In the midst of a weekend flush with flamboyant outfits, extravagant decorations, and thrilling stretch drives, 28-year-old Ian Kruljac stood in contrast to it all. A reserved man dressed in an understated navy suit for the big day, Kruljac didn't say much as he stood on the track apron during the post parade, eyes glued to his filly as she warmed up over the Santa Anita surface.
When Finest City exploded down the stretch to win Saturday's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, the emotion on her young trainer's face said far more than his words ever needed to.
“It is just such an honor to compete with all these top trainers and have a top filly,” Kruljac managed to choke out in the post-race interview. “There's nothing more you can dream for.”
A self-described “barn rat,” Kruljac is clearly more comfortable in the presence of his horses than in the barrage of media the Breeders' Cup brings with it each fall. After all, he is the trainer of record for just three horses and has only been training on his own for a little over a year. Finest City, a 4-year-old daughter of City Zip, is easily the star of his small stable – her four wins are the only ones in his burgeoning career.
“Time is on my side, though,” laughed Kruljac, noting that he has run second a few times with other horses. “You just never know where this business can take you.”
He splits his time between taking care of his own horses and assisting his father, Eric Kruljac, the trainer of more than 1,100 winners over his career, in caring for his approximately 100-horse stable. With strings at Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Golden Gate Fields and at Turf Paradise, as well as a California-based breeding program, there is more than enough work to keep the younger Kruljac busy.
“It's the family business,” he said with pride. “I always just loved the horses. You know, you see how fun winning is, then you learn how tough it is. Then you just kinda get tricked into it. You see how when you win you think it's easy, but when you get in you just start working harder to try to get those wins.”
Training horses is what Kruljac has wanted to do ever since he can remember, recalling following his father to the racetrack as a child growing up in Arizona. He attended the University of Arizona's Equine Industry Program trying to learn more about the business. A chemistry class derailed that particular idea, and Kruljac chose to return to California.
Shortly thereafter in January of 2010, Kruljac took a job hot-walking for trainer John Shirreffs at Hollywood Park. Living with his father in Arcadia, near Santa Anita, Kruljac had to wake up by four a.m. each morning to make the 45-minute drive to Hollywood Park.
“That was a big turning point for me,” he said. “I was just scrubbing buckets and needed to put in work. I had to learn that if I was going to make it on my own, I was going to have to put in work.”
That lesson, ingrained in Kruljac's mind during his six-month tenure in Shirreffs' barn, remains fully formed to this day. Ian arrives at Santa Anita Park between four and four-thirty each morning, staying until at least 10, and returning to feed each afternoon.
In August last year, owners Tyler and Wayne Seltzer collaborated with Kruljac's father to give the young man a horse to train on his own for the first time. The elder Kruljac selected Finest City as a yearling from the Keeneland September sale, purchasing her on behalf of the Seltzers for $85,000.
“Finest City was a gift from my dad and the clients,” said Kruljac.
The individualized attention that Finest City receives as a part of the younger Kruljac's stable, as well as the trainer's quiet manner, may well have been the difference-maker with the feisty redhead.
“She's a little high most of the time,” Kruljac admits, describing how she loves to jump around in her stall, attack her jolly ball, and even to sniff, then to snort at his Golden Retriever, Barkley. “You want to run them fresh, but being able to do that while keeping them content, without them hurting themselves in training, is tough.”
Finest City's talent was evident from the start; she broke her maiden in just her second start at Del Mar. She was fourth in stakes company in her third start, then returned to win an allowance. Various minor injuries plagued the filly during this time, but in January of 2016, she ran second in the G2 Santa Monica Stakes, missing by just a head at the wire.
“That was a tough beat,” Kruljac said. “We kept fighting, got her right, and she proved herself.”
Three starts later, Finest City broke the track record at Los Alamitos, winning the G2 Great Lady M Stakes by 1 ¼ lengths in a final time of 1:14.48 for 6 ½ furlongs.
“That was fabulous,” Kruljac smiled. “We knew we had a very nice filly and we just had to give her time. It paid off.”
In her next start, Kruljac stretched the filly out to contest the G1 Vanity Mile. Of course, the horse that won that day would go on to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff; Beholder finished 1 ½ lengths in front of Stellar Wind in the Vanity Mile, with Finest City a short three-quarters of a length behind Stellar Wind in third.
Kruljac kept her running long, though he switched her to the turf for a pair of starts at Del Mar. The only dirt sprinting options were Grade 3 stakes with $100,000 purses; comparatively, the turf races offered G2 status with double the purse.
“It just opened us up to test it, to go for the more prestigious race and more money for the kind of horse that we thought we had,” the trainer said. “We felt like it was the right time to try the grass, and she came out of those races cold and tight, and it kept her fit and got us to our ultimate goal of the Filly & Mare Sprint.”
Kruljac described a moment of nervousness three weeks away from the Breeders' Cup, when regular rider Kent Desormeaux was unavailable to work Finest City. Scrambling, Kruljac was able to get jockey Mike Smith's agent to commit to working the filly.
“I really needed to put a serious work in her,” Kruljac said. “I felt that she needed to have a jockey on her back in order to be prepared by the work.”
Smith rode Finest City through a six-furlong breeze in 1:11 4/5 that morning, after which she bounced off the track begging for more.
“She was ready to go,” said Kruljac.
After that, with the all-time leading Breeders' Cup jockey named to ride his filly in the big dance, Kruljac was able to stay pretty calm up until the morning of the race.
“I wasn't able to take a nap after training, I was a bit nervous and couldn't relax,” he admitted. “The day went by pretty quick, the races were just moving along, and we were just waiting for our turn. Her mood was really great that day; her head was high, she was pawing. On race day, this is a good sign. You can tell in their eyes, that their eyes are bright. Feed tub was empty, all that stuff. I had a good feeling.”
He must have had a good feeling: Kruljac singled his filly in a Pick 6 ticket, which stayed live until California Chrome was defeated in the Classic.
“What are you going to do?” Kruljac laughed. “I wouldn't trade it. I'm a horse trainer, not a horse player.”
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