Timothy Grams was 24 years old when he first realized he wanted something different out of life. The all-around handyman had just been switched to the night shift with a roofing supply company, and it just wasn't working out.
A friend got Grams a job breaking young Thoroughbreds at a farm in Maryland, and that same friend brought him along to West Virginia's Charles Town Races in the evenings and taught him to work as a member of the starting gate crew.
Just over 30 years later, Grams found himself entering the winner's circle as the trainer in his first $1 million race, making history in the process. Last Saturday, Grams' own Runnin'toluvya, with Oscar Flores aboard, became the first West Virginia-bred to win Charles Town's signature race, the Charles Town Classic.
“We'd never took a step like this, and we never thought we would win one of these races,” Grams said, still struggling to absorb the emotions from that day. “I know this sounds corny, but this is the best thing that's ever happened to me besides me meeting my wife 18 years ago. This is just unbelievable. Especially for a country boy that didn't have anything. It means anybody who walks through this gate here has a chance, and that's why this business is so great.”
Grams grew up riding horses in speed events like barrel racing, so the transition to Thoroughbreds wasn't an entirely foreign discipline. After working on the starting gates for several years, Grams accepted the job as an outrider at Charles Town. It wasn't long before he found himself in possession of a mare and started breeding a couple horses.
In the mid-1990s Grams decided to take up training full time. An older trainer named Beau Lane was getting out of training to work in bloodstock in Lexington (now the owner of Woodline Farm), and convinced Grams to buy a weanling he'd bred before leaving West Virginia.
Grams named the colt It's Only Money, but it turns out he was much more. In 1999 It's Only Money set a track record at Charles Town, blazing 4 ½ furlongs in 50.36 seconds. That record stood for a dozen years, and the stakes-winning gelding retired with earnings of over $150,000 in 29 starts.
“I just kind of kept graduating from one job to the next, or at least I thought I was,” said Grams, enjoying his self-deprecating joke. “It wasn't always successful… But Beau said that was a horse I needed to have, and I really liked him and everything. He was a little bit tough, but he turned out to be a nice horse. Beau turned me on to that horse and he was right, he said 'If you get this horse going, he'll be a runner.' So that's kind of how I got going.”
At first Grams galloped his own horses in the mornings, but as age began to catch up with him, he took a step back to ride the pony. With a larger stable and nearly 300 starts per year, Grams decided he needed to be able to see everything that was happening on the track.
Several years ago, a West Virginia-based breeder named Leslie Cromer sold Grams a 2012 colt he later named Dance for Love. Out of the winning Not For Love mare Lov'emnrun, Dance for Love won a pair of races in his career and showed modest talent on the track.
Two years later Cromer returned with his half-brother, a 2014 colt sired by the unraced stallion Fiber Sonde (Unbridled's Song). Fiber Sonde is out of Canadian champion juvenile Silken Cat (Storm Cat), also the dam of millionaires Speightstown and Irap, and stands for $1,000 in West Virginia.
Grams bought this colt as well, naming him Runnin'toluvya. He broke his maiden at third asking in 2016, then won the West Virginia Breeders' Classic Stakes for juveniles in his next start. Grams decided to send him to an open-company stakes at Laurel, but Runnin'toluvya faded to finish ninth that day and was diagnosed with a fractured sesamoid.
“He's real strong-minded, you know, my horse is a little bit tough,” Grams explained. “The saddling situation is a little tough: I saddle him with the pony and I take him to the post myself with my own horse, you know what I mean? He's a little bit tough, but he is growing up.”
Runnin'toluvya had surgery to repair the fracture and returned to training, but Grams wasn't happy with the way the gelding was moving. He decided to turn him out in a paddock for six more weeks, and when the gray started upping the ante with his paddock antics Grams brought him back to the track.
All in all, Runnin'toluvya had 17 months between starts. Since his return to the track, the gelding has only lost once in 11 outings and is currently riding a nine-race win streak, including a big 2 ½-length victory in last fall's $300,000 West Virginia Breeders' Classic Stakes.
Despite the win streak and his horse's well-documented grit, Grams was surprised to see his home-town hero finish on top in the million-dollar Charles Town Classic.
“We try to keep our horses in competitive spots, but we did have this race kind of in mind after last fall when he ran 1 1/8 miles a couple times and was successful doing it,” the trainer admitted. “Still, we got lucky that not all the graded winners came, because we wouldn't have had a spot (in the starting gate) if everybody that nominated would have entered.”
Runnin'toluvya didn't beat just any field, however. The race included four separate entrants with earnings over $1.4 million, including a pair of Grade 2 winners, but Runnin'toluvya couldn't read the tote board. His loyal Charles Town fans sent the gelding to post at odds of 9-1, and he delivered with a thrilling half-length win over Diamond King after battling that rival for the lead all the way through the three-turn contest.
“He come out of the race really, really well,” Grams said, but was hesitant to name any next steps beyond a return to the lucrative West Virginia Breeders' Classic Stakes in the fall. “He is growing up, but to take him away from (Charles Town) I'd have to think about all these different scenarios with him. He's a home-town boy.”
In the meantime, Grams has Runnin'toluvya's full brother in the barn. The 2-year-old named Loving Touch is only four or five weeks away from his first start.
“I'm just lucky to own a horse like this who steps up and seems to always do what we ask him to,” Grams said of Runnin'toluvya. “We've put a lot of challenges on him, but he's stepped up and really surprised us.”
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