More Milestones For Kuntzweiler

| September 15, 2011

Any sportswriter who is looking for a story and has the interest and the energy to pick up a telephone need only look to Thoroughbred racing for compelling subjects.

That was the case in the days of legendary scribes Red Smith and Charlie Hatton, and it remains so today. The number of sportswriters shrinks daily it seems, and some that remain can be questionable in the interest and energy departments, but there are plenty of high quality men and women out there and a limitless supply of stories and personalities in racing.

But few of those recent stories, for my money, have been better or more encouraging that the saga of jockey Greta Kuntzweiler.

The first post-Labor Day weekend was fairly quiet in terms of major races in the U.S., but the undulating, European-style grass course at Franklin, Ky.’s Kentucky Downs was the stage for a remarkable afternoon in the life and comeback of Ms. Kuntzweiler.

She was in the saddle aboard the favored Rahystrada when the accomplished 7-year-old veteran won the track’s premier event, the $150,000 Kentucky Cup Turf, It was her second consecutive victory in the race for Kuntzweiler, who was aboard Rezif for an upset win in 2010.

A win in that type of race is always good, and Kuntzweiler left such established Kentucky racing stars as Robby Albarado, Corey Lanerie and Jon Court in her wake on Saturday at Kentucky Downs.

It was also the 500th career win for the Kuntzweiler – a milestone that seemed impossible as recently as a couple of years ago.

Jockeys head to the sidelines for many reasons, with injury, weight issues and age being at the top of the list of things that interrupt or end careers in the saddle. Kuntzweiler, now 35, was out of the game for nearly 4 ½ years, but her hiatus from racing was from self-inflicted problems.

Her riding career skidded off the rails in 2006 with the first of two arrests on drug charges. She pleaded guilty in 2007 to several drug-related offenses and was granted five years probation on a suspended sentence of 10 years.

She regained her riding license in Kentucky and returned to the saddle on June 24, 2010 at Churchill Downs, where her best finish was a near-miss runner-up finish in three mounts on the day. Since that day, her victory total is nearing 80.

The Kentucky Cup Turf victory and the reaching of the 500-victory plateau are the latest exclamation points in what has been a very solid second year of Kuntzweiler’s comeback. Earlier this summer, she rode Fred and Buff Bradley’s homebred 3-year-old filly Groupie Doll to victory in the $100,000 Gardenia Stakes, the biggest race off the 2011 meet at Henderson’s Ellis Park.

Last fall Kuntzweiler talked with me about the uncertainty of her return to the saddle after a very public fall from grace.

“I was really worried that I was going to struggle,” Kuntzweiler said. “I was nervous about how people would accept me. I think I was embarrassed, more than anything. But it’s been more than I could have hoped for, it really has.”

The subject of her long absence from the saddle and the events that led to it are surely sensitive, but Kuntzweiler said then that she hoped her story might be helpful to others. She has never shied from talking about her ongoing journey.

“That’s part of me now,” Kutzweiler said in November. “Hopefully, someone that’s had a problem might see that and see that you can turn it around. I’m OK with it being tied to my name as long as people know that I’m doing good and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Greta Kuntzweiler is not riding any horses that are likely to compete in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships when that event returns to Kentucky on Nov. 4-5, and she has found since her return to that the already competitive jockey colonies at Kentucky tracks have been become even tougher with the sharp reduction of racing dates at state tracks because of economic conditions, wagering levels and increased competition for those tracks from tracks and casinos in other states.

But Greta Kuntzweiler’s return to a riding is a wonderful story. She remains, like all of us, a work in progress and any misstep will be scrutinized much more closely than the missteps of others without the baggage of her 4 ½ years away from the saddle.

But her comeback is going very well and her life is back on track.

“Failure is not fatal,” the late UCLA college basketball coaching legend John Wooden once said, “but failure to change might be.”

Greta Kuntzweiler has made a critical change in her life and, in just over a year, has rebuilt her riding career to the point that it is close to the promise she displayed before she lost her way.

That’s a great story for anyone, anywhere. It’s still being written, of course, and there’s little doubt that she’ll have to hurdle other perils down the road. That’s a certainly we all face.

But racing, despite its challenges, provides a wonderful stage for happy endings. The hope here is that Greta Kuntzweiler’s story ultimately achieves one of those, but has lots of smiles in the saddle before that time arrives.

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