A breeder, a jockey's agent and a horse's surprising bid for greatness
Together, their ages total 156 years. That is more, even, than the 143 Belmont Stakes that have been run, leading to Saturday's renewal, with a Triple Crown at stake. And while in this place and time, there is much about horse racing that is troublesome, one of the beauties of the game is that it reaches across generations. Many sports are only for the young, while others watch, coach, write. Racing does not check IDs at the door.
One of the men is Harvey Clarke. He is the 71-year-old president of the A.J. Clarke Real Estate corporation, a property management company that was founded by his father when Clarke was two years old. His dad ran a gas station on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx and a few of his customers needed help managing some properties they owned. Clarke was raised just across the George Washington Bridge in Englewood, N.J.; he went off to college in Pennsylvania to a be a schoolteacher, but came back to help his father's business in the early '60s and never finished up his degree. "Once I get this business right," says Clarke, "maybe I'll go back and be a schoolteacher."
The other is Ivan Puhich. He is an 85-year-old jockey's agent, a formal racetrack description for a gritty sales job that involves hustling the backside every day before the sun rises, trying to secure afternoon mounts for a rider. His father was a Croatian immigrant who raised a family during the Great Depression in the shadow of Longacres Race Track (which lived until 1992 and then was shuttered). Puhich can't remember his first client's name, but it was in 1944, just before he enlisted in the Marines. "I was 16 years old," says Puhich. "He was a little bug boy [apprentice jockey]."
They will both be at Belmont Park late Saturday afternoon when I'll Have Another tries to win horse racing's first Triple Crown in 34 years, since Affirmed held off Alydar in the stretch at a racetrack that is very much unchanged in the decades since, but in a world that very much is.
Clarke is the man who bred I'll Have Another, a curious term that evokes all sorts of veterinary images. In fact, it means only that he owns I'll Have Another's dam (mother), a 10-year-old mare named Arch's Gal Edith, and paid a fee to have her impregnated by Flower Alley, a stallion who won the 2005 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. The result of that pairing is I'll Have Another, who was not supposed to win the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness and certainly was not supposed to win the Triple Crown. "People have asked me if I planned on breeding the Kentucky Derby winner," says Clarke. "I tell them I always plan on breeding the Kentucky Derby winner. But I never expected to actually happen."
Puhich is the man who threw a little birthday party cookout for his nephew, Mike Puhich, late last fall in the L.A. suburbs near Santa Anita racetrack. Ivan Puhich was retired by then. He had undergone colon cancer surgery earlier in the year. "Fifty-fifty whether I would live or die," he says, and that slowed him down. But now he was bored. At the party he was introduced to a then-24-year-old jockey who had just recently moved to Southern California from the minor leagues at Hastings Park in Vancouver. Puhich told Mario Gutierrez he'd take a look at his riding and maybe pick up his book. Now that book includes a mount to make history.
First, the horse. In the late 1970s Harvey Clarke was living in New Jersey and took his three youngest children to a stable in Livonia, where they took riding lessons. Clarke liked the smell of the place, the vibe that surrounded the horses. He took lessons for himself and then met up with some people who were interested in buying racehorses. He was not a gambler. "I'm one of the three worst handicappers in the world," he says. But he liked horses, and in 1979 he and two partners bought a filly named Aisle Seat for $20,000. "She ended up breaking her maiden for $7,500 at Monmouth, so that wasn't the best business deal," says Clarke.
Yet it was. Many people enter the racing game and get only feed bills and heartache for their time and money. Clarke left racing only briefly while going through a divorce proceeding -- "That cost me a bunch of money, so I couldn't buy a lot of horses," he says -- but then jumped back in almost 20 years ago. He says he's been lucky -- most of his horses have at least made it to the racetrack. One of them, Soldat, whom Clarke purchased for $180,000 in the fall of 2009, ran in the 2011 Kentucky Derby.
Yet the most impactful colt that Clarke has crossed was a mare who ran just one race. In the spring of 2004, on the advice of old friend Steve Shahinian, who operated the stable where Clarke first took his children, Clarke paid $80,000 for a filly at the Ocala Breeders Sale two-year-old sale. Her sire was Arch and her dam Force Five Gal. Clarke's wife, Donna, completed an
In the winter of 2007, Clarke, Shahinian and Freddy Seitz of Brookdale Farm in Kentucky, where Arch's Gal Edith stands, decided to breed her to Flower Alley. It was a financial decision as much as anything. Flower Alley was unproven as a stallion and available for a reasonable fee of $25,000. (Some stallions can stand for multiples more). In the spring of 2009, she dropped the chestnut foal who would become I'll Have Another.
Clarke is like the vast majority of horsemen. His stock is bred to sell. "We try to make a little money in the business," he says. So the future Triple Crown threat was sold in he fall of 2010 at Keeneland's yearling sale for just $11,000. Six months later the colt went through the ring again and Clarke passed on the chance to buy him back. This time Dennis O'Neill bought the horse for owner J. Paul Reddam, who named him I'll Have Another and now watches him run at greatness.
Clarke has no regrets. "From a business perspective, some good will come out of this for us," he says. "Either we'll sell the dam or we'll sell the babies. If I had kept him, who knows? I would have sent him to [trainer] Kiaran McLaughlin, and maybe he wouldn't have fit with Kiaran's training style. These things are just meant to happen. I've kicked a lot of walls. The wall never moves. I'm just going to Belmont and soak it all in."
He will get there by car. Ivan Puhich will get there via a private jet, with trainer and friend Mike Pegram. "Mike is picking me up Friday and we're going to look at his yearlings in Kentucky," says Puhich. "Then we'll go on up to the Belmont."
This is much higher style than 64 years ago when Puhich, then in the Marines, managed to watch Citation win the last Triple Crown until Secretariat in 1973. Puhich had fought with the 6th Marine Division on Okinawa and lost part of one finger to a land mine. In '48 he made his way from Louisville to Baltimore to New York and watched Citation win the Belmont by a dominant eight lengths. "In all the years, Citation was the best horse I've ever seen," says Puhich.
He would spend most of his adult life at the racetrack. It wasn't an easy life. He and his wife lost one child at birth and then split up when they were in their 30s. Puhich's other son, Steve, died of a heart attack at age 51. The racetrack helped sustain him (that, and his love for the San Francisco 49ers). He held the book for Bill Mahorney, who battled the legendary Bill Shoemaker for riding titles in the '60s and '70s, and later Marco Castaneda and Tyler Baze.
Early this winter Gutierrez was riding sparsely for trainer Troy Taylor at Santa Anita. Puhich liked what he saw. What was that? "I can't really describe it for you," says Puhich. "But I've been doing this for 60 years. I know it when I see it. He's a good rider. And he's a good human being."
Just as Puhich began to get Gutierrez mounts, Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill were wading through the annual Triple Crown free-for-all in search of a rider for the Clarke-bred colt who had become I'll Have Another. All parties say it was Reddam who went to O'Neill and said he liked Gutierrez. (Usually it's trainer who does the scouting). "Then I saw that Ivan had Mario's book," says O'Neill. "Of course, Ivan is a legend."
Four times Gutierrez has ridden I'll Have Another. Four times he has won. Now he stands one win from joining one of the most exclusive lists in any sport. He rides there on Puhich's broad shoulders. And in a more distant way, on Clarke's, as well. Generations apart, yet inextricably linked.