11/21/2012 3:46PM

Hovdey: Stable gets right back in the game

Barbara D. Livingston
Tale of a Champion sold for $62,000 as a yearling and for $13,000 as a 2-year-old.

It was one of those whiplash moments from which nightmares take their nourishment. John Johny Jak, the pride and joy of the Rustin Kretz racing stable, had just won the Robert Kerlan Memorial Handicap on the turf at Betfair Hollywood Park. This was a big deal for Kretz and trainer Kristin Mulhall, since John Johny Jak had the look of a runner who might be the stuff dreams are made of.

Then, pulling up, John Johny Jak fractured a shoulder so badly that euthanization was the only humane choice.

“We are so close with our horses, hanging out at the barn, getting to know them as individuals,” Kretz said. “When something like that happens it’s devastating. It changes the way you look at things. You realize it is unfortunately part of it all, but it’s not a part I accept. It hurts a lot.”

Kretz is founder of the Southern California-based Scorpion Design, a company that creates internet sites. He and his wife, Juliana, bought their first horse in early 2010 and have had as many as 30 in training with Mulhall. Kretz will let you know when he gets over the death of John Johny Jak, if that ever happens at all. In the meantime, it is worth noting that the Kretz stable dealt with the terrible incident by getting right back on the horse.

The Kerlan was on July 1. Six days later, across the country at Calder Race Course, 4-year-old Tale of a Champion won the Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint Stakes to run his record to 4 wins in his first 5 starts for trainer Christos Gatis. Tale of a Champion was also for sale, and it did not take long for Kretz and Mulhall to seal the deal.

“We were hoping he would be able to do for us what we thought John Johny Jak would have done,” Kretz said. “I know it doesn’t always work that way, but there was just something about Tale of a Champion that made me think he could be something special.”

It takes a level of positive thinking not familiar to most of us to name a Thoroughbred Tale of a Champion, even though his pedigree encouraged such giddy hopefulness. His sire is Tale of the Cat, one of Storm Cat’s most prolific sons, while his dam, If Angels Sang, is not only a daughter of Seattle Slew but also out of a half-sister to Storm Cat. Among humans this would be frowned upon. In Thoroughbred breeding it’s known as rolling the genetic dice.

His name aside, Tale of a Champion took a while to find his place in the wider economy. He sold for $62,000 as a yearling, for $13,000 as a 2-year-old, and then ran for a $25,000 claiming tag when he finally made it to the races as a 4-year-old last April.

“We knew why,” Kretz said. “He had an ankle issue that kept him from running any earlier. Clearly, we bought him at the high point of his value. But the angle of moving horses from Florida to Kristin out here has always paid off, starting with my first horse, Westwood Pride, and including John Johny Jak.”

Tale of a Champion has made three high-profile appearances for Kretz. In his first try he was among the also-rans in Obviously’s course-record performance in the Del Mar Mile. He came back to run a respectable fifth of 12 in the Eddie D. down the Santa Anita hill to Unbridled’s Note, then finished eighth of 14 behind Mizdirection and Unbridled’s Note in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

On Friday, Tale of a Champion will swing for the fences again in the $250,000 Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park, stretching out to a mile and one-sixteenth on the grass.

“The horse we were worried about going in there was Obviously,” said Kretz, referring to California’s best turf miler. “He didn’t go, but it’s still a very tough spot.”

There are horses in the Citation from Hall of Famers Shug McGaughey (Data Link), Todd Pletcher (Doubles Partner) and Ron McAnally (Interaction), although most of the attention will be focused on the accomplished Mike Pender/B.J. Wright runners Ultimate Eagle, winner of the 2011 Hollywood Derby, and Jeranimo, winner of the 2011 Citation.

“If you’ve got the horse you think you’ve got, you have to go up against these horses eventually,” Kretz said. “We’ve had a run of bad luck lately. But for Champ to win on Friday, we’d be right back in it.”

The giving side of the game

There is never room to list all the charitable groups for which the Thoroughbred racing should be very thankful, and not just during this holiday weekend. Pioneer organizations like the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and Tranquility Farm have led to industry-wide awareness that after-care for racehorses is a high priority. The Racetrack Chaplaincy continues to provide shelter from the storms of daily backstretch life. The Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund offers about the only real safety net for those engaged in a most dangerous game.

It also should be noted that the 10-year-old Race for Education, the Kentucky-based scholarship program for young people in the equine and agriculture industry, had a very good day on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita when Shanghai Bobby won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His owners, the Starlight Racing Stable of principal owners Jack Wolf and Don Lucarelli, earmark 1 percent of their earnings for Race for Education.

California’s version of Race for Education is embodied in the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation, so-named in the wake of the death of Kentucky Derby winning trainer Eddie Gregson in 2001. Gregson’s passion was the welfare of backstretch workers, and his legacy has been carried on in a program that has helped send their sons and daughters into collegiate careers and beyond.

On Monday night, Dec. 3, at the Parkway Grill in Pasadena, not far from Santa Anita Park, the Gregson Foundation is hosting a cocktail party for the benefit of those young people for whom a college education would be otherwise beyond their reach. Foundation president Jenine Sahadi has promised no long-winded speeches but plenty of good holiday cheer and a chance to rub shoulders with like-minded pilgrims helping a good cause in a great game. Information is available at (626)447-2339.