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Greta Kuntzweiler's second chance
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - At her lowest point, Greta Kuntzweiler just couldn't believe how she had thrown it all away. She was in jail, charged with complicity in the making and dealing of the drug crystal meth, and was wallowing in a pool of shame and desperation.
It was November 2006, a year since Kuntzweiler had ridden in a horse race. Swept up in depression, personal problems, a stalled career, and drug addiction, she already had been arrested for drug possession some 10 months earlier, but thanks to a clean record and some capable lawyering, she had skated.
"I had no perspective, especially after I got in trouble the first time, then got rescued," Kuntzweiler said. "I wanted to do right, but I wasn't willing to let everything go. I picked back up and got in trouble again. After that, there was no way out."
Kuntzweiler's tale of free-falling from standout jockey to jailhouse inmate is troubling, although the epilogue has yet to be written. Earlier this month, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission agreed to allow Kuntzweiler to resume her riding career, albeit under stringent conditions. The blueprint of her story is not unfamiliar. More heralded jockeys such as Pat Day, Pat Valenzuela, and Garrett Gomez have gone down rocky roads before her.
Today, as Kuntzweiler continues to rebuild her life and career at age 34, she wants nothing more than to prove she is worthy of being granted another chance. She knows she has hurt herself and others deeply. She knows she has squandered the kinds of gifts few ever receive. She knows she is an addict who can never succumb to temptation again.
No more excuses.
"I'm taking these little steps now," she said, adding that a nationally recognized 12-step program "has really helped me. It took me some time to be accepting of that."
Kuntzweiler said she has good memories of her childhood and that her family has always been supportive.
Born in Iowa on Sept. 7, 1975, she was the second of three children to Dr. Doug Kuntzweiler and his wife, Ann. When Greta was 9, the family moved to Montana, where, she said, a happy childhood continued to unfold with love and possessions aplenty, including horses.
"Greta always had a love for horses, and she was riding by age 3 or 4," Ann Kuntzweiler said recently from San Francisco, where her other daughter, Erin, lives. "She was just infatuated with them. When we moved to Montana she finally had her own horse, and that started her on the road to her lifelong dream."
In 1996, Kuntzweiler left Montana for a three-day drive to an Indiana riding school she had read about in Horse Illustrated, only to find when she arrived that the school didn't exist. She eventually got a job galloping horses on a farm in LaGrange, Ky. Her career in racing had begun.
Kuntzweiler worked as an exercise rider for several years before riding in her first race at the 1999 Churchill Downs spring meet. She caught on quickly enough. Riding with the weight allowances afforded apprentices while sticking to a year-round Kentucky circuit, she won 108 races in 2000 and was one of three finalists for the Eclipse Award for top apprentice in North America.
Among her other career highlights were a riding title at the 2002 winter-spring meet at Turfway Park, a victory aboard Freefourinternet in the $750,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup in the fall of 2004, and a ride in the 2005 Kentucky Oaks aboard
She also enjoyed the benefits of fame that sometimes come with her profession. She filmed a glitzy Volvo commercial in Portugal, and she still gets a kick out of talking about her glamour shot as "Girl Crush of the Month" in the now-defunct Jane magazine.
"Greta had a lot going for her," said Bob Nastanovich, who was her agent and boyfriend for about the last two years she was active as a jockey. "She became known as a good, competent, capable rider. She was really smart, a good listener, very well-liked."
Friends and relatives say the day of the 2004 Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park in Texas was a major factor in Kuntzweiler getting hooked on drugs. She rode in the Breeders' Cup for the first and only time when Freefourinternet, off that win at Hawthorne, was sent away at 54-1 in the Classic. The horse barely got out of a gallop, trailing by as many as 35 lengths at one point before finishing last.
"A loooong way back to a lackadaisical Freefourinternet," race-caller Tom Durkin said in his first run-through of the field.
It was an embarrassing performance on a big stage, but its effects were nothing compared to what happened later that night.
"We were all out to eat after the races," said Patti Cooksey, a fellow jockey who mentored and befriended Kuntzweiler through much of her career. "Greta and her mom left the table and were gone for a long time. When they came back you could tell Greta had been crying and was very upset."
Ann Kuntzweiler had told her daughter that she and Doug, her husband of 35 years, were getting a divorce.
"I wanted to wait until after the race to tell her so as not to distract her from what she had to do that day," Ann said. "It was crushing. That was a very, very hard weekend for all of us."
"Her parents were her rock," Cooksey said of Greta. "When they split, it just devastated her."
In the weeks and months that followed, the shattering of her nuclear family haunted Greta. "I didn't know how to deal with that," she said.
Path to addiction
Crystal methamphetamine is an extremely addictive man-made stimulant with euphoric effects. Known on the street as "ice," it is widely acknowledged as the most wicked of abused recreational drugs, reaching into an entirely different stratum than garden-variety drink or dope.
The path that led Kuntzweiler to crystal meth might well have started with pain pills, which Kuntzweiler acknowledged abusing. She suffered three notable injuries in her career: a broken ankle suffered in an October 2000 race at Keeneland, a fractured vertebra in a morning training accident in May 2002 at Churchill Downs, and a badly separated shoulder in an August 2003 spill at Ellis Park in which another female rider, Remi Gunn, was paralyzed for life.
Besides the physical pain, Kuntzweiler also was under the constant stress most jockeys have to endure. She was getting out of a seven-year relationship with a man she had been dating since she arrived in Kentucky. She also was feeling guilty about what happened to Gunn.
Gunn was on a horse who clipped heels and fell, which in turn brought down a trailing horse ridden by Kuntzweiler. Gunn suffered a severe spinal cord injury. A 50-year-old mother of four, she now lives near Ocala, Fla., paralyzed from the chest down.
"I never got a chance to say anything to Remi about being sorry," Kuntzweiler said. "I never reached out to her. I never resolved it, and I feel guilty about it."
"Being a jockey is a tremendously stressful occupation," said Doug Kuntzweiler, an internist at St. Peter's Hospital in Helena, Mont. "It's tough physically, and you're on the road a lot. It's difficult to have a normal life. There's the politics of racing, where you're getting taken off horses; owners and trainers and other jockeys are talking behind your back; and the fans are disappointed with you. I'm not blaming anybody. That's just the way it is, with a lot of emotional ups and downs."
Nastanovich said he believes the Ellis spill might have led Kuntzweiler to be a little less daring when she returned later that year.
"She probably came back a little too quick," he said. "I think she was still kind of hurt. She just wasn't the same, it seemed. In hindsight, I really think that's when things started to go down for her."
In 2004, Nastanovich and Kuntzweiler left Kentucky. Kuntzweiler won with 12 of 151 mounts that winter at Oaklawn Park and with 9 of 136 at Arlington Park that spring and summer. Moving over to Hawthorne in Chicago that fall, things didn't get much better. Before the Hawthorne Gold Cup, she had lost 41 consecutive races.
"She'd really been down about how business was going," Nastanovich said.
Kuntzweiler finished Hawthorne with a record of 10 for 170. It was during that time that she learned her parents were splitting, "and she was just really in kind of a funk," Nastanovich said.
"Bob and I went to Chicago, and I really struggled," Kuntzweiler said. "I got burnt out. I just wanted to stop. I was working so hard and not getting anywhere. I just wanted to go back to galloping horses for a while."
In 2005, Kuntzweiler began riding in fewer races while still exercising horses in the morning. She also began seeing Bryan Beccia, a racetrack veteran who had worked many years as an exercise rider and competed sparingly as a jockey. Beccia got his 15 minutes of fame in the business as the regular exercise rider of the 2001 Kentucky Derby winner, Monarchos. Beccia also had a past checkered with numerous drug convictions.
In the meantime, Kuntzweiler became distant with Nastanovich.
"I had to go overseas for a couple of weeks, and when I got back, I could tell things weren't right," Nastanovich said. "I went to the track one day, and the first person I know is an agent who says, 'Hey, did you know that Greta is messing around with Bryan Beccia?' That's how I found out about it."
Kuntzweiler rode in 244 races that year, winning 12. Her last win came in August at Ellis, and her last mount resulted in a fourth-place finish Nov. 23, 2005, at Churchill. Her career record stood at 425 of 4,677.
For the rest of the year, she galloped horses in the morning and saw more of Beccia. She also was smoking crystal meth more often.
Kuntzweiler said she was sleeping Jan. 7, 2006, when police awoke her in the apartment she and Beccia rented in the Churchill Downs neighborhood. She was charged with various offenses related to drug possession and manufacture, but on April 3, with the late, well-connected Bob Stallings as her attorney, the charges were amended in Jefferson District Court to disorderly conduct and a minimal fine.
It was the break she didn't need. She and Beccia soon resumed their old ways. They got married in October 2006 at a Justice of the Peace in a Louisville suburb. Then, on Nov. 21, the couple was arrested again, this time at a Churchill-area house they had moved into.
"I was in the backyard raking leaves or something," Kuntzweiler said. "The cops had already gotten Bryan in his car close to the house, and then they came back and got me. Then they go through the house and start finding stuff."
Kuntzweiler was jailed for 10 days before being freed on house arrest. On June 21, 2007, she pleaded guilty to trafficking in a controlled substance and use and possession of drug paraphernalia. On Aug. 3, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all of it suspended subject to five years of supervised probation and her meeting the requirements of drug rehabilitation.
Beccia, meanwhile, was sentenced to 25 years on more serious charges of manufacturing and trafficking, his prior offenses being a mitigating factor in the length of his term. He will be eligible for parole in 2012. Beccia, now 45, is living in a halfway house near Ashland, Ky., where he is enrolled in a work-release program, employed by Goodwill.
Kuntzweiler said she and Beccia have been divorced for about two years but that she occasionally speaks to him by phone.
"He's doing good," she said.
Road to recovery
Sometime after her arrests and sentencing, Kuntzweiler began working as an exercise rider at the Skylight training center, a quiet Thoroughbred outpost located some 25 miles east of Louisville. Ian Wilkes, Tom Drury, and the training center manager, Donnie Grego, train horses at Skylight, where employees are not required to be licensed by the state because it is a private facility.
Kuntzweiler worked primarily for Grego, who said he has had "maybe a half-dozen jocks in her same kind of situation" over the years, including Tracy Hebert.
"Greta was pretty rough when she first got here," Grego said. "Very stressed out. But she's got good people behind her, and she's been a great employee in every way. She's really done well."
Six days a week, with Sundays off, Kuntzweiler has arrived at Skylight at about 6:30 a.m. and stayed until about 10, getting on anywhere from 11 to 15 horses, mostly 2-year-olds.
Of course, her afternoon and evening routines have changed dramatically. She underwent intensive rehabilitation through the Jefferson County Adult Drug Program, and since she completed that four-phase program in January, she has continued to regularly attend meetings. As part of the community service she was ordered to undertake as part of her sentencing, she became heavily involved in a place called Creative Diversity, a non-profit art studio where she helped people with disabilities.
Her nights are mostly spent at a martial-arts gym, where her boyfriend Trey, whom she met in rehab, is the manager. Kuntzweiler is an active boxing participant and credits the discipline of the sport with making her "as fit as I've ever been in my life."
She and Trey live in a small house in the Germantown area of Louisville with their two cats and two dogs. "We stay busy," she said.
"Creative Diversity has been very helpful for Greta in her recovery," Ann Kuntzweiler said. "She loves that work and the artists she works with."
Coming to terms
In rehab, Kuntzweiler spent much of the last three-plus years rehashing and re-evaluating her life. She said the dark days that led to her arrests are something of a blur.
"Looking back, it makes me sad how I convinced myself that it was OK to use," she said. "Being out of contact with my family . . . When I was into the drugs, I wasn't thinking of anything."
Kuntzweiler said she mostly smoked meth "in isolation."
"Bryan was out doing his thing, always running," she said. "I'd use, then trip on something. You get fixed on something, trying to be creative. Usually painting. I painted all the walls in the house a few times, spray-painted all the furniture - bed frames, night stands, shelves, whatever was around."
She said she had no appetite and that her weight dipped to about 92 pounds. She now weighs about 110.
"I was depressed, and the only thing that would make me feel good was getting high," she said. "Once I was off it, it was hard to feel good again. It's like dopamine - it gives you that kind of sensation. It took a long time for my brain to repair itself."
Among the people who attempted to reach out to Kuntzweiler during her downward spiral was Cooksey, who retired from riding in 2004 and now works as director of public relations for the racing commission.
"She just wasn't in the frame of mind to accept any help," said Cooksey, who in the early 2000's spent a week with her daughter visiting the Kuntzweiler family in Montana. "Greta was always one to think she could handle things herself. I tried to let her know I was there as a friend if she needed it, but it wasn't going to do any good, as long as she was in that situation.
"Her parents are wonderful people," Cooksey said. "The whole thing was heartbreaking for me. She was like a little sister to me. Oh my gosh, I loved that kid. It broke my heart."
Kuntzweiler said she realizes how she unfairly shut out everyone around her.
"Addiction touches so many people," she said. "I hope someone can see where I was and that the situation can be turned around. You feel so desperate when you're in it, that it's never going to get better."
There is always the risk of relapse where addiction is involved, so, of course, the conditional license the racing commission granted Kuntzweiler on June 15 includes the usual safeguards against her using drugs again, including random screenings.
All the testimonials favor her staying straight.
Joel Turner, a noted equine attorney who has been involved in numerous high-profile cases in Kentucky over the years and represents Kuntzweiler, owns three fillies trained by Drury and is a regular visitor to Skylight.
"If I had not personally observed her over the last year, and had I not spoken with those who employed her during her recovery, I would not have considered taking her before the commission," Turner said. "Her missteps led her to some serious self-evaluation, resulting in a much better outlook on life. I am confident she will be able to return to race-riding successfully."
Before her rehabilitation was complete, Kuntzweiler had twice attempted to get an exercise rider's license but was rebuffed by the racing commission.
"I've seen a big change in her," said Marc Guilfoil, deputy executive director for the commission and a member of the licensing review committee that approved her reinstatement. "You can tell she is speaking from the heart. I'm very satisfied with what we've agreed on with her."
Said Doug Kuntzweiler: "Greta has always been a good person and a hard worker. She'd had a lot of success as a jockey but just wasn't quite where she wanted to be. She was quite frustrated. Her getting involved in drugs was more a rebellion than anything else, it seemed to me.
"Everybody makes mistakes," he said. "Hers was a big mistake. One of the first things she said to me after her arrests and getting into rehab was that she was really kind of glad it happened because she really had to reevaluate herself and her values. She felt like, in the long run, it made her look at herself honestly.
"I'm proud of her for going through all that," he said. "She worked hard in her recovery, and I think she's a stronger person, a better person."
Back in the saddle
Last Saturday, with her paperwork for reinstatement from the racing commission having cleared a few days before, Kuntzweiler returned to working the backstretch at Churchill, saying hello to old friends and colleagues while letting it be known that she will be competing again soon. Her return was set for Thursday, June 24, at Churchill, where she was named on three horses by her new agent, "Big Steve" Krajcir.
Kuntzweiler said she has no illusions of becoming a leading jockey anytime soon and only hopes that many of her former supporters will be using her riding services.
"I've really missed the competition, but I don't want to come back and struggle," she said. "Being off has opened me up to there being a whole other world out there besides racing. There are other things in life I could accomplish. I just want to stay busy, see how it is now that I'm mentally and physically where I want to be."
With only a few days left in the Churchill meet, Kuntzweiler sees the summer meet at Ellis, which runs from July 10 to Sept. 6, as an ideal place for her comeback to gain momentum. The competition is not as strong at the Hendersonville, Ky., track, the spotlight not as bright, the pressure to immediately succeed not as intense. She said she has been toughened by working with temperamental young horses at Skylight, where she has taken a number of spills in the last few years, and by her training with Trey at the gym.
"I guess I'll see how I feel once I get out there," she said, adding with a laugh: "I've bought real estate all over Skylight. All I know is I've felt really confident about going back. I feel like I'll be really aggressive, which is due to what I've done the last year or so with the boxing."
Redemption at hand
Loss, suffering, forgiveness, redemption. These are common threads in some of the most compelling stories of American life. Now Kuntzweiler has earned another chance to turn her life around.
"Our family, like many families, has been through some very difficult losses," Ann Kuntzweiler said. "We all dealt with it in our own way. What I've learned over the last four-plus years is that things happen to people, and you pick up and go ahead and make choices that get you to a healthier place.
"Greta has worked really hard at doing that," she said. "She made numerous choices that were not in her best interest, but she also made the choice to work on her life and do what she needed to do to be where she is now."
Greta is realistic and candid about the poor choices she made. She acknowledges there is no one to blame but herself - not the injuries or the riding slumps or her parents' divorce or even Beccia. She has spent countless hours tallying up the damage and assessing just how to begin making repairs.
"I'm really grateful the commission has given me a second chance," she said. "Now it's up to me to do what's right."
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