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At 85, legendary jockey agent Ivan Puhich spices up Belmont drama

Ivan Puhich discovered I'll Have Another jockey Mario Gutierrez at a barbecue and now seeks to be part of horse racing's first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.

June 02, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Ivan Puhich has played an important role in I'll Have Another's quest to win the Triple Crown.
Ivan Puhich has played an important role in I'll Have Another's… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Not to be lost in the amazing story of an amazing horse and jockey is the story of Ivan Puhich.

He is 85 and no longer "terrible," although tales of his youth that include fists through car windows and other guys ending up in garbage dumpsters hint that the nickname once fit.

Trainer Gary Stute says Puhich is an insufferable San Francisco 49ers fan, who once argued with a friend for five hours after a game about a missed block and didn't speak to the guy for three years after that.

"I went to a Rams game here with him," Stute says, "and he stood the whole game in his 49ers jersey. People threw popcorn at him the whole game. I caught it and ate it."

Puhich is a gentler giant now. He is also proof that, when invited to a barbecue, go. There, at his nephew Mike's house last Dec. 27, Puhich met Mario Gutierrez. From there, the story turns like Lombard Street in San Francisco.

Gutierrez, a 25-year-old jockey, was also invited to the barbecue. He went, at least in part, because he didn't have much else to do those days. He had traveled from his home track in Vancouver, Canada, to California, as he did each year with the men who recruited him out of Veracruz, Mexico, to ride their horses. Each winter, owner Glen Todd and trainer Troy Taylor brought horses and Gutierrez from Vancouver to Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley.

This year, Golden Gate gave them no barn space, so the group kept going south to try some cheap races at Santa Anita. That brought Gutierrez to the same barbecue as Puhich.

Puhich grew up around the track at Longacres in Renton, Wash., and had been a jockey's agent most of his life. Jockey agents get rides for the jockeys and take a cut of the action.

Puhich had also been out of the business for the previous 18 months, recovering from surgery for colon cancer. Few who knew him figured the cancer would beat him. Just about nothing else had.

He joined the Marines in World War II, fought with the 6th Marine Division on Okinawa and lost part of a finger on his now disfigured left hand to a land mine. Instead of coming home after that, he jumped the hospital ship to rejoin his Marines for some fighting in China.

After the war, he ended up at Gonzaga. In those days, boxing was a collegiate sport. In 1951, Puhich was the NCAA heavyweight champion.

As a jockey agent, he carried the books of Bill Mahorney, who was prominent in the Bill Shoemaker-Eddie Arcaro era, and was described by several horseman recently as a "guy who wanted to fight everybody."

Many in racing would call it a marriage made in heaven.

Puhich also carried the book for accomplished riders Marco Castaneda and Tyler Baze. When he took over Baze a few years ago, he made him work 1,000 horses before he let him race.

"He won his third race out," Puhich says.

When Puhich learned Gutierrez had no agent and was riding sparingly, he said he'd watch him ride. He did so the next few days at Santa Anita and saw lots to like.

"I've been doing this since 1944," he says, "so I like to think I'd know."

Trainer Doug O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam saw the same thing and put him on a horse named I'll Have Another for the Grade II Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in February. The horse went off at 43-1, in part because it was being ridden by an unknown.

When I'll Have Another won, the Cinderella story had begun. A week from today, having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, I'll Have Another will attempt to win the Belmont and become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown. Puhich has been along for the greatest ride in his 68-year career.

"I think he can win," he says. "I was more worried about the Preakness because it's a shorter race."

As soon as Gutierrez won the Lewis Stakes, other agents maneuvered to persuade O'Neill to take the kid out of the driver's seat of the Porsche. Backstretch lore would have Puhich, who still strikes an imposing frame, responding by putting people upside down in trash cans.

No need, Puhich says.

"I never even asked O'Neill," he says. "He is a good trainer, a man of his word. I told Mario he'd leave him on, and he did."

Financially, it has worked out something like this (although different contracts can be cut): Since the $200,000 Lewis, I'll Have Another has won the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, the $2-million Kentucky Derby and the $1-million Preakness. Usually, the owner gets 60%, and the trainer and the jockey get 10% of that 60%. The agent gets around 25% of the jockey's 10% slice. That makes Puhich's cut of Gutierrez's winnings worth around $45,000, with another $1-million purse looming at the Belmont. Puhich also cashed in several lucrative wagers.

Puhich didn't attend the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness — "Stayed home, watched, then drank a bottle of wine," he says. But the day before the Belmont, he will board a private plane with a friend, Mike Pegram, and fly in for the race.

It won't be his first Belmont.

"I was there in 1948," he says. "Saw Citation win the Triple Crown. I was still in the Marines in San Diego. I called the commanding officer, said I couldn't miss this, and went over the hill for a few days."

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