The scratch of I’ll Have Another from today’s Belmont Stakes is another thrown shoe for horse racing, even for those cynical railbirds who had already conceded his Triple Crown and then disparaged it as having been won against burros.
Everyone associated with racing would have enjoyed the shot of glam and any reflected light. Ivan Puhich already had.
Sure, he was a fringe player in the Triple Crown story, the kind of crusty character with a kitchen-sink background the sport spins out like none other, with the possible exception of boxing – which, not surprisingly, he had his mitts into, as well.
Check him out: 85, an ex-Marine, survivor of the 6th Division’s bloody invasion of Okinawa, ex-Playfair jockey agent and heavyweight on Joey August’s long-ago NCAA boxing champions at Gonzaga University.
And even before I’ll Have Another’s hasty – and proper – retirement on Friday, Puhich seemed happy enough to be a footnote to history, as the guy who put Mario Gutierrez in the saddle for the improbable ride.
“I’m satisfied to be able to get a nice young man started in life on good footing,” said Puhich.
Puhich is the jockey’s agent, which is not to confuse him with Jerry McGuire or Drew Rosenhaus or one of those power-tie types who refers to his athletes as “brands.” He’s the middleman between the rider and his potential rides, and in this case both Puhich booking Gutierrez and the 25-year-old jockey sitting on the best 3-year-old in the land have been distinctly happy accidents.
Not unlike what brought Puhich to Spokane in 1949.
He was a Renton kid who’d walked hots at the old Longacres track before a fudged baptismal certificate got him into the Marines. He lost part of a finger to a landmine in Japan and went back for more in China, and in there somewhere had been 20-some boxing matches, including a run through the All-Navy championships. Then the war ended, and Puhich was back home.
“I knew a guy from Renton going to Gonzaga – Jimmy Barei,” Puhich said. “He knew Joey and Joey needed a heavyweight.
“I was going to Everett Junior College and basketball was over, and I wasn’t that much of a basketball player anyway. So I hitchhiked to Spokane and tried out for Joey, and he offered me a scholarship.”
The timing was pretty good. Joey’s team that year produced two NCAA champs in Carl Maxey and Eli Thomas, and shared the team title with Idaho – the only national championships in the history of either school. Among those Puhich swapped leather with in practice was Pat McMurtry, a Tacoma legend who as a pro climbed to No. 5 in Ring Magazine’s world rankings and decisioned one-time world champ Ezzard Charles.
For his part, Puhich was listed in various newspaper accounts as August’s “colorful heavyweight.”
This could have meant anything from being a brawler in the ring to suspending skinny freshmen upside down over campus garbage cans to showing off a vocabulary picked up in the Corps.
But Gonzaga dropped the sport just two years later, and Puhich left before that “with nothing but fond memories” but lured away by the call of the track.
A long run as an agent seemed to have come to a close with some health issues in 2007. Four years later, he underwent surgery for colon cancer – and lost his 51-year-old son, Steve, to a heart attack. He retreated into a depression that didn’t lift until a chance meeting with Gutierrez, more or less arranged by Puhich’s nephew Mike, at his birthday barbecue.
“He was just in a bad place,” said Mike Puhich, “and this gave him a big boost.”
Gutierrez was a hotshot in Vancouver and a relative nobody at Santa Anita when Puhich agreed to take his book.
“Charming disposition,” Puhich said. “Nice person. If I don’t like you, I can’t work for you.”
Of course, his nephew insists that “it’s Mario who works for Ivan,” and Ivan won’t disagree that “that’s my reputation” – irascible, stubborn, holder of faux grudges and proud of a hard shell that really isn’t so hard. Whatever the dynamic, it got Gutierrez aboard I’ll Have Another at the Lewis Stakes in February. When he brought the 43-1 shot home a winner, he had a date for the Kentucky Derby – and Triple Crown destiny, until the sad events of Friday.
Puhich has probably realized upwards of $50,000 of Gutierrez’s winnings, not counting some providential wagers. But that’s not Rosenhaus money, and money isn’t the story here.
“This came along at just the right time,” Puhich admitted. “I didn’t have much going for me. I think I’ve been good for Mario, but this has been good for me, too. You need something to keep you going.”
It doesn’t have to be a Triple Crown winner. And now, alas, it won’t be.