Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘I Guess I’m One Of Those Dreamers’

From his teenage years mucking stalls at Ascot Park in Ohio to preparing to watch his silks line up in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 23, owner John Sondereker is enjoying the fruits of cultivating a lifelong passion for Thoroughbred racing.

When recent G2 San Antonio winner Kiss Today Goodbye enters that 12-horse starting gate at Gulfstream Park, Sondereker worries his emotions might overwhelm him. The newly-turned 4-year-old son of Cairo Prince is the owner’s first graded stakes winner, and Sondereker himself selected the horse as a short yearling at the 2018 Keeneland January sale. 

“It’s a big thing for me, of course; I’ve only been in a couple other Grade 1s, and I think I finished last in both of those,” Sondereker said, laughing genially. “He’s just a colt that’s really improving, and loves distance. This is a mile and an eighth, and there’s a lot of speed in the race, so who knows? You get the right day for the right jockey, anything can happen.”

This sport has proven that adage many times over, launching the biggest dreams of small owners and trainers into the stratosphere.

That racing dream didn’t really take hold of Sondereker until 1961. He’d been attending races at Waterford Park (now Mountaineer) with his father and uncle since the 1950’s, and when the family moved to Cuyahoga Falls in Ohio, he was able to get a job cleaning stalls at the now-defunct Ascot Park for a dollar an hour.

After a couple years working there, the trainer employing Sondereker took him on a trip to the 1961 running of the Kentucky Derby. There was a horse running with an Ohio connection: Carry Back. His owner and trainer, Katherine and Jack Price, respectively, often ran horses at Ascot Park and Thistledown, so Sondereker had a natural rooting interest.

Carry Back won the Run for the Roses that day with a devastating come-from-behind late kick, and Sondereker has been hooked ever since.

“It was a small stable and they happened to win,” Sondereker said. “Here I was down there standing around with like Bill Hartack, and it was like, ‘Wow, look at this.’ There were all these impressive people, the kind I’d never been exposed to, and I had no clue it could be like that. 

“It just had a major impact on me. I said then, ‘I hope someday I can own a horse like that.’ I guess I’m one of those dreamers.”

John Sondereker with his purchase ticket for Kiss Today Goodbye at the 2018 Keeneland January sale

Sondereker worked for Wells Fargo in Des Moines, Ia. for 40 years, during which time he owned “a few cheap claimers” at nearby Prairie Meadows Racetrack. Since his retirement in the early 2000s, Sondereker has stepped up his ownership interests. 

He began with a few different partnership groups, learning the basics of what goes on behind the scenes.

“It was fine, but I just wanted more out of the game, more participation,” said Sondereker. “I knew there was more for me, and I found it with (trainer) Eric (Kruljac) and going to the sales. It takes a lot of practice, and even when you know what you’re doing, you probably don’t! I’ve got to where I’m confident, I know what I’m trying to do and how I want to do it. I just enjoy the whole process.”

By 2015 Sondereker was ready to try picking out a few horses on his own.

“It’s hard buying any horse,” Sondereker admitted. “I’m not good at this, but I love to do it. Going out and doing it on my own, and seeing if I can accomplish something, that’s the big thing to me. I thought I could learn, and Eric has really taught me a lot over the last 8 to 10 years.

“I’m having a ball, 78 years old and I’m still learning. That’s the real secret to retirement, to be able to do something that you realize you’re not the best in the world at. There’s something you can always learn about the horse business. Eric probably has taught me 10 percent of what he knows, but that’s a lot to me. It’s given me a good foundation, and I’ve picked up a lot along the way. It’s great when you’re learning. That’s the secret.”

Kiss Today Goodbye has easily been Sondereker’s most successful purchase thus far, and is named for the opening line in the owner’s favorite song, “What I Did For Love,” from the Broadway musical Chorus Line.

He’d considered the colt a turf horse when he bid up to $150,000 at the 2018 January sale. Kiss Today Goodbye is out of the Heatseeker mare Savvy Hester, who won or placed in multiple listed turf stakes at Woodbine.

The colt made his first two starts on the turf, then took three more starts over the dirt to break his maiden. Kiss Today Goodbye ran competitively in the listed Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar in August of 2020, beaten just 1 ¼ lengths by Thousand Words, then went back to the turf for a pair of graded stakes efforts.

He finished fifth in the G2 Del Mar Derby and fourth in the G2 Twilight Derby at Santa Anita, then in mid-November came back to win a one-mile allowance race over the main track at Del Mar. Sondereker saw the G2 San Antonio coming up in the stakes schedule, and urged his trainer to consider entering Kiss Today Goodbye.

“His dam had accomplished quite a bit on the grass, but he just had trouble grabbing it for some reason,” said Sondereker. “I said to myself, ‘His Thoro-graph numbers are competitive with most of the 3-year-olds in the country, so let’s just try this Grade 2. He’s definitely a distance horse, he has the numbers, there’s no reason not to try it.’

Kiss Today Goodbye rallied from last under Mike Smith to win the G2 San Antonio

“Eric is more conservative than I am! I just thought we should go for it, and every once in a while you’re right.”

Though he couldn’t attend the race in person due to COVID-19 restrictions, the San Antonio victory was deeply satisfying for Sondereker. 

“There’s a lot of skill involved, but there’s also a lot of luck,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone over $200,000 for Kiss Today Goodbye, but that’s not a tremendous amount of money at a sale when you have a stakes-winning mare and a good physical. But it was Cairo Prince’s first crop, so that’s how I ended up with him for sure.”

Whether it was skill, luck, or something in between, Sondereker is thrilled at the prospect of attending his colt’s Grade 1 debut in the Pegasus World Cup. He hasn’t been able to hang out with the horses on the backside nearly as much this year, of course, so he cherishes every opportunity to see the horses in person just a little bit more.

“There’s going to be a lot of changes in the next 2 ½ weeks,” said Sondereker. “My wife is an RN and really involved in the COVID world, but Florida’s held out and been pretty flexible, so they may still allow us to go.”

There are other things to look forward to, as well. 

Sondereker purchased an exciting daughter of War Front at the 2020 Fasig-Tipton Selected Yearling Showcase, spending his entire yearling budget in one fell swoop when the hammer fell at $625,000.

“When you start out, you wanna buy four or five or six in your budget, and I get why that’s good for the industry,” Sondereker said. “You don’t want to bid on anything you can’t afford, but I’m the opposite. I’m the underbidder on a lot of really nice horses.

“For me, less is more; I currently have 18 Thoroughbreds.”

Additionally, the Breeders’ Cup will return to Del Mar in 2021, where Sondereker has a vacation home. 

“Del Mar is the best place in the world,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll get the vaccine stuff figured out this year, and I’ll be able to get my box for the Breeders’ Cup.”

Sondereker might even get the chance to wear a purple owners’ cap all his own. It’s horse racing, and anything is possible.

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘I Guess I’m One Of Those Dreamers’ appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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