Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Growing Grapes And Winners

by | 03.04.2015 | 4:33pm
Kosta Hronis (left) accepts the award from TOC director Mike Wellman for California's top owner by money won in 2013

Growing up on a ranch in Bakersfield, Calif., in the 1960's, Kosta Hronis and his brother Pete never dreaded the frequent two-hour drive to visit their grandparents. After all, they lived five blocks from Santa Anita Park, where in hindsight, Kosta became a racetrack lifer at the tender age of five.

“We were always the first ones in the car to visit grandma and grandpa because we knew we'd end up going to the racetrack,” said Kosta. “Me and my brother were one of those little railbirds. We had our noses glued to the track.”

The Hronis brothers kept their family tradition alive for decades, making weekend trips to Santa Anita and eventually buying a box. That's where they were sitting one day in 2010 when Kosta had an epiphany at age 50.

“There was a claiming race, and I turned to my brother and said, 'I think I'm going to buy a horse!” Kosta recalled. “He said, 'Dude, you are crazy. You have no idea what you're getting into. You know nothing about this.' And I said, 'I think I can do this.'”

Like a story out of a Luck episode, overhearing their conversation was a longtime Santa Anita usher named Tony. Tony gave Kosta the best tip he's ever received.

“Hey, don't do anything,” Tony advised. “Just wait 'till next week, and I'll get you an appointment.”

Little did Kosta realize, that appointment would be with renowned trainer John Sadler.

“I just laughed,” he said. “There's no way John Sadler's going to mess with a little valley kid like me that's never been in the horse racing business.”

But Hronis and Sadler hit it off well enough, and with the soft economy, there was a little room available in Sadler's barn.

“So, he actually gave us a shot.”

On Feb. 18, 2010, Hronis Racing, LLC claimed its first horse, an Exchange Rate mare named Sleep Tight. A month later, she ran third in a $50,000 claimer, a thrill that soon became Kosta's first lesson in the biz. She didn't start again for another year.

“So, we learned patience right off the bat,” he said. “And then we lost her (to a claim) the very first race she came back.”

Kosta and Pete at Santa Anita, 2014

Kosta and Pete at Santa Anita, 2014

During 2010-2011, Hronis Racing claimed a few more horses and made a couple of private purchases, getting their feet wet in hopes of building a stable. They reinvested all of their earnings back into the business. When Kosta got anxious about wanting to expand into buying 2-year-olds, Sadler gave him another lesson in patience.

“I was too green, and John said, 'Nope you're not ready for that,' referring to the time needed to develop juveniles. “John brought me along slowly. He kept us on the correct pace and let us grow and learn.”

Sticking with purchases and claims proved a wise choice. In late 2011, Hronis picked up maiden winner Lady of Shamrock, who went on to collect a pair of Grade 1 victories and nearly a million in earnings. In mid-2012, they snagged a filly named Iotapa out of a $50,000 maiden claimer. She, too, became a dual G1 winner and has surpassed the million dollar mark, most recently finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Remarkably, only two years after starting its venture, Hronis Racing won the owners' title at the 2012 Santa Anita meet. The following year, they were the leading money earners at Del Mar's summer meet, a feat Hronis repeated in 2014, as well as 2013's leading owner by money won in California — nearly $2 million.

“When you have one horse win a graded stakes, that's a great day,” said Kosta. “When you win a meet of six months the size of Santa Anita, that shows the body of work from your barn top to bottom. I think that's when were really in awe of: look what we've done in two years.”

But Kosta is quick to point out that the success has had a lot to do with Sadler and his team. He knows he's been fortunate but has also worked hard, just as the Hronis brothers have in the family business, growing table grapes and other produce on the Bakersfield ranch their grandfather started in 1945.

“I grow grapes for a living. People like John Sadler are in the horse business,” said Kosta. “I give them all the credit — Sadler and his vision and talent. The people he has, the bloodstock agents he works with, the veterinarians. We vet horses all the time. I bet we vet 20 horses for every one we buy. He wants to make sure we make a good, sound investment.”

Hronis has remained loyal, only working with Sadler over the past five years. These days, Hronis Racing seeks out horses in yearling sales, 2-year-old auctions, even across the pond in Europe. The stable has grown to 40 and not only includes last weekend's impressive winner of the G3 Santa Ysabel, Stellar Wind, but also Hard Aces, a recent purchase who will take on the big guy, Shared Belief, in Saturday's G1 Santa Anita Handicap.

“He's the best horse in the country in my opinion,” said Kosta of Shared Belief. “He's just a special horse, so to be able to run against him is an honor, and we're looking forward to it.”

Spoken like a man who has watched his investment grow and cared for it, appreciating the fruits of his labor along the way.

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