There are myriad stories of horses that turned the corner into national prominence after being claimed by the right connections, but in 1983 a botched claim kept the horse Win Stat on the path to becoming a graded stakes winner and world record-holder.
The story of Win Stat's failed claim started with a successful one. The South Dakota-bred was already a three-time stakes winner in Nebraska when owner Herb Riecken and trainer Ron Murphy dropped him in for a $35,000 claiming tag at Oaklawn Park. The class drop didn't end his now three-race losing skid – he finished third – but it did get the attention of Oaklawn's training ranks, who lined up to drop claim slips on the 5-year-old.
When the pill was pulled, trainer Don Von Hemel ended up with Win Stat in his barn for a pair of longtime clients: retired real estate and lumber executive Russell Caston Jr., of Edmond, Okla., and grocer Norman Ruback of Omaha, Neb. Von Hemel said the horse's reputation in the region, paired with a pedigree that had been successful in the Great Plains states, had the new owners bullish heading to the claim box.
“I tried to buy him the fall before and they didn't want to sell him,” the trainer said. “They sent him to Turf Paradise with another trainer, and he showed up at Hot Springs, so I remembered the horse for a year before.”
The new connections took Win Stat to Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha at the end of the Oaklawn meet, where he ran respectably, winning an allowance and placing in a stakes race. However, the claim looked like it was going to be a financial disaster after Win Stat came out of his graded stakes debut, the Grade 3 Ak-Sar-Ben Board of Governors' Stakes, with a fractured sesamoid.
That injury has ended the on-track careers of most who suffered it, but under the treatment of Dr. Marvin Beaman of Littleton, Colo., and the benefit of an 11-month layoff, Win Stat returned to the races to win an Ak-Sar-Ben allowance.
Win Stat continued to run honestly, finishing worse than second just once in his first five starts of 1983. The connections had the G2 Ak-Sar-Ben Cornhusker Handicap in mind for the horse, but they wanted to put one more start under him before the race. Three weeks before the Cornhusker, the horse was entered in a $50,000 claiming race at AkSar-Ben.
Von Hemel admitted he didn't think anyone would take the bait on the then-6-year-old with a serious injury on his record, but that hubris backfired when a claim was announced as Win Stat was led into the winner's circle.
The mood was low for the connections, but the claiming price nearly doubled what Win Stat had earned on the track for them, and it would have resulted in a profitable overall venture. Instead, someone came running toward the winner's circle saying that the claim fell through.
The person that submitted the winning claim, who went unnamed in reports after the matter, had exactly enough money in his horsemen's account with the track to cover the cost of the claim: $50,000. What he didn't have was enough money to cover the applicable taxes. The claim was immediately rendered null and void, and Win Stat remained with his connections.
“I was just sick before I found we got him back,” Ruback told the Des Moines Register. “I thought we'd lost him for sure.”
It's impossible to know what direction Win Stat's career would have gone if the horse changed hands that July day in Omaha. Switching barns can wildly alter a horse's trajectory, both in terms of class placement and locales.
What actually played out with the horse staying put was just about the best-case scenario.
In his next start following the near-miss at the claim box, Win Stat won the Cornhusker, giving him his first career graded stakes victory and his first stakes score running for Von Hemel, Caston, and Ruback. A year later, Win Stat ventured to Arlington Park and came back with the G3 Equipoise Mile Handicap added to his list of major victories.
“I figured he'd just be a useful horse, and that was it,” Von Hemel said. “He was a South Dakota-bred and his dam had won one race going a half-mile, but he was by a horse named Doctor Stat who was prolific in the Nebraska breeding ranks. I had watched the horse here before and thought he had the opportunity to be a very nice horse, but I never thought he'd be a graded stakes winner.”
In between those starts, Win Stat added even more flair to his resume in an Oaklawn allowance race, where he completed a mile and 70 yards in a then-world-record 1:38 2/ 5. The mark still stands as an Oaklawn Park track record, though the global record time has since been lowered.
“They don't race that distance anymore, but back then they did,” Von Hemel said. “The track was fast, and everything went just right for him. I didn't know it was a world record until somebody hollered it at me afterward. He was such a kind old horse. He was easy to handle, and I wish I could find another like that.”
Win Stat raced until age nine, winning 22 of 84 career starts and earning $438,378; most of it coming after he was initially claimed. He retired to turnout at a farm in Ashland, Neb.
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