he'd had with the thousands of horses he had trained over the years. "It was a matter of trust," he says. "We trusted each other. And being with him each day, and his personality, made me realize I didn't want to do anything else except work with horses."

Wolfson says that in a half-century spent around horses, he'd never heard one speak directly to him. Or perhaps, he says, it wasn't until his time at Mending Fences that he learned to listen.

"I think I was getting the rewards of therapy [while training horses], but I didn't know it was therapy," he says.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KATIE LE
Photo by Katie Le

Wolfson emerged from treatment in August to find himself centered and more at peace than he's been in years.

"I have never seen him look better," Mending Fences' owner, Miller, says.

Adds Wolfson's fiancée, Volpe: "His confidence is back. He's laughing again."

Wolfson is now the manager of racing operations at the 106-acre Ocala farm Stonewall's Prestige Stallions, where he also lives.

"I had heard of him, like most in this business, as being a miracle man with horses," owner Richard Haisfield says. "He is a guy who's had a spectacular career and run into some hard times. He got his act together. I'm optimistic."

"It gets a little scary. I probably wouldn't be able to see that child grow to be in college."

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Volpe, who at 32 years old is 35 years Marty's junior, plans to move north to join Wolfson on the farm. And, the two say, they want to have a child — something Wolfson says he'd never wanted before.

"If it worked out that way, I'm not against it," he says. "It gets a little scary. I probably wouldn't be able to see that child grow to be in college."

Wolfson is now conditioning 27 young thoroughbreds to go into training at various racetracks, but he says he doesn't plan to watch them race as he once did. "Too much pressure," he says. "I want to stay here in the country."

He says he can see himself going back to the racetrack on occasion — "Maybe Kentucky or New York," he says — just not in South Florida, where the pain of his ignominious departure from Gulfstream still lingers.

"When I got here in July, I thought I would never have anything to do with horses again," Wolfson says. "When I started therapy, I wrote down a plan, what I wanted: to manage and live on a farm. I'm lucky it worked out for me. Now I just want to start a new life."