03/13/2008 12:00AM

Tribesman brings owner back to top

Vassar Photography
Kjell Qvale owns Tribesman, his best horse since Silveyville, the 1984 California horse of the year, and Variety Road, who handed 1986 Kentucky Derby champion Ferdinand two defeats.

Success could be Kjell Qvale's middle name.

The 88-year-old Norwegian native is back at the highest level of Northern California racing with Tribesman, a four-legged rocket ship who comes into Saturday's Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Sprint with five straight victories. Last time out, in the Phoenix Gold Cup at Turf Paradise, he defeated Breeders' Cup Sprint runner-up Idiot Proof by 1 3/4 lengths.

While horse racing is always a bumpy ride, Kjell Qvale (pronounced Shell Ka-VAH-lee) has enjoyed every minute of it.

"Even as a kid, I was crazy about horses," he said. "We always went to the country, to a farm, during the summer. I always insisted we had to go where they had an old horse, and I would ride every day with no saddle."

Qvale's family immigrated to the United States, settling in Seattle when he was 10. He attended the University of Washington, where he was an outstanding sprinter, clocking 9.6 seconds in the 100-yard dash.

He was a Navy pilot during World War II when he got hooked on racing.

"At the end of the war, I met the guy who was the head of Bay Meadows [Bill Kyne], and he invited some of us to his private place where we had lunch, a few drinks, and made a few bets," Qvale said.

The experience ignited an interest in the sport for Qvale, who, when the war ended, got into the automobile business as the Northern California Jeep Willys dealer. Within a year, he arranged to become Northern California's dealer for the English MG sports car and later made an agreement to sell Jaguars, one year before the first car was ready for delivery. He later added Rolls-Royce and Bentley to his automotive stable, which became known as British Motor Cars Distributing Ltd. He didn't stop with British cars, either, bringing Volkswagens to the United States.

It was a success story reminiscent of another San Franciscan automobile dealer who made a name for himself in horse racing: Charles Howard, the owner of Seabiscuit and Noor.

"My first horse was a $7,500 claimer, and he won the next day after I bought him," Qvale said. "Then I got a $12,500 claimer, and he won the next day. That nailed me for life.

"I've probably won 1,000 races and 30 or 40 stakes, but I've lost a lot money."

And had a lot of fun.

But he also put a lot into the sport as a breeder and an executive.

Qvale was Golden Gate Fields's president for 20 years and served as Bay Meadows's president for six years.

He still looks at racing with a businessman's eye, and laments the fact that there are fewer horses running and fewer fans attending.

"When I was at Golden Gate, we were able to remodel it with all we could afford," he said. "If we lose Bay Meadows, we should find a way to redo Golden Gate and make it state-of-the-art."

Qvale was at the top of the sport in the 1980s with horses like Silveyville, Variety Road, Variety Queen, Variety Baby, and Borrego Sun.

The wins were fewer as the 1990s turned into the 2000s, but things began to change in 2003 when he purchased Exquisite Love, an unraced daughter of Bertrando, from a dispersal.

He and trainer Roger Hansen planned to send her to Benchmark but were also given a breeding to Tribal Rule. Tribesman was the result, followed by Saipan, a stakes-placed 3-year-old by Benchmark.

Tribesman is Qvale's best horse since Silveyville, the 1984 California horse of the year, and Variety Road, who handed 1986 Kentucky Derby champion Ferdinand two defeats. One came as a 3-year-old in the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, the other as a 4-year-old in the San Fernando Stakes.

"We were very unlucky with Variety Road," Qvale said. "We beat the Derby winner before the Derby, but then Variety Road got sick so he couldn't run in the Derby. After the Derby, we beat him again."

In 1984, the stage was set for a classic battle when Silveyville lined up against John Henry in the 1 3/8-mile Golden Gate Handicap.

"Silveyville held the course record at Golden Gate Fields when he and John Henry raced," Qvale said. "John Henry broke the track record by 17 lengths," running the distance in 2:13 to beat Silveyville's record of 2:16 2/5 the previous year, "and Silveyville was only two lengths behind, running 15 lengths better than he did the year before."

Saturday's sprint, a rematch between the 4-year-old Tribesman and Vicarino, owned by fellow San Franciscan Harry Aleo, may end up being as epic a matchup as the John Henry-Silveyville race.

"Harry's a good friend of mine," Qvale said. "In fact, he just bought a Jaguar from me. He has a really good horse who battled us last time. Then he broke badly in his last race but came on at the end to set a track record.

"It's going to be really thrilling this coming Saturday, but I think Tribesman is a special animal," he said. "He's beautiful, smooth, quick, and naturally fast early and can still carry his speed because he's so relaxed.

"If you look at all of his last five races, they look the same. He breaks the same way, takes the lead, and keeps going."