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From Vietnam to Kentucky Derby dreamer: Remarkable life shapes Gary West

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Gary West, along with his wife Mary, are the owners of Game Winner, one of the early favorites in this year’s Kentucky Derby. West is shown in front of Game Winner memorabilia at the couple’s Rancho Santa Fe home.
(Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune)

What did he just hear? Did that scratchy voice on the car radio really blurt out The 172nd Transportation Company? Deployed … to Vietnam? That was his Army reserve unit, which seemed quietly tucked away in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

When 20-something Gary West finally arrived to his job at the Armour & Co. meat-packing plant in neighboring Omaha, Neb., in January 1968, his mind a muddled mess, he beelined to the nearest telephone.

“I wanted to get the full story before I got too excited about anything,” said West, 73, a founder with wife, Mary, of a telecommunications empire that made them billionaires and owner of one of the favorites for this year’s Kentucky Derby, Game Winner.

“I called and talked to the highest ranking person on that day. I said, ‘I thought I just heard something on the radio.’ They said, ‘You did.’ I said, ‘Is it true?’ They said, ‘It is.’ I said, ‘We’re really going to go to Vietnam?’ They said, ‘Yeah, that’s what the orders say.’ ”

Life was beginning to find roots for West and the whip-smart, beautiful woman he met at a local dance. Things had been gloriously simple to that point, growing up walking rich Midwestern farm soil 50 miles to the northeast.

To squirrel away money as a kid, West worked at the four-lane bowling alley his parents snapped up above the Chevrolet dealership in the small, tight-knit town of Harlan, Iowa — a family or two short of 5,000 residents. He hustled along the hazardous business end of the lanes, dodging flying projectiles.

“When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I used to set pins in the daytime,” said West. “You’d jump down into the pit, load the machine back up, press a big handle down, pick the ball up and roll it back. It was a very dangerous job because pins were flying all over the place.

“At night, I would keep scores for the leagues. I’d get a nickel a person for two hours of work and there were like 10 people, so I’d get like 50 cents. My parents worked 15 hours a day. They couldn’t take a vacation because they were truly owner-operators.

“So I got my work ethic from my parents.”

But now Vietnam — a grisly conflict nearly 9,000 miles away that would claim more than 58,000 American lives — had come calling.

West already had witnessed so much blood, so much death as a young and confused “kill room” supervisor at Armour. Mary, an assistant to the chief executive, helped him land the job that required watching over the horribly unpleasant process that transformed Omaha into the meatpacking epicenter of the United States.

Thoughts tangled in his brain. If the couple rushed plans to marry before he was shipped to Fort Lewis in Washington for advanced military training, he would earn $100 more per month and could sign up for a $25,000 insurance policy.

So much to tackle and consider, before hunkering down in the dark, unforgiving wilds of the Vietnamese jungle.

So much to fear.

“On more than one occasion (during his tour) I told God, ‘If you somehow get me out of this, I will do something nice for the world,” West said recently in his Rancho Santa Fe living room, pausing as tears reddened his eyes. “I didn’t know what it was, but I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”

Grim nights, brighter futures

The owner of Game Winner, an undefeated bay colt whose quartet of victories includes the Grade I wins in the Del Mar Futurity, American Pharoah Stakes and prestigious Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, began negotiating with a higher power long before doing the same with business associates.

As a machine gunner on the back of jeeps protecting convoys — “Like in the old show, ‘Rat Patrol,’ ” West said — his job was to ward off threats at all costs with little to no cover.

“Most of the fire fights and bad stuff happened at night,” he said. “We’d literally call it circling the wagons because we would take all the semi-trucks and make a big circle out of them. Outside of that, we’d sandbag everything. Then there were people up all night to make sure the people driving the trucks could get some sleep.

“Some nights were completely uneventful. There were other nights that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

When West returned to United States after 10 months in a terrifying combat zone, he locked the nightmares away.

“I never talked to my parents when I got back. I never talked to my wife when I got back. I never talked to my friends when I got back,” said West, emotions percolating anew. “The minute I hit the ground in the U.S., I kind of deleted that entire experience out of my mind.

“As far as duty goes, I had pretty good duty in Vietnam. I’m no war hero. I was scared senseless a lot of nights. There were times I did not know if I’d be there the next day or not.

“You’ve heard the term, ‘There are no atheists in foxholes,’ right? I can tell you it’s true.”

Instead of talking, West worked.

Describing himself as “totally unqualified,” the man who dropped out of nearby Dana College before finishing a semester picked up a job as a staffing coordinator at Jennie Edmundson Hospital in Council Bluffs.

In an era of starched dresses and caps for nurses, West ensured there were enough employees filling hallways to handle patient needs. Two years later, the ambitious pin-setter desperate to bury a war that haunted him secured a promotion to assistant hospital administrator.

“It taught me a lot about caring for people and caring about people,” West said of his 10-year run.

West and his wife eventually launched West Corporation, a technologically innovative call-center company that made them rich. According to Securities and Exchange Commission records analyzed by the Omaha World-Herald, the Wests received $1.45 billion for their stake when the company went private in 2006.

The couple moved to San Diego, became full-time philanthropists and made the decision to leverage as much of their money as possible to disrupt and reshape the healthcare industry. They established the Solana Beach-based Gary and Mary West Foundation, a group Gary confirmed has awarded more than $200 million in grants to date.

Other projects include a senior-focused emergency care center model at UC San Diego’s Jacobs Medical Center fueled by an additional $12 million from the Wests, as well as the generic drug non-profit Civica Rx to combat the astronomical costs of prescription medications.

Remember, Vietnam? There was a promise to keep.

According to ProPublica.org, 99.1 percent of revenues for the Gary and Mary West Health Institute — $20,010,288 in 2016, the most recently available filing — came from self-funded contributions. Gary West told the Union-Tribune the couple, who have no children, funnel $35 million annually to the foundation to make certain it exists, “100 years from today, doing exactly what we’re doing.”

“We don’t take a penny of outside money from anybody,” he said. “The minute you start taking money from other people, there’s an expectation of, ‘OK, we gave you some money. Here’s what we want you to do.’ We want to do what we think is right and fortunately, we’ve been blessed with enough resources that we don’t have to take money from anyone.

“That way, we have no dog in the fight. We just want to help people. When Mary and I pass, 100 percent — not 99.9 percent, 100 percent — of our money goes to an endowment that is going to fund West Health’s work in perpetuity.”

One of the still-rippling results: The UCSD senior emergency unit with ambient lighting, non-slick floors and a range of creatively crafted, age-appropriate benefits became the only facility west of the Mississippi River to earn Level 1 accreditation. Another: The group launched a senior dental care facility that supplied affordable, much-needed services downtown. Meanwhile, Civica is positioned to challenge the thinking of big pharma with a network that has grown to an estimated 750 hospitals.

UCLA professor Gerald Kominski, a senior fellow at the university’s Center for Health Policy Research, said efforts like those can translate to real and lasting change.

“A foundation like this can play a very important role to help provide the initial financial support to initiatives that may not save money immediately, but certainly in the long run it can be very successful,” Kominski said.

“Partnerships between foundations and hospital systems, that’s real change. That’s commendable.”

The Wests’ plan is to essentially give their money away through targeted investments, research and collaborations in the healthcare field, with a laser focus on seniors and sky-high medicinal costs.

You hear the conviction drip from the voice of West, a man with a kind, humble veneer, enraged by America’s financially crippling healthcare ecosystem. His pact, his experiences in a Midwestern hospital, his do-something DNA has motivated him to become an unflinching agitator.

Fulfilling the sacred vow from a war-scarred jungle a half century ago, in his mind, demands action, not speeches and saber-rattling.

“The cost of the entire healthcare system is totally and completely out of control,” West said. “Our government is complicit. Our entire healthcare ecosystem, I don’t know if the world collusion is too strong, but it’s a word I would consider.

“Let’s be honest. Over the past 20 years or so, providers and payers, being insurance companies, pharmacy benefit managers, the entire med-tech industry, everything that comprises our healthcare system, has given our politicians billions of dollars. You just don’t give people billions of dollars without expectations.

“I’m one of those guys, I don’t look at what people say. I look at what people do.”

An uncommon owner of a Kentucky Derby contender with an equally uncommon vision.

You warn West that you need to ask him the toughest question yet. For someone so focused and committed to saving and enriching lives through healthcare activism, Vietnam surely presented a torturous dilemma.

Did you take lives?

“I’m sure I did, but it’s not the kind of thing where you’re shooting at targets and go look,” said West, the pain and conflict of it filling the quiet spaces. “At night, all you know is seeing muzzle flashes somewhere on the horizon. You’re shooting at those muzzle flashes. I can’t say without absolute certainty … and I don’t want to know with absolute certainty.”

West two
Game Winner, one of the early Kentucky Derby favorites owned by Gary and Mary West of Rancho Santa Fe, owns three Grade I wins: Del Mar Futurity, American Pharoah Stakes and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune

Joltin’ ‘Joe’ hooks West

When West was young, he shadowed his father to the since-shuttered Omaha track Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backwards). He developed an interest in horse racing there. Mary did, too.

The couple decided if they ever earned enough money, they’d buy a race horse. They crossed racing paths with Joe Blow, landing him for $13,500 in an early-1980s claiming race. Though Joe Blow began to pile up wins, no one claimed him back.

This hardly-average-Joe won 19 times between 1981-85, according to the American Racing Manual. West, who saddled himself to the ultimate overachieving underdog, was hooked.

“He had a knee about the size of a soccer ball with three or four screws in it,” West said. “Everybody thought this horse can’t possibly have another race in him. Well, we raced him over 100 times. He was truly a blue-collar horse. We loved him.”

As time passed and business successes mounted, the Wests gained traction in the sport and industry. West estimates they now start each year with 55 to 65 2-year-olds.

“I tell everybody the Keeneland September Sale is like the NFL draft for the Chargers,” he said.

The analogy makes particular sense, since the Wests live in the former home of one-time Chargers owner Gene Klein — a sprawling residence abutted by 229 acres Microsoft founder Bill Gates purchased from weight-loss tycoon Jenny Craig. In 1988, Klein conquered the Derby with Winning Colors.

Game Winner is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, a five-time winner of the Derby.

“That house has a lot of Derby luck to it,” Baffert said.

The best horse the Wests raced was West Coast, who won the esteemed Travers Stakes in 2017 at Saratoga, finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that fall at Del Mar and was named North America’s champion 3-year-old. But West Coast was a late bloomer who was not considered for the Triple Crown races. Game Winner has been first or second in the Derby rankings all winter.

The excitement is tempered, though. The Wests have been here before.

On the eve of the 2002 Derby, Gary West remembers seeing camera crews and track personnel crowding his barn. As West got closer he realized they were huddled around the stall of his horse Buddha, the second choice on the morning line. The track veterinarian speculated an injury causing the horse to be withdrawn could have been caused by stepping on a stone or twisting an ankle. That Derby winner’s trainer, who watched from the box next to the Wests? Baffert, with War Emblem.

The Wests had another Derby hopeful in New Year’s Day, who won the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in just his third start. But he never made it to Churchill Downs because of an injury that forced his retirement just a few weeks later. (The Wests bred and own a 3-year-old son of New Year’s Day named Maximum Security who is undefeated in three starts for trainer Jason Servis and could start next in the Florida Derby.)

“Gary’s totally prepared for that belly punch,” Baffert said. “He knows the game.”

History needles Game Winner’s chances, as well. Only two Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners — Street Sense in 2007 and Nyquist in 2016 — went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

“The only time I would get excited between now and the Kentucky Derby, God willing he gets into it, is when they’re loading into the starting gate,” West said.

Pain, promise shape plan

Since returning from Vietnam in 1969, West has not watched a single movie depicting war. That remains non-negotiable — now, and likely forever.

“You couldn’t pay me enough to watch one,” he said. “I just don’t have the stomach for it. I love veterans. I love and appreciate the military. It just brings back memories I don’t want to bring back.”

As West attempted to frame the feelings he bottled up for so long, the crushing weight of it all revealed itself in uncomfortable, glancing snapshots.

“If you’ve never been in combat, it’s almost impossible to explain,” he said. “The sights, the sounds, the smells, the absolute chaos that goes on. You’re involved in something you have zero control over.

“If you’re in the middle of nowhere and something happened, you didn’t know if you had five Viet Cong, 500 Viet Cong or 5,000 Viet Cong. And we probably never had more than 50 or 60 people involved in a convoy.”

Then West sums up the swirl of it all — the Midwestern upbringing, the darkness of Vietnam, the couple’s bold healthcare philanthropy — and now, a possible Kentucky Derby horse.

There’s much to consider, back in 1968 and today.

“I think most people would do something similar to what Mary and I are doing under the same circumstances,” Gary said. “So we’re no heroes, but we do hope to be good role models if we can.”

That promise, fully and faithfully kept.

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Up next: San Felipe Stakes

Game Winner is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in Saturday’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. The undefeated colt is expected to face at least two fellow Kentucky Derby contenders: Improbable and Gunmetal Gray. The plan calls for one more start before the May 4 Derby.

—Bryce Miller is a reporter for The San Diego-Union Tribune