RIP Kjell Qvale, 94, a Man Who Loved Horsepower
Kjell Qvale enjoyed competition and speed, whether it was a fast car, a Thoroughbred, or even a footrace. He was a star athlete in track and field at the University of Washington, when he is said to have equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash. After serving in the U.S. Navy as a pilot during World War II, he began importing sports cars like the MG, later had a hand in building the Laguna Seca Raceway and even raced cars in the Indianapolis 500.
But horse racing is the reason so many people in the Thoroughbred world came to admire “Mr. Q” (whose name was pronounced Shell KaVAHlee). For 45 years he was a mainstay in California, racing such stakes winners as homebreds Variety Road and Variety Baby, along with their dam Variety Queen, Silveyville, Halo Folks, Tribesman, Borrego Sun and others. He also ran racetracks in his spare time: for 20 years he was a major investor and president of Golden Gate Fields and held a similar post at Bay Meadows for about six years.
Mr. Qvale died on Saturday in San Francisco at the age of 94.
Bruce Headley trained one of Mr. Qvale’s first winners, Trondheim, a horse named for the Norwegian town in which he was born. Headley also trained his last winner, Carlsbad Mountain, who won a maiden claiming race at Santa Anita Park on Oct. 20.
“We paid $10,500 for him at a sale in 1966,” Headley said of Trondheim, “then we won four straight. Tied a track record, won a stakes at Golden Gate (the Dinner Stakes), then came down to Hollywood Park and won the Haggin and Cabrillo. We shipped him to Chicago for their big Futurity but he chipped a knee.”
A dozen years later they struck lightning again with a low-priced yearling purchase that would be named Silveyville. The turf star set a course record at Golden Gate Fields and won over $1.2 million but was overshadowed by another horse in his generation named John Henry.
In 1986, Mr. Qvale and Headley thought they might have their first Kentucky Derby horse when Variety Road won the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, beating eventual Derby winner Ferdinand, among others. The son of Kennedy Road got sick and missed the Triple Crown but came back strong as a 4-year-old, winning the Grade 1 San Fernando over Broad Brush, Ferdinand, and the previous year’s Preakness winner Snow Chief. Variety Road won 17 of 59 starts and just shy of $1 million. After racing through his 8-year-old season, he lived a grand, old life, thanks to Qvale’s support, dying earlier this year at the age of 30.
“He loved the horses, both racing and breeding them, and he loved the game,” said Alan Balch, currently executive director of California Thoroughbred Trainers but who worked for Mr. Qvale at Golden Gate Fields in the late 1980s.
Balch recalled how, when working for Mr. Qvale, the latter would jump up and rub his hands together when he got excited about something. Balch ran into him at Golden Gate Fields a few years ago when Mr. Qvale was running a horse. They each bet $5 across the board on the horse and watched the race together.
“His horse comes running down the stretch on that turf course and into the lead, and here’s this 90-year-old man jumping out of his seat and rubbing his hands together, then practically running down to the winner’s circle.”
One of the horses Mr. Qvale loved the most was the stretch-running California legend Silky Sullivan whom he purchased to stand at stud at his farm in the Napa Valley. For years, he would bring Silky Sullivan to Golden Gate Fields to parade in front of the stands on St. Patrick’s Day. Balch asked if Mr. Qvale would allow Silky Sullivan to come to Santa Anita for similar appearances on Santa Anita Derby day, and he obliged. Silky Sullivan won the Santa Anita Derby in 1958, coming from 28 lengths off the pace. He was buried in the Golden Gate Fields infield in 1977.
“He really loved that old horse,” said Balch. “His kids would ride Silky Sullivan around at the ranch.”
Mr. Qvale, whose family brought him to the United States when he was 10, made a fortune in the auto business, specializing in foreign cars. He was one of the first to import Volkswagen Beetles and was a major distributor of VWs and other imports for hundreds of dealerships on the West Coast. He moved up to Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Maseratis, Porches and Audis. Autoweek.com estimates he sold more than a million cars.
“I bought a Jaguar from him in 1967, and still have it,” said trainer Headley, who remembered going to company picnics with Mr. Qvale when he was in his 50s and challenging his younger employees to foot races or football matches. “I was his ringer, because I could throw a football pretty good,” said Headley, “and he’d outrun all those young guys.”
Mr. Qvale survived two quintuple bypass surgeries, but his friends learned recently his time was short.
“I talked to him before that last (Oct. 20) race,” Headley said. “He told me to bet $20 for him, and said, ‘If we lose we’ll drop him down and bet $100 next time.’
“He was one of the greatest of all time – the classiest, most even-tempered guy. He was a very understanding, honest man with a love of horses.”
Mr. Qvale is survived by two sons, Jeff and Bruce, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Kay, his wife of 57 years, died in 2005. Information about a memorial service was not available.