By Julie Sarno
Steve Kranhold, owner of the Cafe Del Mar restaurant in Del Mar, has lived in the city for 46 years - long enough to know that where summer is concerned; horseracing rules.
The restaurant is his business and the place where he spends most of his time, but racing is his passion. About 10 years ago, Kranhold and several others put together Lucky K Stables. Kranhold said the original partners included Keith Wagner of Leucadia, Robert Lusitana of Encinitas and Jeff Ward of Rancho Santa Fe. There are more partners involved now as the cost of maintaining a horse in training has increased over the years. "With vet bills, it averages about $5,000 per month now," said the restaurateur.
"We have a buddy who got us into this," said Kranhold, "Scott McClellan. He's the (jockey) agent for Alex Solis and Joe Talamo. He was (Hall of Fame jockey) Chris McCarron's agent when we started.
Kranhold first went to the races with his grandfather. He remembers seeing beloved pianist, singer, comedian and actor Jimmy Durante fishing on the beach and other celebrities in town. Known as the "Honorary Mayor" of Del Mar, Durante was memorialized when the street bordering the eastern edge of the fairgrounds was named for him. Nowadays award-winning songwriter Burt Bacharach and comedian Tim Conway, a veteran of the Carol Burnett show, are among the regulars at the seaside track each year.
"Without the racetrack, this town would not be here," said Kranhold. "Desi Arnaz, Bing Crosby, they owned homes here. The racetrack gives this town its character. The track gives this town seven weeks of different life."
Currently, Lucky K Stable has two horses in training with trainer Jeff Mullins, Drewthegentleman and High Command. Mullins captured the training title at Del Mar in 2005 and finished second in the standings at Del Mar to Doug O'Neill in both 2006 and 2007. Mullins is held in high regard by Lucky K Stable and has always trained their horses.
"When I claimed their first horse for them, I said, 'Now we'll see how lucky Lucky K is,'" said Mullins outside his barn at Del Mar.
The partnership's first horse was No Issue, aptly named according to Kranhold.
"He had a lot of issues," he said. "He was the meanest horse I've ever seen. He bit the assistant stable manager one morning. When we got him, he had a skin rash. I think the shampoo he needed cost $500 a gallon."
Another Lucky K-owned horse was Exclusive Deposit, dubbed Elusive Deposit by Kranhold because of his non-winning ways. Finally, Exclusive Deposit made it to the winner's circle for the partners.
Kranhold said his longtime girlfriend, Rio Cohen, had a misleading introduction to the races. The first time Kranhold took her to the races was at Hollywood Park and Ready More was racing for Lucky K.
"Ready More won," said Kranhold, and the second time I took her, High Command won for us. She thought it was easy. You go to the races, you go to the paddock and then you get your picture taken in the Winner's Circle."
Even Exclusive Deposit finally made it to the Winner's Circle. The race was on a Monday, Kranhold recalls. Partner Keith Wagner's mother had passed away. She really enjoyed the sport and took him to the races as a boy. Her memorial service was over the weekend and Wagner's whole family was at the races. Exclusive Deposit won. The horse's victory was moving to all in the Winner's Circle.
A 3-year-old son of Yankee Gentleman, Drewthegentleman was second in his first start at Del Mar this season. He ran for a $16,000 claiming price, meaning another trainer could put up the money and take the runner back to his barn after the race. He was not claimed then. Kranhold expects High Command to race again this season. Now a 5-year-old, High Command won at Del Mar for Lucky K last season.
Kranhold fields phone calls at his restaurant while being interviewed. Each Thursday, the band Soul Ray sets up on the patio at Cafe Del Mar. Michael Raye, the keyboardist, used to play with Michael Bolton. Raye's wife is the group's singer.
"It's a hangout where the locals come to eat and drink in the village," said Kranhold.
Kranhold relishes the horse ownership experience.
"We're an eccentric group. Some of the guys are real characters. The one thing we have in common is we love going to the races."
The racing group's carefree philosophy is reflected in their choice of racing silks. The Lucky K colors are a red and white Hawaiian print with a lucky horseshoe on the back.
Even if he did not own horses, Kranhold says he would be at the races.
"If people have not been to the races, they're missing something," he said. "It's exciting. You don't have to bet to have fun. And I think people who bet $2 have just as much fun as someone who bets $100."