Sonoma's Seawolf Stables Off and Running

Seawolf Stables, a unique fundraising endeavor for Sonoma State University athletics, got off to a noteworthy debut when its 2-year-old gelding Irish Dodger finished a surprising second at odds of 29-1 Aug. 7 in his first start at Santa Rosa.

Irish Dodger is a son of Helmsman purchased privately and trained by Art Sherman. He was the first starter for the racing syndicate, which is named for the school's mascot. The syndicate was formed to help the 7,500-student public university, located one hour's drive north of San Francisco, meet growing NCAA requirements for scholarships in order to maintain Division II status.

Irish Dodger came from sixth in the stretch to challenge favored Danny Dingle in the $28,000 maiden special weight event. Irish Dodger settled for second in the 5 1/2-furlong heat, 1 1/4 lengths behind the winner. He is the third horse bought for the syndicate by Russell Gardiner, a retired advertising agency president who has taken on a volunteer role to raise athletic funds for Sonoma State.

"The NCAA increased its requirements to $250,000 for Division II scholarships which it announced must be met by August 2005," said Gardiner, a volunteer basketball coach for the college. "We were at about $128,000 so we needed to essentially double the amount. To not do so would have meant dropping down to Division III, where there are no scholarships. Our athletes would have left for other Division II schools and so would many of our coaches. It would have been an embarrassment to the university.

"I had to think of one really big idea. I couldn't see making that up with bake sales or car washes. How many golf tournaments can you hold? Then I remembered reading that Sonoma County has the highest per capita ownership of horses in the country."

Noting that his brother-in-law is Jerry McMahon, president of Barrett's Equine Sales, Gardiner had his plan. He took it to the athletic director, Bill Fusco, who liked the idea. The university also gave its blessing and Seawolf Stables was launched.

The other two horses, both California-bred colts, were purchased as yearlings in October at Barrett's. Sea Wolf, a son of Swiss Yodeler who cost $15,000, was approved for racing by Golden Gate stewards Aug. 5 after passing his gate test and could start for trainer Chuck Jenda at Bay Meadows' San Mateo County Fair meet later this month. Sonoma Slew, a $19,000 son of Slewledo, is to be evaluated for a quarter crack in his left front hoof Monday. Although he has been training with a bar shoe for trainer Sherman, Sonoma Slew could be sent to the sidelines for four to six weeks to let the injury heal, Gardiner said.

Both horses were syndicated for $1,000 per 1% share, with half of the money going to the athletic program and half to the stable for care and training. Purses will also be split.

Seawolf Stables is possible, Gardiner said, because it is "completely set up outside the legal structure of Sonoma State University."

There were about 20 members of the 100-member ownership group on hand at Santa Rosa to see Irish Dodger, a recent purchase for $25,000 from Tom Bachman's nearby Pegasus Ranch. He has not been syndicated yet.

Gardiner said that most of the syndicate members are boosters who have never been involved in racing ownership. Many had never previously attended a race. They've had group outings to Bay Meadows, enjoyed information sessions with the training staffs and are learning all about the sport, he added.

"They are having the time of their lives. They're investing in athletics and became a part-owner for $1,000. And half of that is a tax deductible donation," Gardiner said. "Even though they only own a 1% share, they feel like it's their horse."