06/23/2017 2:20PM

Hovdey: No tale was too tall to measure Big Ivan


The death of Ivan Puhich this week hit the California horse-racing community right in the heart. Big Ivan was more than an institution. He was the living personification of the game as chronicled by writers like Red Smith, Joe Palmer, and Jim Murray. Puhich embraced the highest highs and lowest lows and knew that most of life was lived somewhere in between.

When the unheralded Mario Gutierrez won the 2012 Kentucky Derby aboard Paul Reddam’s I’ll Have Another, Puhich was at the center of the Cinderella story.

“You shouldn’t be writing about the agent,” Puhich would insist. “Write about the kid, the horse, the owner, the trainer.”

Too bad. Those of us who had known Puhich for any length of time jumped at the chance to share his history far and wide. The following is an excerpt from a feature written for these pages in the wake of the 2012 Derby, free from the melancholy notes of an obituary.

Ivan Puhich 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 hitchhiked 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 on Okinawa.

“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 fruitful career until he was derailed by injuries, alcohol, and weight. Baze was going well again when Puhich gave up his book in 2007 to deal with his own health.

In July 2011, Puhich underwent surgery for colon cancer. At 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 jock 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, Ivan’s nephew and a top horseman in the Northwest. “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 an impromptu birthday party, and Mike invited Mario Gutierrez, who’d been the leading rider at Hastings Park but was virtually anonymous at Santa Anita.

“I hadn’t worked for a year and a half,” Ivan 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.”

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.