Some 35 miles north of Bakersfield, in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, lies a family-owned business that grows, packs and ships grapes and other citrus fruit.
Some 150 miles south of that, in Arcadia, is where the owners of the farm first discovered and nurtured a dream that eight years ago would have seemed impossible.
Horse owners Kosta and Pete Hronis could be on the verge of winning their first Breeders’ Cup race. They’ve tried 12 times before, but this time they have two favorites. On Saturday, Catalina Cruiser, a 4-year-old who has only run four times, all wins, is the 8-5 favorite in the $1-million Dirt Mile. And Accelerate, voted the top horse currently running in this country, is the 5-2 favorite in the $6-million Classic.
Their trainer, John Sadler, has a chance to break a zero-for-41 streak of non-winners in horse racing’s end-of-year Super Bowl.
“I know [winning a Breeders’ Cup race] is really something he’d like to have on his resume,” Kosta Hronis said. “For whatever reason it hasn’t happened for him yet. The Hronis family would really be very honored to be part of that with John.”
Kosta, who plays Penn to his brother’s Teller, has had this on his mind for a while. He said that in mid-August after Accelerate won the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Previously, Accelerate won the Santa Anita Handicap and the Gold Cup and subsequently won the Awesome Again Stakes. It doesn’t get any better than that in Southern California for older horses.
Sadler shrugs off the streak.
“We have had a lot of success,” Sadler said. “We have been a lot of seconds and thirds in these races. So, we know what’s going to happen at some point.”
The Hronis family grape and citrus business started in 1945. The Hronis brothers racing business started in 2010. What linked the two was Kosta and Pete’s grandparents, who settled in Pasadena.
“That’s where our mom was from,so we’d go and visit grandma and grandpa they would take us to Santa Anita because grandma loved Santa Anita,” Kosta said. “So, we kind of grew up going to the track as little guys. We just fell in love with it. As years went on, we ended up with box seats, just on the weekends, and we’d go and watch.”
Like most race track regulars, after a while they thought they knew a lot about the business.
So, in February 2010, while sitting in their box seats, Kosta declared: “I think we ought to claim a horse.”
“We don’t know how to do this,” Pete shot back.
“We’ve been around the track a long time and I think we understand it enough where we can probably get involved,” Kosta responded. “We’ll just get a horse and try it out and everything.”
Luckily for the Hronis brothers, a kindly Santa Anita usher interceded.
“Don’t talk to anybody, lay low, keep your mouth shut,” Kosta remembered the usher’s instructions. “When you come back next Saturday, I’ll have an appointment for you.”
The next week, they were told that between races five and eight they would be introduced to Sadler.
“I’m thinking John Sadler is not going to want to mess with a couple of Valley kids who want to claim a horse,” Kosta said. “There’s no chance. He’s got the [Jerry and Ann] Mosses, he’s got Ike and Dawn Thrash. He’s got Jenny Craig. There’s no way we’re going to meet John Sadler.”
But Sadler showed up, said he had a few open spots in his barn, and it was the start of a mutually beneficial relationship.
“He’s more than a trainer,” Kosta said of Sadler. “He’s trained the horses, but he’s trained us in how to be owners. In 2010, we thought we knew stuff about the horse racing business. We knew nothing, we found out.”
Much like their farming business, the Hronis brothers have sought to both reinvest in and diversify their portfolio of horses. The horse that got them going was Lady Of Shamrock, bought in a private purchase out of a maiden race at Churchill Downs. She won seven of 18 races lifetime, and more than $600,000 in 2012.
“I guess if we got the fever, we got it through Lady Of Shamrock,” Kosta said.
The brothers have other success stories, such as Iotapa, whom they claimed for $50,000 and wound up in the Breeders’ Cup. They’ve also had Hard Aces and Stellar Wind. They’ve won almost $19 million in purses, not counting horses that they have a shared interest in.
“John makes all the decisions,” Kosta said, “Where we’re racing, what race we’re in, who’s riding, where we’re going. We let John Sadler do his job. He’s the professional. We just listen to him. We’re just kind of in the backseat of the car riding along with him.”
Also part of the team is bloodstock agent David Ingordo, who helps pick out the horses to buy.
“Obviously, it’s quite an honor to be playing at this level,” Pete said. “We’re a couple of farm kids. We really came from nothing and fell in love with the horse racing business. So, we’ve been very fortunate to meet Mr. Sadler. But am I surprised about it? In a way, no. Pretty much what my brother and I decide to do, we do it.”
Sadler, as is his nature, takes little credit.
“The owners have been patient with me and I’ve been patient with [the horses],” Sadler said.