Ian Kruljac hasn't even been a trainer of record for two full seasons and he already has a seasoned conditioner's complex.
The 28-year-old horseman describes his first win not as a celebration, but as a sigh of relief. It's not uncommon among horsemen to view success in any particular race as a weight removed, especially regarding a horse particularly loaded with equine talent. The pressure of expectations in a sport rife with volatility is not something everyone can deal with.
Kruljac still posed with a smile for winner's circle pictures in August of 2015 at Del Mar, when Seltzer Thoroughbreds' Finest City stormed away from a maiden special weight field to win by 8 1/2 lengths, but the prevailing emotion was that familiar relief. The fast ones, Kruljac says, are the ones that can hurt themselves, and Finest City had her share of issues.
"It was a relief to finally get it right," Kruljac says of the then 3-year-old City Zip filly.
A fourth-generation horseman, Kruljac currently has one horse under his name—that same Finest City—and he won't be able to take another relaxed breath until after she takes to the track for the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I).
"I'll give a sigh of relief when she gets on the racetrack," Kruljac said. "She's 100% right now and we've got to hold her together--hold her down."
To illustrate his point, he shows a video on his iPhone. It's a shot of a Santa Anita Park shedrow. Finest City is in her stall flailing her head out of the opening. It goes on for a while.
"Now, watch the wall on shedrow," Kruljac explains.
In an instant, Finest City disappears into her stall and after a short pause—BANG—the wall bulges out as her hoof hits it, then repeats.
"That was two days after (a six-furlong workout in) 1:11 2/5," the trainer says with the slightest of laughs. "Apparently that wasn't enough."
Kruljac only has one horse for a reason—although he did have two, before he lost Shakeitupbetty to a claim. His primary job is as an assistant to his father, Eric Kruljac, who operates a stable at Santa Anita, with horses also at Turf Paradise and Golden Gate Fields. Eric, 63, is a former private investigator who turned to training in 1986.
After more than 1,000 wins and $19 million in earnings, Finest City was a gift of sorts to his son. The elder Kruljac picked out Finest City for $85,000 at the 2013 Keeneland September yearling sale in part because co-owner Tyler Seltzer was a fan of both Lemon Drop Kid and Run Away and Hide . Already impressed by the filly's makeup, it didn't take much convincing to get Seltzer to agree to buy the daughter of City Zip (the sire of Run Away and Hide) out of the Lemon Drop Kid mare Be Envied.
"Thank God Run Away and Hide was by City Zip," Eric says. "That's why we have her."
Because Seltzer and Ian had developed a friendship from social gatherings and business dealings, Eric felt Finest City was the perfect opportunity to give his son his first shot solo.
"It was time to have a horse in his own name and she ran huge (under Eric's name) first time out, when we were basically getting a race into her," Eric says. "Next time she wins by (8 1/2 lengths) and emphatically got Ian going in the racing game.
"If you're giving someone something, you really should give them something. We have a lot of inexpensive horses, and I wanted him to have something with quality and potential, so he wasn't just working on maiden ($20,000 claimers) or (non-winners of two) horses, and I had a lot of confidence in him."
"We've been with the Kruljacs for 10 years or so now," Seltzer adds. "Ian is beyond impressive to me in all the things I care about—ability to train, ethic, communication. When Eric brought up giving Finest City to Ian, I didn't hesitate for a second."
Since Finest City's debut run under Eric's name, a close second in July of 2015 at odds of 33-1 behind fellow Filly & Mare Sprint entrant Gloryzapper, Seltzer has turned down several offers from other owners to purchase the filly, but he's also shrugged off suggestions to switch trainers.
"I've had multiple people—even some of my friends—suggest to me that you should switch to someone else," Seltzer says. "A horse with that talent, 'Just think what he could do with this trainer or that trainer.' I'm big on loyalty and I reject that. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I did that."
A father's and an owner's confidence has been rewarded—the filly has $375,594 in earnings—but it wasn't easy.
Ian's calm demeanor—at least outwardly—is probably a good fit for any kind of horse, but it specifically suits the feisty Finest City. Ever since she arrived at the barn as a 2-year-old, she's had the air of prowess. The Kruljacs even at one point had to separate her from another top filly, Blingismything, in the barn, because the two would compete to see who could kick the wall harder.
"Even as a 2-year-old, she always had that swagger," Ian says. "She always showed a lot of run. She was mentally hard to hold down. She was always full of herself, always trying to be the matriarch of the barn."
Then the setbacks came. Remember, the fast ones can hurt themselves. Nothing was ever overly serious, but Finest City's debut kept getting delayed. Before what was supposed to be her first start at Del Mar, veterinarian Dr. Barrie Grant discovered an issue that may have saved her from a truly serious injury.
"She hurt herself right before her first race at Del Mar and thanks to (Grant)—he found her tibia (injury) and we scratched her," Ian says. "He saved her. If we ran that day—I don't know. We had to give her three months already."
But Ian is well-schooled in patience growing up at racetracks all his life. Born on an Arizona ranch, Ian went to the racetrack every other weekend with his dad in his early years, then began to travel westward to Del Mar with Eric every summer when he turned 15. Trading the scorching Arizona heat for the for the seaside breeze was reason enough to make the pilgrimage, but there was also the horses. He was a hotwalker, but kept a trainer's hours tagging along with dad.
Then came college—in the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program—but Ian admits school was never a priority.
"I didn't want to waste more time and money, and I was going to (train) anyway," Ian says. "I was just never going to get through chemistry. When you throw numbers and letters together—it was just awful."
So westward again Ian went, and he began hotwalking horses for trainer John Shirreffs before joining his father as a full-time assistant.
"He's 90% laid back, but like everybody, he's got his moments when he gets fired up," Eric says. "I think he's emotionally suited for this crazy game."
Seltzer calls Ian "authentic and confident, but not flashy."
"He's forward thinking, thoughtful, and mature," the owner says. "The key is he's patient and not reactionary. All the things you would hope for in a Thoroughbred trainer."
Ian's temperament appears to have paid off with Finest City. A look at her 3-4-2 record from 13 starts doesn't tell the whole story, but it doesn't take much examination to discover the proper context of her races.
Her breakthrough was the Great Lady M. (gr. II) over a quirky Los Alamitos Race Course that not all horses take to. It was unsurprisingly Ian's first stakes win, and put an end to a five-race winless streak for Finest City. She began her 4-year-old season with a tough, head second to Lost Bus in the Santa Monica (gr. II) at Santa Anita, where she was also a neck in front of fellow Filly & Mare Sprint contender Tara's Tango.
Next came an allowance third and a fourth-place run in the Las Flores (gr. III), before the Great Lady M., but all of her races had been sprinting.
"I really didn't think we had seen her best yet," Kruljac said in April at Los Al, after the Great Lady M.
Since then Finest City hasn't run one bad race and has exhibited versatility unmatched in the Filly & Mare Sprint field. She came in third in her first try at two turns on the main track in the Vanity Mile (gr. I), 2 1/4 lengths behind three-time champion Beholder and three-quarters of a length behind eventual Beholder nemesis Stellar Wind.
Then came two graded grass starts, in which Finest City nearly made a case for a Breeders' Cup start on that surface. In her first turf route in the Yellow Ribbon (gr. IIT), Finest City came in fourth, but only 1 3/4 lengths behind the winner in the 1 1/16-mile grass test. Then she ran a winning race but came up a head short behind next-out grade I winner and Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) entrant Avenge.
Those spots, according to father and son, have been selected entirely by Ian, and he's comfortable switching surfaces again. The fact that Finest City has fired in such varying conditions likely speaks to his ability.
"He's done everything his way," Eric says. "He comes and asks my opinion, and sometimes he follows it and sometimes he does not."
Both father and son describe their relationship as easy going. Eric doesn't have to crack the whip on Ian because he never gives cause to.
"I beat him to the barn and leave after him, so I don't give him much," Ian says. "But we disagree quite a bit. We definitely take what each other say and use it. I know he knows what he's talking about. Whatever you want to call it—we're a dynamic duo—but there are definitely a lot of disagreements."
"He's all-in," Eric adds. "He's up at 3:30-3:45 (a.m.). When he's pulling out (of the driveway), that's my alarm. He's after it."
As well as Finest City has run in varying conditions and environments, one column is noticeably vacant on her past performances, as well has her trainer's record. Both are winless at Santa Anita.
The prospect of having that first Santa Anita victory in a Breeders' Cup race would be as storybook as it gets for the Kruljacs.
But what stands out most about Kruljac, whose date of birth lands smack dab in the middle of the oft-maligned Millennial generation, is an appreciation for what he has, even with just one very good horse.
Eric admits that giving Ian Finest City was supposed to be his son's first step toward starting out on his own.
"I'm interested to see how he handles Saturday," Eric says. "As a father, what I was hoping for is that he can build his own stable and wind up training horses on his own. I think he'll do that eventually and I think he'll do tremendously well."
But Ian is not ready to take that plunge just yet. That's not to say he lacks confidence. He just knows better than to get too high or too low, because he's seen what can happen at the racetrack.
"It's scary out there. It really is—trying to find good pay and all that other stuff," Ian says. "You can get far behind in this game really quick. It's not easy. Even people who have had good horses can go broke.
"I just know how fortunate I am right now to have this. Let's soak this in a little bit and everything else will take care of itself.
"I'm soaking it in, because I don't know if it's going to take 28 more years to get another one. I know it doesn't come easy. I know there are horsemen who have been training their whole career to get an opportunity like this."
From a father's perspective, Eric is less hesitant, citing a work ethic and horsemanship that goes back to Ian's great grandfather Walter Markham, who owned and operated a cattle ranch and also bred Thoroughbreds at the farm near Salinas, Calif.
"I know he'll do a great job," Eric says. "It's in his blood."