Owners of Kentucky Derby horses are by custom supposed to act cool, businesslike and unemotional. And if ever an owner seemed equipped to maintain that pose, it was Jack Klugman.
Star of the TV series "Quincy," and before that "The Odd Couple," Klugman has spent much of his life in the limelight. After making it big in Hollywood, who could get too excited about making it in Louisville?
But when the actor showed up at Churchhill Downs to visit his colt Jaklin Klugman, there has rarely been an owner so obviously affected by the thrill of the racing game, and so willing to admit it.
Klugman arrived at Barn 41 at dawn one morning, and confessed that he had been awake since 3:45 a.m., too excited to sleep. "Just when I'd been getting bored and jaded," he said, "I've found a reason to get up in the morning. It's rejuvenated me. I'm reborn -- not a reborn Christian but a reborn horseman."
Klugman has been a lifelong racing fan -- he bet his first horse when he was 15 -- but his current intense involvement in the game had its origins six years ago. He and a friend, John Dominguez, owned racehorses on a small-time scale, and they decided to enlarge their stable by claiming a filly named The End All for $12,500.
Minutes after making the claim, Klugman and Dominguez found themselves the owners of a lame filly who would never race again. They were offered $800 for their broken-down property. But trainer Riley Cofer had an alternative suggestion. He had a stallion named Orbit Ruler who was standing for a $500 stud fee but, feeling sorry for the unlucky partnership, he offered to let them breed the filly to him for free.
The first product of this mating was a slow, cheap animal. The second off-spring of Orbit Ruler and The End All figured to be the same, if the laws of genetics prevailed. He was named -- Klugman told CBS that the horse was first thought to be a filly on the farm where it was bred, a charge the breeding farm denies -- Jaklin Klugman.
But the laws of genetics were suspended, and this colt who seemed sure to spend his life at the rock-bottom level of horsedom, began to show genuine promise.
"Last year" Klugman recalled, "I had a 3-year-old filly named Dr. Quincy, and I was kidding with Spectacular Bid's owners, the Meyerhoffs, and I said, 'Let's have a $100,000 match race, loser take all.' Then, this winter in California, they saw Jaklin Klugman run and they turned to me and said, 'you've got something.' Who knew? Who knew?"
The ill-bred, unprepossessing colt won four of his five starts as a 2-year-old, but the racetrack cognoscenti in California were still skeptical. Jaklin Klugman looked like a mere sprinter.But when he rallied to win the $100,000 California Derby at 1 1/16 miles, he silenced the doubters and obsessed his owner.
"When I'm around the horse," Klugman said, "I'm like a Jewish mother. I feed him a carrot and I say, Eat! You'll be as strong as a person!" And as the actor spent more time around his colt, the atmosphere of the racing world appealed to him more and more.
"I come from an I-I-I world," he said. "When I'm around horses, the trainers and the grooms and the owners all talked about the animals -- all outside themselves. That's why I love this business. It should be cutthroat, but there's camaraderie and understanding and real appreciation for the animals."
Jaklin Klugman gave his owner a mild disappointment when he lost the Hollywood Derby three weeks ago, but he came to Churchill Downs with a chance to redeem himself in last Saturday's Stepping Stone Purse. When he rallied to win the one-mile prep race in impressive fashion, he certified himself as a legitimate Derby contender, and brought Klugman within reach of every horse owner's dream.
"I can't think about anything else," Klugman admitted. "I still keep wondering if this is a script, and someone is going to yell 'Cut! Go on to the next movie.'"