10/24/2004 11:00PM

In the underdog role again

Four Footed Fotos
Jockey Greta Kuntzweiler, shown here with Freefourinternet after they teamed to score an upset in the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

CHICAGO - Greta Kuntzweiler came to Illinois from Kentucky last summer hoping to shake things up. But it is a Kentucky-based horse owned by a Nebraskan living in Alabama that will take Kuntzweiler to Texas.

It is a strange state of affairs - perhaps career-making. But Kuntzweiler doesn't focus on the fast track, and neither does Freefourinternet, the horse she rides Saturday at Lone Star Park in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

Kuntzweiler is the fifth female jockey to make the Breeders' Cup, but it's a safe bet no Breeders' Cup woman has been in the position she'll take up Saturday. Even as Freefourinternet has gotten better and better, he has gotten slower and slower, at least during a race's opening phase. Several Saturdays ago, in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, Freefourinternet fell 25 lengths behind the leaders, but he looped the field, heavy favorite Perfect Drift included, and won going away.

"The big-name jockeys, they'd probably say he couldn't win the Breeders' Cup running that way," said Ron Peltz, whose Equirace.com LLC owns Freefourinternet.

A paving contractor, Peltz owned cheap claimers on the Nebraska circuit before relocating to Birmingham, Ala. Equirace privately bought Freefourinternet after he finished eighth in the 2002 Arlington Million, and the horse has panned out. He won the Grade 2 Kelso last fall, then finished a close, troubled sixth in the BC Mile. With only two wins, Freefourinternet has earned more than a half-million dollars in 2004.

"Greta's the perfect jockey for the horse," Peltz said. "She listens and she understands. She's won the big race, and I'm sticking with her."

Peltz's trainer, Mike Maker, shares the perspective. Maker took over Freefourinternet's training just months ago, and the horse is 2 for 2 for him with Kuntzweiler up both times.

"We're happy with Greta," said Maker, a Breeders' Cup veteran thanks to several years as a top assistant to Wayne Lukas. "The single important fact for this horse's style of running is waiting. She'll let the horse drop back and won't try to get into him."

Kuntzweiler, a 29-year-old Montanan, is the second-leading rider at Hawthorne by purses won, but through Sunday, she had only 5 victories from 74 mounts. The summer at Arlington was similar. Still, you don't hear Greta-bashing at Chicago racetracks. She is seen as a capable rider willing to get out and work every morning.

"Greta will be all right," said Zoe Cadman, the retired female jockey who won a riding title at Hawthorne. "In Chicago, if you don't mind working and you stick around, you can make it."

"I haven't been disappointed," Kuntzweiler said before Hawthorne's races last Friday. "My goals have been centered around growing as a rider. I've never felt bad if I'm not, say, a top five rider or something."

Kuntzweiler rode pleasure horses growing up, and it occurred to her that she was always asking them to go faster. At 19, she went to Kentucky to become a racetracker.

"I took my time," she said. "I've never been in a hurry. I'm in this because I like horses. Always, since I was little, I had it in the back of my head that I'd do this."

Kuntzweiler was part of the female-dominated jockey colony five winters ago at Turfway Park, and for a time, her colleague Kris Prather led the country in wins. Injuries crushed Prather's career, and two years ago, the slight Kuntzweiler broke her back. Last season, she separated a shoulder. A young jockey cannot lose momentum at tracks as competitive as Churchill Downs and Keeneland. In late spring, Kuntzweiler moved to Chicago, to "try something different," she said.

"I'm not sure why she left, but that's her business," said trainer Dave Vance, one of Kuntzweiler's strongest Kentucky clients.

Vance said he sometimes took heat for using a female jock - that crusty rejoinder - but he liked the way Kuntzweiler rode.

"She's patient, she's got light hands, and she gets along really good with horses," Vance said. "She lets horses do their own thing, and that's what a lot of jockeys don't do."

But a reputation for having a light touch plays into the stereotype of the female jockey. Some horsemen have the unshakable belief that a woman isn't strong enough to consistently compete.

"I've outfinished stronger riders down the stretch, and that's because it's 90 percent horse," said Kuntzweiler, who can tack 111 pounds.

Kuntzweiler prefers forms of communication subtler than the whip. "I'm very into it," she said. "I become pretty emotional just getting on the horses. I personalize them, I guess. I fell in love with Freefourinternet the first time I got on him. He was such a badass."

Maker said Freefourinternet trains just as he races - slow early, fast late, with no rushing allowed. In the Gold Cup, Kuntzweiler asked Freefourinternet to move closer on the first turn and got little response. "They were so far away from me," she said. "I pride myself on being a patient rider, but it made me nervous."

Peltz, watching from the Hawthorne grandstand, thought Freefourinternet was getting a perfect trip.

"He will be 25 lengths back in the Breeders' Cup," Peltz said. "I'm just hoping it's not 40."

That might be too far behind - even for a rider coming out of nowhere.

Female riders in the Breeders' Cup

Donna Barton1995Hennessy2nd
 1994Cat Appealeased
Julie Krone2003Funny Cide9th
 1996Jess C's Whirl13th
 1995Alice Springs7th
 1995Blushing Jim13th
 1995Mr. Greeley2nd
 1995Peaks and Valleys6th
 1994Link River8th
 1992Shared Interest11th
 1989Dawn Quixote12th
 1988Darby Shuffle2nd
 1988Dr. Bizzare6th
 1988Forty Niner4th
Lisa McFarland1996Ricks Natural Star14th
Francine Villenueve1991Wilderness Song7th