Sweet Milestone - By David Schmitz

(Originally published in the June 25, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)   

On the surface Sweet Halucination’s victory in the fifth race April 23 at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races hardly seemed special. The colt won by 81⁄2 lengths after setting the pace, but hardly a day goes by in which some horse somewhere doesn’t win by that margin or in that fashion.

What made the victory so sweet was that it was the 3,000th win for trainer Jeff Runco. After doing some research, the track’s media department discovered that Runco had become just the 24th trainer in North America to saddle as many as 3,000 winners, and that he is one of just eight trainers with 3,000 wins and a winning percentage of at least 20%.

That daily double whammy took Runco by surprise. “I didn’t even know about it until a guy at the track told me,” said the 51-year-old trainer, who joined Steve Asmussen, Gerald Bennett, Bud Delp, Bobby Frankel, Jerry Hollendorfer, Scott Lake, and Bill Mott in the select group. (The track suspects Hirsch Jacobs, who saddled 3,596 winners, also might be a member but could not confirm it because of incomplete information on his number of starters.)

Like many other trainers, Runco began in racing as a jockey. Born in Columbus, Ohio, and raised in Omaha, Neb., he galloped horses while in high school. “It was back when they had Ak-Sar-Ben, and racing was good there,” Runco said. “I galloped for Dale Burns, who was an assistant to Don Von Hemel. Things were different then. You stayed with an outfit, and they got you started as a jockey. I went all over the place with Dale.”

While riding in Louisiana, Runco met trainer Bud Delp. “He sent me up to Bowie (in Maryland) to be his second-string rider,” Runco said. “I rode for his brother Richard and later rode first call. With the bug (apprentice allowance) I was one of the leading riders. We had a lot of horses in the early 1980s.”

Runco also rode for one of racing’s leaders, Thomas Mellon Evans, owner of Buckland Farm. “I rode for the stable at the Aiken Trials and in Kentucky and Delaware,” he said.

Runco met his wife, Susan, while she was training at Charles Town. “I got put on one of her horses when her jockey didn’t show up,” Runco said. “I started riding for her, and we later started working together.”

 Runco quit riding because of weight problems. During his career, from 1979-84, he won on 160 of his 1,631 mounts (10.3%). His biggest win came aboard Cherokee Frolic in the 1982 Lilac Handicap at Suffolk Downs.

“I liked riding but just got heavy,” he said. “I transitioned over to training, which I like better.”

Runco, who has about 40 horses in his barn and employs 25 people, credits his conditioning success to the years he has spent at the racetrack. “The key is being at the track every day and watching the horses and learning about them—day after day, week after week—just putting in the time,” he said. “I’ve also had good owners; being around good outfits has helped me.”

The Runcos also are in the breeding business. They own about seven broodmares that they keep at their 30-acre Coleswood Farm near Charles Town. Susan handles the breeding part of the business.

Jeff experienced his greatest success as a trainer in the 2010 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic extravaganza at Charles Town, sending out three of the nine winners including homebred Sea Rescue.

Bred and raced in the Coleswood name, Sea Rescue won the $450,000 feature, the West Virginia Breeders’ Classic Stakes. Runco also sent out David M. Raim’s Golden Set to win the West Virginia Farm Family Insurance Vincent Moscarelli Memorial Breeders’ Classic Stakes and Raim’s Stowe White to capture the West Virginia Division of Tourism Breeders’ Classic Stakes.

Runco’s biggest star has been Researcher, a graded stakes winner and a two-time winner of the Charles Town Classic Stakes. Researcher’s graded win came in the 2008 Queens County Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct.

Researcher’s richest victory occurred in the 2010 Charles Town Classic Stakes. The son of Two Smart became a millionaire when capturing the $1 million stakes over grade I winner Awesome Gem.

Runco, who no longer trains Researcher, has conditioned 14 stakes winners that include homebred Dahlgren Hall. The Runcos named Dahlgren Hall in honor of their son Jeremy, who graduated from the United States Naval Academy. Dahlgren Hall is an historic building at the Annapolis, Md., college.
The Runcos have another son, Robbie, who is a certified public accountant for a hedge fund company in New York.

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