RIP Kjell Qvale, 94, a Man Who Loved Horsepower

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Kjell Qvale, with the legendary Silky Sullivan at Golden Gate Fields during a St. Patrick's Day appearance Kjell Qvale, with the legendary Silky Sullivan at Golden Gate Fields during a St. Patrick's Day appearance

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.

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  • rob

    You forgot to mention Silkys Nurse another great runner from the early 80′s
    I miss those days of racing

  • Right then, Right now

    Very nice story about a very nice man. Thank you for paying tribute to him.

    • Harry

      This was one of the greatest guys in Northern california ! Not only in horses but business as well! He will be truly missed! He started a lot of trainers out by putting them on salary Jerry Dutton Roger Hansen etc Great guy! When he sold out of Golden Gate it never has been the same! He was for the horseman and fans not about the money!!!!! Thank You for all the happy years and memories at GGF when you ran it!

      • laura ban

        I agree with that. My Grandfather used to take me to GOLDEN GATE FIELD when I was young – instead of the zoo or other boring place that we were supposed to be going to. I learned to bet at seven! Great times. Just not the same. Loved the red SILKY SULLIVAN, a great but distant memory. He will be missed.

    • Sandi York

      It goes beyond paying tribute to a very nice man. This very nice man is paying tribute to an athlete. Something no-one can understand . You have to live it , you have to appreciate the eyeball to eyeball contact, literally. There is no expression in the world that can describe a racehorse, til you have to experienced it. I have experienced it many times ( I know, I’m fortunate), its unexplainable. I don’t use the term “racehorse” until I see a racehorse. I all ready know how this man feels, with out him sayin’ a word.

  • Tinky

    Excellent story. he sounds like a man about whom I would like to learn much more.

  • HappyHarriett

    This man’s life would make an inspiring book/movie.

  • Norm

    One of the all-time great people, loved him. RIP, Kjell, until we “ski” again.

  • Barry Irwin

    Silky Sullivan was his most famous horse, but his best horse was The Scoundrel, which was bred and initially raced to placing’s in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by his breeder Rex C. Ellsworth. Qvale reportedly paid $500,000 after the colt split Northern Dancer and Hill Rise in the second leg of the Triple Crown. Shortly after being bought, the colt bowed a tendon and had to be retired to stud the following year.

  • zinn21 zinn21

    The last of the great Nor Cal old guard. I remember going to Pleasanton in the 60′s and seeing Jerry Dutton with a barn full of Silky Sullivan’s. Chestnuts 20 deep..

  • Kris

    Back in the 1980′s (when I first became interested in horse racing) “Mr. Q” owned a whole lot of horses in Northern California. Back then, it would have been rare to see only one of his horses running on any given day. Owners like Mr. Qvale are the folks that keep our sport going and are simply irreplaceable, at least here in California. Mr. Qvale: You will be missed.

  • nu-fan

    Being relatively new to horseracing, there is so much that I keep learning. Never knew of this gentleman but wish to know more. Would love to see HRTV do an Inside Information piece on him; it would be grand to watch it. And, I did not know that Silky Sullivan is buried in the infield at GGF! That, I’ll have to check into this weekend when I get there. How (or why) are stories like this one not brought out to the public? This man was larger than life! My condolences, however, to his family. But, it certainly appears that he lived life to the fullest!

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