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Column: Grape-growing Del Mar board member Kosta Hronis relishes Kentucky Derby contender

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board member Kosta Hronis, left, shown with trainer John Sadler.
Kosta Hronis, left, a co-owner of Kentucky Derby contender Rock Your World, celebrates with trainer John Sadler after Accelerate won Del Mar’s Pacific Classic in 2018.
(Union-Tribune)

The first-time Kentucky Derby owner has 5-1 Rock Your World at Churchill Downs

As kids, Kosta and Pete Hronis peeked through the trackside fence at Santa Anita to watch horses run. The wide-eyed pair growing up in the dusty agricultural expanse outside Bakersfield made holiday trips to the racetrack with their Pasadena grandparents.

The thundering hooves and Racing Form-slapping regulars intoxicated the brothers since the first day they were allowed to bet on a winner.

When they landed driver’s licenses, they began to go to the track on their own. As they grabbed the reigns of the family’s table grape- and citrus-growing operation that stretches across 9,000 acres, they purchased a box at the track. In 2010, they claimed their first horse.

Now, the “grape growers from the valley” are co-owners of Rock Your World, a top contender in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Kosta, a Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board member, marvels at the sweet intersection of talent, timing, luck — and finding his way to the other side of the fence.

“We’ve never even been close (to the Derby),” said Hronis, 62. “The one thing you know about this, you can’t try to do it. You can’t buy your way into it. If it happens, it happens organically. If things fall into place for a 3-year-old who comes around at the right time, you enjoy the ride.

“It’s definitely a needle in the haystack kind of thing.”

As a businessman, Kosta knows a thing or three about navigating a blizzard of business-related numbers. Hronis Inc. has coaxed grapes and oranges from the San Joaquin Valley soil since 1945. It’s a delicate balancing act in a complex climate with chill and tule fog in the winter and temperatures that can soar beyond 110 degrees in summer.

That background, along with more than a decade in horse racing, built sobering understanding in Kosta about the long odds of a horse finding the starting gate at Churchill Downs. Rock Your World was born into a 2018 foal crop totaling 21,181 in North America, according to The Jockey Club. Of those horses, just 20 breathe rare Kentucky air on the first Saturday in May.

For most, reaching the Derby feels a bit like lassoing a shooting star.

“After (winning) the Pasadena Stakes, Belinda Stronach, who owns the racetrack (at Santa Anita), said to me, ‘My dad’s going to be really jealous of you, because in all of his years he’s never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby,’ ” Hronis said. “So I think about Frank Stronach, what a great horseman he was, how many Eclipse Awards he won as an owner and it really made me appreciate what had been accomplished.

“To hear Belinda say that to me was a real ‘wow’ moment.”

The unbeaten colt cruised to wins in a pair of turf races before collecting a $450,000 payday by romping to a 4 1/4 -length victory over fellow Derby qualifier Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3.

The dirt race pushed the son of 2003 Pacific Classic winner Candy Ride to Churchill Downs as the second betting favorite at 5-1, looking up at only Derby favorite Essential Quality (2-1).

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

Hronis’ brother, Pete, framed the thinking of the men grounded by the fertile ground surrounding the company anchored outside of Delano.

“At the end of the day we’re farmers, professional grape growers,” Pete said. “No matter what happens on that Saturday, we’ll be selling grapes on Monday.”

The seeds of Hronis Racing, so to speak, were planted with one person, trainer John Sadler. An usher at Santa Anita set up an initial meeting when he heard the brothers discussing the possibility of sinking deeper roots in the sport.

From the beginning, Sadler preached patience.

“I’ve never been invited to an auction,” Hronis said with a chuckle. “John makes me stay at work. ‘You stay and take care of the grapes and I’ll go look at the horses.’ When I first was with John in 2011, I said, ‘Hey, the 2-year-old sales, can I be part of that?’ He said, ‘No, you’re not ready yet. We’re going to just keep claiming horses. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’

“I think people jump in and jump out so fast because they get discouraged. I think he liked us and wanted to bring us along at his pace.”

When the group scooped up Rock Your World at Keeneland’s renowned September yearling sale for $650,000, that patience would be tested.

Hronis passed, Sadler said.

“The exceptional thing about him, in this day and age of complex things, he’s from the Central Valley,” Sadler said. “He’s very straight forward. He’s the real deal. When you get to know him, it’s hard not to like him. He doesn’t blow his own horn. He’s just a good guy.”

Fellow Del Mar board member, horse advocate and actress Bo Derek was asked to describe the unique prospect of a sitting board member capturing the most prestigious race.

“The best,” Derek said. “The best. The space shuttle is going to hear me screaming.”

Astronauts are unlikely to hear it from Hronis.

“He’s very understated,” Derek said.

After winning the Santa Anita Derby and guaranteeing a spot in the Derby for the first time, Hronis and Sadler skipped the caviar and Cristal.

“We went to a Mexican restaurant in Pasadena,” Hronis said. “It was just enchiladas, tacos, burritos. That was about it. John needs to get home and get to bed because that alarm clock goes off at 3 every morning.”

Though it sounds tame, it in no way erases the tunnel vision. Hronis said he’s at a California racetrack 50 of 52 weekends a year. His wife, Stephanie, dives into work that benefits track workers and retired horses.

“We don’t hunt. We don’t fish. We don’t ski. We don’t golf,” Hronis said. “This became our hobby.”

Why straddle the fence?

==========================

A Rockin’ name

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — How did Rock Your World get his name? Mike Talla, a real estate developer and entrepreneur who co-owns the horse with Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board member Kosta Hronis, explained.

For Talla, who names all his horses, it was a split-second decision out of a conversation with trainer John Sadler.

“John said he’d found this thin, skinny horse that wasn’t filled out yet with great character and great breeding,” Talla said. “I think he’s going to be the best horse you’ve ever owned. So come up with a big name. It has to be big, because this horse could be really special.”

Talla began perhaps the shortest brainstorming session in modern horse-naming history.

“I said, ‘OK John, you want a name that’s going to rock your world, right?’ ” Talla said. “He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s the name.’ He said, ‘What is?’ I said, ‘Rock Your World.’ ”

The horse in fact grew into his oversized name.

“He’s very balanced and light on his feet,” Talla said. “When he runs, he glides across the dirt. He’s not built like the strong, powerful runners. He’s a throwback to the 1920s and ’30s when horses were brought over from Europe. Very elegant and athletic. Now, (top Thoroughbreds) are getting muscular and quarter horse-y looking.

“When you watch him, he doesn’t like when his feet touch the ground. He picks them up right away. Some horses do that, but not as much as he does. That’s a telling sign about how athletic he is.”

Rock Your World runs ... and runs ... and runs.

“Once a race is finished, he doesn’t turn around and come back,” Talla said. “He runs right through the wire and keeps going. When you talk to (former jockey Umberto) Rispoli or (Derby jockey Joel) Rosario, ‘Where’d you go? The other horses are headed back to the barn?’ They say, ‘I couldn’t stop him, Mike. He wants to run.’

“Just because the race is over, that doesn’t mean anything to him,” Talla said. “He just keeps going. Every race he runs, he adds on like a half a mile. And it doesn’t seem to tire him out. Maybe (the Derby distance of) a mile and a quarter will.”

Rock Your World will break from the No. 15 post, which has won the Derby 10.2 percent of the time since the use of starting gates began in 1930. That’s third-best of the 20 post positions.

— Bryce Miller

    ==

    Odds fail to define ‘Charlie’

    LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One barn away from Hronis Racing’s Rock Your World, fourth Kentucky Derby choice Hot Rod Charlie and Del Mar owner Bill Strauss stretched their legs.

    The three ownership groups behind the horse — Bill Strauss, Roadrunner Racing and Boat Racing — undoubtedly are bringing the biggest, rowdiest contingent to Churchill Downs. The throng Strauss said could reach 170 includes the “Boat” group, five 20-something former football players at Brown University.

    Hot Rod Charlie, with 8-1 odds, defies numbers. The 94-1 starter in the most recent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile finished a startling second by a mere three-quarters of a length … to current Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality.

    “He doesn’t get phased at all,” Strauss said.

    Nerves? Nah.

    “None at all,” said Strauss, who co-founded the multi-million-dollar company ProFlowers.com. “When they load him into the (starting) gate, that’s when the butterflies will start.”

    — Bryce Miller

    Del Mar's Bill Strauss, far right, and co-owners of Hot Rod Charlie celebrate winning the $1 million Louisiana Derby.
    (Courtesy photo)

    — Bryce Miller is a sports columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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