BUSTERS FIND THAT WINNING DOESN’T ALWAYS PAY

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

Jeff Lane, the sports editor and my one-time classmate at Chabot Junior College up in Hayward, and I were on a mission.

Hollywood Park was our destination on July 21, 1979.

Jeff and I comprised the two-man sports staff of the small-city California daily in Redlands. We’d known each other since our junior college days at Chabot Community College in Hayward, a Bay Area city about 20 miles south of Oakland.

We were as sports-minded as they come – baseball, golf, football, basketball, college and pro, not to mention horse racing, you name it. The main Bay Area tracks were Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows, not to mention a handful of summer fair tracks in Pleasanton, Santa Rosa, Vallejo, Fresno, and Sacramento.

Looking for an angle to bring horse racing to the Redlands Daily Facts, we’d stumbled upon a thoroughbred that couldn’t defy such attention.

It was the only way you could sell such a story to local readership. Our owners, Frank and William Moore, plus its devoted editor, Richard West, had vested their faith in us to report on local events.

We were the second paper on people’s doorsteps. The Los Angeles Times, San Bernardino Sun and the Riverside Press Enterprise were regional papers. They’d cover the professionals, major colleges and, of course, they had a horse racing page.

For Jeff and I to make this work in a Redlands newspaper, there had to be a local angle. And we’d found one: The horse was called Old Redlands. There was another horse in that same barn, a filly called Milenka.

LOSING MILENKA IN A CLAIMER

On this particular day, the two of us were on a mission to watch Milenka, entered in the first race at Hollywood Park. Owned by a Redlands couple, William and Benita Marie Busters, we were curious to see the outcome of this race.

Milenka won in 1:10.2, ridden by the apprentice Patrick Valenzuela – who would go on to have a solid racing career – but just prior to the race, the Busters faced the news.

Since it was a claiming race, rival owner Patrice Bozick put in the claim for her, had beaten her own filly, Geeme, a few weeks earlier. The Busters, of Redlands, had just one runner in racing peddle left in their barn.

“It took us eleven months or a year to breed her,” said Buster. “Then another year, a year to train her, and then two and a half months of racing. And in one afternoon, she’s gone.”

Such were the perils of claiming races. You’ve got to sell at the claiming price. In this case, the claim was $20,000.

“We’re going to try to get her back,” said Buster.

After being posted at 4-to-1 in the morning line, Milenka was sent off as the 2-to-1 favorite, the filly held on to beat Hoisty Jen, ridden by Canadian jockey Sandy Hawley.

Later that day, legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker booted home his 7,700th career win aboard Parsec in the Hollywood Juvenile.

A few hours earlier, the Busters’ racing stable had been cut in half, having lost Milenka to the Bozick stable. Only Old Redlands remained in their barn.

“We’ve dreamed about having a stakes winner,” said Buster, noting that Milenka’s sire, Olympiad King, had been a stakes winner in the early 1960s.

Old Redlands, coming off a seventh-place finish in an allowance race at Hollywood Park, had been dropped into a claiming race. This colt was not in any danger of winding up in the Kentucky Derby or Hollywood Gold Cup. It won just once in his first 11 races. The win came at Bay Meadows, about 40 miles south of San Francisco in December 1979, his final race as a two-year-old.

Buster, whose father was in construction and also a horseman, had bred Old Redlands. The sire was Gummo, he was out of Judena. Gummo had been a pretty good sprinter in his years on the track.

A couple weeks before Milenka’s win and claim at Hollywood Park, the Busters watched Old Redlands win a 1 1/16-mile allowance race.

Over a month later, he won a starter allowance race at Del Mar. The Hollywood Park win had lifted the spirits of the Busters’ trainer, Clay Brinson, who called him a “useful horse.”

“He’ll win a lot of races if we put him in the right ones.”

The Busters had lost Milenka, but held on to Old Redlands. In their barn was a yearling filly – named for Buster’s wife, “Benita Marie.”

Milenka, whose lifetime earning were $59,600 in winning six times and taking second place on four occasions in 25 career races, tucked five victories and a second place finish over an eight-race span between that July 21 victory and early January 1980.

Old Redlands rarely saw Southern California tracks again. Shipped up to the Bay Area, where he raced at Golden Gate Fields, just outside of Oakland, and also at Bay Meadows, then into the Pacific Northwest tracks Yakima Meadows and Longacres – both in Washington.

The horse would race 47 times over a six-year stretch – winning ten times with earnings just over $52,000. At one point, the colt won four straight claiming races. By then, the horse had been claimed by another owner.

BUSTER’S DERBY HOPES DASHED IN 1997

As for Buster, he wound up as part of the Team Valor syndicate, owning shares in a pair of Kentucky Derby horses nearly two decades later.

Captain Bodgit, under Alex Solis, finished second to Silver Charm in the 1997 Derby. It should’ve won. Bodgit had won the Florida Derby at Gulfstream and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct (N.Y.), but trainer Bob Baffert’s colt could not be denied.

Silver Charm won by a head.

Buster was furious for another reason. He saw contact between Silver Charm and his colt. Derby history has only recorded one “foul.” It didn’t occur in 1997.

“An inquiry,” said Buster, who had lost his wife, remarried and moved to Yucaipa-based Oak Glen, “cost him the Derby. (Captain Bodgit) was going by (Silver Charm) when that thing happened.”

In the Preakness two weeks later, Captain Bodgit ran third – and never raced again.

For Buster, he had one Derby hope remaining in 2000.

The Deputy, an Irish foal, went to post as the favorite. He’d won the Hill Rise Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, ran second in the San Felipe – all at Santa Anita. At Churchill Downs on Derby Day, though, The Deputy failed to fire, finishing fourteenth.

Incidentally, the filly, Benita Marie, never made it to the track.

Old Redlands would have to serve as the honorable mention to Buster’s all-time stable of runners.

As for the July 23, 1979, story in the Redlands Daily Facts, the byline belonged to me. It was a horrible story, failing to focus on the Busters, their life in Redlands, Bill’s father as a horseman, not to mention the insights of the sport.

I’m embarrassed to admit it.

bustersfind

Jeff probably could’ve edited it better. He was probably trying to be nice to his reporter. At least he wrote a perfect headline:

“Busters find out winning doesn’t always pay.”


Feature image credit: “hollywood park” by Deidre Woolard licensed under CC BY 2.0.