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Inside Track: Overcoming Obstacles

Brian Pitnick grinned widely as he stood under a television monitor

- by Jon Forbes

Brian Pitnick grinned widely as he stood under a television monitor in the Bay Meadows clubhouse the evening of April 11.

“I can’t wait to see this chart,” the trainer said as he anxiously awaited the replay of his filly’s maiden-breaking score in the last race on a Friday night.

At the start of the race, Crystal Silence seemed to lose all chance when she bore out six paths and tossed her head on the first turn. The 3-year-old Beau Genius filly settled up the backstretch in the one mile event, commenced a rally on the far turn, and split opponents in the stretch to win by two lengths, giving Pitnick his first win as a breeder.

Crystal Silence, the first foal out of the not-so-aptly named Graceful Stepper, may have inherited her flair for the dramatic from her mother—when Pitnick, now vice president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, purchased Graceful Stepper for $47,000 at the 2000 Keeneland September yearling sale, he had no way of knowing the drama that awaited.

In October 2001, Graceful Stepper (Phone  Trick—Reminiscently, by Affirmed), then 2, had been at the track for just 10 days when she reared and cracked her skull on the gap after jogging a mile at Bay Meadows. She bled profusely and had no equilibrium, needing eight people to get her back on her feet.

“We had to move her legs for her and walk her up the ramp into the horse ambulance,” Pitnick recalled.

After returning Graceful Stepper to her stall, Pitnick, veterinarians on site, and track stable superintendent Jerry Lynn Hunter stabilized Graceful Stepper in preparation for the 90-mile van ride to UC Davis, where she underwent emergency surgery. She survived the operation and was moved to Faith Farm for rehabilitation.

“We were just trying to save her as a broodmare,” Pitnick said.

Eventually Nancy Bergeron, the farm’s owner, began riding Graceful Stepper and told Pitnick she was “sitting under a lot of racehorse.”

A tibia fracture further delayed Graceful Stepper’s racing career but in October 2003, the filly made it to the races. She broke her maiden by seven lengths at Golden Gate Fields in December in her fourth start. Three races later, she dug in to win a starter allowance by a head, also at Golden Gate, but tore a suspensory ligament during the race and was retired for good.

Graceful Stepper passed the will to live to her second foal, a colt by Gilded Time named Giant Steps, who also became a long shot to live after developing severe gastric, esophageal, and intestinal ulcerations. Surgeons defied the odds and were able to create an intestinal bypass with the colt. The surgery became the subject of an article in the The Horse Report, published by the UC Davis Center for Equine Health. Giant Steps is now a healthy yearling, and Graceful Stepper recently delivered a colt by Western Fame.

Pitnick, a former attorney who won the second stakes of his career when Goinwest captured the $50,000 Dwight D. Patterson Handicap April 26 at Turf Paradise, said he didn’t expect racing to be as stressful as practicing law—but it’s still “more enjoyable and rewarding” than being a lawyer.

“There’s a difference between having a job and having a vocation,” Pitnick said. “Practicing law was a job but this is my vocation.”

Pitnick was introduced to racing by his eighth grade algebra teacher. He took a statistics class at UC Santa Cruz and wrote an analysis paper on how the morning line influences betting. He won his first race as an owner on New Year’s Eve of 1988 when Tiz Stealin prevailed under Jack Kaenel at Bay Meadows. Kaenel’s son, Kyle, rode Crystal Silence to her maiden-breaking score.

Bay Meadows, Pitnick’s current training base, will conduct its final day of racing Aug. 19. The 74-year-old track is slated for redevelopment but Pitnick said he’s willing to relocate to the training center in Pleasanton.

“To say it’s an end of an era is an understatement,” he remarked. “The writing has been on the wall for a long time and a lot of the horsemen see this as a new beginning.”