Big Reward - by Evan Hammonds

(Originally published in the July 14, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

For a trainer such as Dale Romans, Mike Bruder is the perfect owner.

“He’s smart, he knows the horses, and he knows the business,” Romans said succinctly of his client. “We’re always on the same page, and he’s been very successful because of that.”

They were both in the winner’s circle July 1 after Guys Reward won the Firecracker Handicap (gr. IIT) at Churchill Downs. The 5-year-old horse wrapped up a very rewarding meet under the Twin Spires, winning two other races over the Matt Winn Turf Course: an allowance/optional claiming event May 31 and the June 9 Opening Verse Stakes.

In three previous campaigns Guys Reward had placed in five graded stakes and the Budweiser Select Cradle Stakes at River Downs.
“He’s really hitting on all eight cylinders right now,” Bruder said of the Kentucky-bred son of Grand Reward. “He might carry us through this year and maybe into next year, who knows? He’s only 5; he’s got a couple of good years in him.”

Bruder, 68, an owner and breeder, also serves on the board of directors of the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. The Evansville, Ind., native first got involved in racing in the late 1970s. His entry is an oft-told tale.

“Not far from my house were three farms that had Thoroughbreds on them and I stopped by there a lot,” he said. “I had some friends out there and pretty soon a buddy of mine asked if I’d buy a horse with him. After that, it just blossomed.”

They started with one inexpensive horse and as they rolled along, Bruder began buying his own horses and racing them locally at Turfway Park, River Downs, and his local track, Ellis Park, with trainer Earl Murphy. Ellis Park is in Henderson, Ky., just across the river from Evansville.

Fortunately, said Romans, “when we got together his stock kind of went to a different level.”

The two teamed up in 2000. Currently Romans has a handful of horses for Bruder.

“We’ve been around the same circles,” Romans said. “He knows everybody around the backside around the track.”

Mainly a guy who goes to sales at Keeneland and picks out his own stock, Bruder also tried his hand at breeding horses for a while.

“I tried that scenario but it didn’t work,” he said.

However, one of the horses he bred that did work out was Bright One, a 2003 colt by Dance Bright—Twinkle, by Lively One. Racing for Bruder’s wife, Carolyn, and friend Delmar Daubs, Bright One landed the $750,000 West Virginia Derby (gr. III) in 2006. The colt was invited to compete in Dubai the following year, but had to be euthanized after breaking a sesamoid bone in his left foreleg following a fourth-place finish in his seasonal debut at Gulfstream Park.

While the fate of Bright One was one of Bruder’s darker moments in racing, the subsequent fortunes of M B Sea helped temper the loss. The son of Alphabet Soup was purchased by Bruder at the 2000 Keeneland September yearling sale for $20,000 and went on to earn just shy of $800,000 while compiling a 9-8-10 slate from 69 starts and racing to age 10. Major victories came in Keeneland’s Fayette Stakes (gr. III) and runnings of the $125,000 West Virginia Governor’s Stakes in 2005 and 2007.

Bruder is retired now after 48 years in the coin machine vending business. With a territory of several counties surrounding Evansville, Bruder offered pool tables, jukeboxes, and video games to area taverns and restaurants on a commission basis.

“It was a real busy life, but I made time for the horses,” he said.

Another coin-operated type business is Instant Racing, a gaming system that is soon to be added to Ellis Park’s menu of wagering options. The pari-mutuel machines, which resemble slot machines, may help Ellis Park as it has struggled for years while facing off against Casino Aztar in Evansville. Bruder doesn’t have any interest in Instant Gaming other than he believes it will help the purse structure.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “It’ll be good for the horse industry and help purses a little. It might get some new owners in on it and it will at least keep some of the old owners in the game.”

But don’t worry about Bruder exiting racing anytime soon.

“I was barn-raised,” he said. “I love the horse business. It’s hard to get out of even if you want to. It gets into your blood.”

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