For Jeff Runco, thoughts of his sons never far away
by Ted Black
Jeff Runco’s stellar training career includes nearly 4,000 winners heading into Thursday’s Thanksgiving evening card at Charles Town. While he trains for a variety of owners, many of those winners have come in the light blue silks of his Coleswood Farm homebreds – and many of those were named to honor his two sons, Jeremy and Robert.
Runco, who won 160 races during a brief career as a jockey at Charles Town, will head into this Thursday’s holiday program with 3,990 wins as a trainer. His career has been remarkably consistent as well, saddling at least 100 winners in 26 of the past 27 years and his current total of 148 winners this year is within reach of the 167 winners he sent out last year and his single-season career best of 172 trips to the winner’s circle in 1993.
While the best horse Runco has trained was the millionaire, Grade 3 winner Researcher, who also took the first two editions of the Charles Town Classic, Runco’s next four leading winners are all horses he bred or owned (or both), all with names connected to his sons.
In the Fairway, who will seek his first win from eight starts this year in the $30,000 Autumn Handicap on Thanksgiving and boasts career earnings of $564,000 on 15 wins from 49 lifetime tries, was named for his step-son, Robert, a 2002 Lehigh University graduate.
“My step-son, Robert, loves to play golf,” Runco explained. “He has always been an avid golfer, and now he works on Wall Street and still somehow finds time to play golf. In the Fairway was named for him and he’s turned out to have done very well for us. He’s still looking for his first win this year, but he’s always trying. He was really good the previous two years and he was able to race well even when he shipped out of town. We’ve named a few others for Robert, but In the Fairway has definitely been the best one.”
While In the Fairway has nearly ascended to the head of the class among Runco trainees in terms of career earnings, trailing only Researcher who banked over $1.4 million on 13 wins from 29 starts on the flat tracks before being belatedly and unsuccessfully converted to a steeplechase horse at the end of his career, many of the Runco trainees that local racing fans have grown accustomed to seeing in the winners circle have have naval-themed names. Runco’s youngest son, Jeremy, graduated from the Naval Academy in 2009 and has since been commissioned as a fighter pilot.
More than a handful of the homebreds that Runco named for his son Jeremy have earned at least $150,000 and five of them. After Researcher and In the Fairway, Runco’s next three top earners all fit the bill: Sea Rescue, Slip the Cable, and Spa Creek (a creek near the Naval Academy off the Severn River).
Both Sea Rescue ($414,000) and Slip the Cable ($380,000) ascended to the head of the class locally by capturing the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic, while North Atlantic finished second in this year’s edition of the Classic then rebounded to capture the $50,000 A Huevo Stakes.
“A lot of the horses that we have named for Jeremy with the Navy theme have turned out to do really, really well for us,” Runco said. “Both Sea Rescue and Slip the Cable won the Classic. Losing Slip the Cable [to an injury] earlier this year was tough. I thought he still had a bright future ahead of him. North Atlantic only got beat a nose in the Classic, and then he came back and ran a big race in the A Huevo.”
Spa Creek, who is approaching $370,000 banked in her career, is the leading mare among earnings that Runco has trained. Two other top three Runco mares share the Navy theme, Navy Chapel ($257,000) and Navy Ribbon ($157,000). One of his former trainees from several years ago, Staubach, was named for the legendary Dallas Cowboys quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy while playing his college career at Navy.
“It really hasn’t mattered who the sire was or who the mare was or whether the foal was a colt or filly, we have always tried to name a few horses each year for Jeremy,” said Runco, who won 84 races as a jockey in 1981, accounting for more than one-half of his career total as a rider. “A lot of the horses that we’ve named for him have done really well. It never hurts to see one of the homebreds win the Breeders Classic. We’ve had a lot of success with those horses. We have a few more young ones that we’re hoping to turn out to be just as good someday.”