- Associated Press - Sunday, April 19, 2015

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) - On April 1, at 99 years of age, jockey and trainer Frank Kurinec returned to Oaklawn Park.

Kurinec still remembers every horse he ever worked with as a jockey and trainer, and like the majority of those in the business, he had quite the life on the racetrack.

“West Shores sponsors a race each year and we take our residents out to watch,” said Karen Burchell, a fellow trainer who now works closely as Kurniec’s caregiver, bonding over their common interests and swapping stories of their race days. “A lot of his friends showed up and they arranged to carry him down to the paddock area. People were stopping him to say ‘hello’ so much we almost couldn’t get through.”

Born and raised in St. Louis, Kurinec never rode a horse until he first got on the racetrack. He never went to high school and said he’s self-taught in everything he knows.

“When I was a youngster, I made money carrying ice that weighed more than me,” he said. “When I started racing, I weighed 85 pounds and I was probably 15 or 16 (years old) then.

“I lived across the street from the firehouse there in St. Louis and the firemen were real good to us kids, watching out for us. So one day, one of them was telling me ‘You ever thought about being a jockey?’ and he went right across the street and got me a job. I won a lot of races in Texas and Omaha. I’ve been to every track in the country, I bet.”

Kurinec started as a jockey at Oaklawn in 1934, riding about three years before becoming a trainer for around 40 years. He worked in the mutuel department and was last a spotter for the clockers at Oaklawn before an accident seven years ago brought him to West Shores.

“I lived in a condo over on Higdon (Ferry Road), and I guess one day after work my truck wouldn’t start,” he said. “I decided to walk home on account it was only three blocks, and I guess I stepped out in front of someone, but I don’t remember hearing anything or seeing anything coming. I was hit and had to retire, but I think if I hadn’t been hit I’d still be out there today.”

Sitting in the recreational area at West Shores, Burchell and Kurinec looked through photos of his many years racing and training, and with each photo he could name the horse and would quickly correct any mispronunciations. He is quick to share stories and it’s clear he loved his years in the business.

And for good reason, as he said he “made a good living racing” and met the love of his life, Megan, on the racetrack.

“Let me tell you, I was walking in front of the grandstand and I saw this girl up there,” he said. “And I thought to myself, ‘Man, I’d like to marry that girl.’ Sure enough, two or three days later someone introduced us and we later got married. She was the sweetest part of my life and we were married probably 72 years.”

The two had a son and as a family worked together on the track during his years training. He took most pride in creating success stories in his career, whether riders or horses.

“I started a young man — Carroll Bierman — and he went on to win the Kentucky Derby,” Kurinec said. “He was a nice little boy. We had a filly that we both had the pleasure of riding.

“But I guess I saw the most delight in watching a horse and knowing how I could help it race better.”

Kurinec said that there was one mare he had claimed for $1,000, that was “bowed in two legs and he thought he’d put the business on me.”

“Everyone thought I was crazy for buying that horse, but I galloped that horse 4 or 5 miles a day — never worked her. Finally I decided to put her in a race and wouldn’t you know, she won three in a row.”

Similarly, another horse he said “bled out of both lungs,” and he was the only one who could see its potential.

“I’d give him a shot of hemoglobin in the morning and only ever galloped him,” he said. “He won six races in a row. It’s the little details that I learned through my years early on. I could notice ways to improve them.”

Even after decades winning races, Kurinec said nothing compared to coming home to Oaklawn this meet, and as Burchell said, “he told me no doctor could have made him feel as good as he did that day.”

“I’ve done it all, let’s put it that way,” he said. “But if I had won the Kentucky Derby, I don’t think it would have been as good as being back at Oaklawn.”

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