05/09/2012 2:20PM

Hovdey: Gutierrez gives agent Puhich a needed boost

Tom Keyser
Mario Gutierrez (above) is represented by the veteran agent Ivan Puhich.

Yes, that was some kind of smoke belching from a garage nestled beneath the intersection of the 210 and 605 freeways one evening late last December in the little town of Duarte, just down the road from Santa Anita Park. Car fire? Nope. Hooch still? Not hardly. It was just another one of those come-as-you-are racetrack barbecues, this one in honor of Cousin Mike’s birthday thrown by Mike’s Big Uncle Ivan and his pal, Lalo the Mechanic.

The steaks were sizzling and stories rolling when at one point somebody thought Big Uncle Ivan needed to meet the new kid, named Mario. They hit it off, and not long after that they cut a deal as jockey and jockey’s agent. Then four months later they won the Kentucky Derby.

It’s not quite as simple as that, but almost. A couple weeks is all it took for Ivan Puhich to be in the right place at the right time when Doug O’Neill needed a jockey for a key workout aboard I’ll Have Another, the best 3-year-old in the barn. After 1 1/16 miles in the Robert Lewis Stakes on Feb. 4 at Santa Anita, it was crystal clear to O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam that Ivan’s rider, the unsung Mario Gutierrez, fit the 43-1 winner I’ll Have Another like a glove. When they came right back to win the Santa Anita Derby in early April, the story already had its fairytale ending.

Then one month later they won the Kentucky Derby.

For Gutierrez, 25, the future is bright and the sky should be the limit. For Puhich, who owns to 85 or so, the satisfaction of winning a Kentucky Derby is tempered only by the fact that so much water has run under so many bridges, and that reaching the heights of his lifelong profession comes less than a year after slogging through depths you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

Basking in the glow of his jockey’s Derby glory – not to mention his $100 future book ticket on I’ll Have Another at 100-1 – this is the same Ivan Puhich who first broke cover in the racing press 60 years ago when Daily Racing Form ’s Oscar Otis had this note at the tail-end of his May 17, 1952, column from Pimlico:

“One of the best human interest stories of this year’s Preakness concerns 18-year-old, 196-pound Ivan Puhich of Seattle, who hitch-hiked here from California to get a job as hotwalker for Arroz’s trainer, Wally Dunn. If Arroz wins, he will get a stake which will help him on one of the most bizarre careers we have ever heard of, combination of horseman in the morning, prize fighter of an evening. Puhich, only recently discharged from the Marines, fought some 22 bouts in the service, including eliminations in the all Navy championships. He is not a green pea with horses, either, having grown up near Longacres and walking hots there before entering the service.”

Arroz finished seventh, but Otis got it right, except for Ivan’s age, which would have made him 11 when he landed with the 6th Division of the U.S. Marines on the Japanese Island of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. Not that he couldn’t have made it as a Marine at 11, surrounded as he was on both sides by four tough brothers growing up around the racetracks of the Northwest. Puhich joined the Marines at 17 – at least that’s what his doctored baptismal certificate said – and somehow survived that first invasion of sovereign Japanese soil and the nightmarish hilltop assaults of Half Moon, Horseshoe, and Sugar Loaf. The 6th Division alone took 2,000 casualties.

“The Marines went to the north part of the island and the Army went to the south,” Puhich said. “The north was where the worst fighting was, then the Army got bogged down in the south. So they sent the Marines to help ’em out. But that’s enough about the war. Let’s talk about horse racing.”

As an agent, Puhich is known for his association with Bill Mahorney, a first-rate journeyman who enjoyed a long career. More recently, Puhich was the man behind 2000 Eclipse Award winning apprentice Tyler Baze, who seemed on track for a frutiful career until he was derailed by injuries, alcohol, and weight. Baze was going well when Puhich gave up his book in 2007 to deal with his own health. He still feels a deep emotional attachment to the young rider.

“With the exception of Garrett Gomez, I think Tyler could be the best rider out here,” Puhich said. “If he can beat his problem with alcohol, he could make it back as good as ever. I know it’s tough, but look at Garrett. He did it.”

In July 2011, Puhich underwent surgery for colon cancer. About that same time he suffered the death of his son, Steve Puhich, at age 51 from a heart attack. The combination sent Puhich into a dark funk that concerned his friends. Idled, well into his 80s and without a jockey to represent for the longest stretch of his life, Puhich was in a bad place.

“You’re not supposed to bury your child,” said Mike Puhich, who runs Dr. Mark Dedomenico’s Pegasus Training Center in Washington. “That hit him hard. And there were also complications of his surgery. It turned out he went back to his routine of sit-ups too soon and tore his stitches inside. Still, we were worried about him. He started giving some of his racing pictures away, things like that.”

Then, come last December, Ivan and his pal Lalo the Mechanic threw Mike that impromptu birthday party and Mike invited Mario, who’d been leading rider at Hastings Park but was virtually anonymous at Santa Anita.

“I hadn’t worked for a year and a half,” Puhich said. “I was so bored I didn’t care if I lived or died. I told Mario I’d watch him ride and take his book if I liked what I saw.”

He did.

“I told Mario three things,” Mike Puhich said. “One, you’ll feel like you’re working for Ivan instead of the other way around. Two, you ask him the time and he’ll tell you how to make a watch. And three, don’t ever let him drive you anywhere.

“So one day I get a call,” Mike added. “Ivan had driven them to Hollywood for a work. ‘I see what you mean,’ Mario said. ‘I feel lucky to be alive.’ After that, Mario figuring out how to win the Kentucky Derby from the 19-hole had to be easy.”

Ivan Puhich can take all the ribbing you can dish out because he is 85, he’s been a racetracker all his life, he beat cancer and depression, and there are still pieces of ground on the island of Okinawa that bear the memory of his boots. As agent, he made more in those two minutes of the Kentucky Derby than in any other race in his life, but if asked he’ll tell you it was the $100 future book bet made on the faith he had in his new jockey that tastes best.

“I give all the credit to the colt, and to Mario, and to Doug O’Neill for being a man of his word sticking with us,” Puhich said. “You know they were coming at him from all sides trying to get on this horse after Mario won with him the first time.”

Puhich watched the Derby alone at home in Monrovia. The first person to call him after Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another hit the wire was Tyler Baze.

“He gave me congratulations,” Puhich said. “I told him it could have been you.”

True enough. But this one belonged to Ivan.