By Chris Lomon
Courtesy Woodbine Communications
TORONTO–When Zeljko Krcmar arrived in Ontario, he carried two dollars in his pocket, hope of a better life, and a dream of rekindling his association with horses.
It was 1968 when the young man from Yugoslavia first set foot in Toronto. He can recall the moment as though it happened yesterday.
“I came here to work as a chemist, that was my trade,” recalled Krcmar. “But because my love and my passion was horses, I knew I had to do something for my career that was built around them. I was in show horses most of my life. When I was in Yugoslavia, I was a show jumper. The horses, throughout my life, I have always felt a closeness to them.”
His daughter, Mary Self, has seen the countless photos of his father's show horse days.
Although each picture is different in what's depicted, every image shares a connection with the others.
“He's very, very passionate about horses,” said Self. “He's one of those old-time horsemen, and he's been doing it his whole life. Dad started riding when he was in Yugoslavia. The only place to ride horses was in the military–and there was mandatory military duty–so he would ride with the soldiers.”
Krcmar's skills in the saddle led to other roles outside of the show ring.
“My dad used to box and he was also a stuntman,” said Self. “I remember when I was young going to movie shoots with him. He played Tonto in a movie, and he did tricks on the horses. We had dogs that he would teach tricks to and they were in TV shows. I had quite the childhood seeing him doing all of those different things.”
Horses, however, were, and still very much are, Krcmar's greatest joy.
Seven years after he came to Canada, he found his way to Woodbine Racetrack. Krcmar felt contentment the moment he walked onto the Toronto oval grounds.
After earning his trainer's license, he saddled his first horse in 1975. Now, some 45 years after sending his first Thoroughbred postward, Krcmar, nearly 80, is still finding happiness at the racetrack.
His career numbers aren't nearly as flashy as some of his contemporaries–98 wins, two stakes triumphs (including the 2008 Deputy Minister at Woodbine with Piper in the Glen) and just shy of $2 million in lifetime purse earnings–but Krcmar's training talents are indisputable.
And he hasn't lost a step.
In 2020, he won 16 races, a career-best number, from 75 starts. His horses produced $283,401 in earnings, also a lifetime-best mark.
“I changed a lot of things this year,” noted Krcmar, whose racing silks feature the Croatian national flag and colours. “My feeding program was different from anyone else's program. Plus, with so many years experience, what you learn over time, it all helps. Even mistakes. You learn from your mistakes and that helps you perfect things.”
It also helps when you have a talented team at your side.
Krcmar's wife, Gail, is a prime example.
“They are just the nicest people on earth,” said Self. “Dad, with his feed program, and the way he takes care of the horses, and Gail–she's in her 70s–she's on her hands and knees every day doing their legs, it's incredible.”
Self is also heavily involved and invested in horse racing, including as a Thoroughbred owner.
Along with Tim Murray, they started owning horses together last year. In 2020, they began the season with six horses. By the end of the Woodbine campaign, they had four–one was claimed, another became a show jumper.
“We're blessed to have them taking care of our horses,” said Self. “We buy at the sale or privately. We're not big-time buyers, owners or breeders. We do it the best we can.”
Murray, a native New Yorker now living in Florida, had no prior knowledge of the racing business.
After meeting Self and Krcmar, his interest piqued with more horse talk.
“I knew nothing about horses,” said Murray with a laugh. “I didn't even know what a halter was. Mary somehow talked me into going to OBS [Ocala Breeders' Sales] last summer, and she started telling me about the great bonuses you get for purchasing an Ontario-sired or Ontario-bred horse. So, we went off from there. She taught me how to read the pedigree books and everything else.
“I leave it up to Mary and her father when it comes to the conformation side of things. I stick with the paper. I'm like the Brad Pitt character in the movie Moneyball, analyzing the data and the competition. Somehow, our horses always seem to be in the top three.”
Murray has high praise for Krcmar, and not just for his training abilities.
“He's one of those people that will always help anyone. He treats his horses and people the same way. He's very humble, family-oriented, and someone who would give you the shirt off his back. He's a great person, someone you are proud to know and proud to work with.”
Just like those Murray worked alongside during his days as a Marine, a FDNY firefighter and an NYPD policeman.
He was at ground zero the day of 9/11.
“We all went down there. They lost 343 people in the fire department… I can tell you that I've been to one too many funerals over the years, but it was an honor to serve in each role I had. I went from the police to the fire department, and that's how I finished out my career.”
Now retired and living in central Florida, horses have become his hobby.
His ownership silks pay tribute to the firefighters that perished Sept. 11, 2001.
“I had my niece design the colors, which are the colours of the Marines, the red and yellow,” he said. “I have the Marines, my first career, and on the left sleeve is the NYPD, and on the right sleeve is the FDNY. On the blinkers, it has the number 343, out of respect for those from the fire department who died. I feel like… it's like they are rooting for me from heaven. As corny as it may sound, that's how I feel.”
Seeing those colors represented in the winner's circle for the first time was an emotional moment for Murray, Krcmar and Self.
It was Make No Mistake, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Raison d'Etat, who provided the emotional score for her connections on Aug. 9, 2019.
“This sport, it can be a rollercoaster, but you just have to go into it knowing that,” said Murray. “But just that one time in the winner's circle… it's just an amazing feeling. There's really nothing else like it. We won our first race at Woodbine and we were there. I can't even describe that feeling.”
Although they weren't able to stand railside at Woodbine July 31 this year, Make No Mistake added another memorable highlight.
The dark bay skipped over the Inner Turf in 1:34.35 for one mile on that day, setting the track record in the process. It was one of four wins she had on the year for the trio.
It was another high point in a banner year for a veteran trainer.
Nothing, not even the premature ending to the Woodbine Thoroughbred season due to COVID-19, could take away from Krcmar's outstanding 2020 campaign.
“My dad, he just takes it all in stride,” offered Self. “You know, they are just doing what they have to do. He's so flexible and easy about everything. I think that's why people like him the way they do. One of our horses got claimed this year and I asked my dad, 'What are we going to do?' He said to me, 'Listen, it's all part of the sport. It's okay.' My dad, he doesn't want to claim from anyone. He doesn't want to take the horse away from someone. He did claim two from Mark Casse this year, but he went and asked if it was okay to do it. He smiles every day he is at the racetrack and around his horses.”
For now, Krcmar will attempt to relax, something, admittedly, that is often easier said than done.
Not surprisingly, his association with horses will stay strong over the winter months.
“My son has a big show stable in Aurora, so I'm going to go there and help any way I can, something to keep myself busy, teaching and coaching.”
Krcmar will also no doubt think about the 2021 racing season at Woodbine, which will be his final one as a trainer.
“Two wins away from 100? I will get that,” Krcmar said. “I want to pass that. Hopefully, next year will be the same as this year. I would be happy with that. It was a wonderful year. My wife, she is my stakes horse. Without her, I wouldn't be able to do this. She just never stops and she takes such good care of the horses. She keeps me going too.
“I still love it, or otherwise I would have quit a long time ago. I'm happy if I have a horse in a stakes race, the same way I'm happy if I have a horse in a $15,000 claimer. It's exactly the same feeling. I just love my horses.”
And it's obvious the horses love to run for Krcmar.
“They really do,” said Self. “I always think to myself, 'Can you imagine being almost 80, getting up every morning and doing what you love?' But that's what my dad has done. He defected from a Communist country. He came to Canada with two dollars and he was able to keep his bond with the horses.”
It's a bond that Krcmar treasures.
“Horses gave me a life in this country,” he said. “If I didn't have that, I'd probably be working in a chemical plant and be an unhappy guy. But I have done something that has brought me great joy. Always be good to your horses, and don't push them. They are like crystal and that's how they should be treated.”