When jockey Greta Kuntzweiler anticipated a return to riding after a lengthy stay on the sidelines because of a substance abuse issues, she was worried about the reception she would receive from horsemen and fans on the Kentucky racing circuit.
Since the 34-year-old Kuntzweiler had enjoyed success at Churchill Downs and other Kentucky tracks, legal problems stemming from her issues had resulted in considerable media coverage. So her struggle with the substance abuse issues was very public, and her concerns were legitimate. But the Kuntzweiler comeback that started at Churchill Downs in early July is now in its fifth month, and this week at Churchill Downs has produced some of its brightest moments.
First came a victory Nov. 17 aboard Robert Mondun’s homebred Wealth To Me in the featured ninth race. The win aboard the Bill Ford-trained 3-year-old Tapit gelding was the first at Churchill Downs for Kuntzweiler since April 28, 2004.
It was followed quickly by two more wins during the “Downs After Dark” night racing card Nov. 19. Kuntzweiler guided Columbine Stable’s Philogyny ($11) to a victory in the fourth race and owner-trainer Judith Parke’s Charma Posse ($29.20) to win the eighth.
But that first victory aboard Wealth To Me provided a special thrill for Kuntzweiler as the end of the long victory drought Churchill.
“It was awesome,” said Kuntzweiler. “I was so happy to do it for Bill because they’ve been so good to me. You know I rode his (Wealth To Me) mother, Wealthy Belongings, so it was a lot of fun.”
Kuntzweiler had come close to getting her first Churchill Downs victory during the very first week of her Kentucky comeback on a pair of mounts for trainer Tom Proctor. The first came on June 24, the first day of her return, when she lost an allowance race by a head aboard Proctor’s Broken Dreams.
Even more tantalizing was her photo-finish loss aboard the Proctor-trained Happiness Is on July 3 in the one-mile Locust Grove Handicap (gr. III) on the Matt Winn Turf Course. Dismissed at odds of 48-1, Happiness Is led from the start, but had to settle for runner-up honors when she was nailed in the final jump of a blanket finish by the victorious Danzon.
That narrow loss was a disappointment, but the result offered proof that Kuntzweiler still possessed the talent to succeed on a big stage.
“I remember the two horses I rode for Tom, and he said, ‘It just goes to show you there’s no Hollywood endings in racing’,” recalled Kuntzweiler. “But I had a really good summer. Things are a little slower than I kind of wish they would be, but that’s just how it goes. You’ve got to figure out how to maintain a positive attitude and try to get through the slower parts.”
Her summer was highlighted by a memorable September Saturday at Ellis Park on which Kuntzweiler won five races that included a victory aboard Turallure in the Cliff Guilliams Handicap.
This week’s success is the latest step in her comeback.
“I was really worried that I was going to struggle,” Kuntzweiler said of her return. “I was nervous about how people would accept me. I think I was embarrassed, more than anything. But it’s been more than I could have hoped for, it really has.”
She also knows that every media reference to the progress of her comeback and most conversations about her career will include references to her public battle with substance abuse. But Kuntzweiler said she does not see that as a negative thing.
“That’s part of me now,” she said. "Hopefully, someone that’s had a problem might see that and see that you can turn it around. I’m OK with it being tied to my name as long as people know that I’m doing good and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Kuntzweiler’s winter schedule is uncertain. She plans to ride the Holiday Meet at Turfway Park after the current Churchill Downs meet concludes Nov. 28. She has applied for a license to ride at Oaklawn Park when that meet opens in late January, but said she is “leaning toward” staying in Kentucky to ride the winter/spring session at Turfway.