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Published: 7/22/2012

Grabbing the brass ring

Wauseon man's gamble on horse purchase paid off

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

It would probably be neither accurate nor fair to suggest Jim Mulinix was a bit player in the world of standardbred horse racing.

After all, during his 40 years in the business as an owner-trainer-driver of harness horses he often had the leading barn at Raceway Park and owned a high training average at about every Ohio track and fairgrounds he raced.

Mulinix developed some awfully good Ohio-bred horses and made a living selling them to deeper-pocketed, bigger stables. It allowed him to own a nice farm with top-notch facilities near Wauseon and to pay the bills.

But it's not an easy life. There's a lot of grunt work stretching from early mornings in the barns to late nights on dark, narrow country roads, towing the horse trailer on the back of a pick-up truck.

"I've probably eaten half my meals in my pick-up the last 40 years," Mulinix, an all-conference football player at the University of Toledo in 1972, said. "You work until you just can't go anymore. It's hard to get rich racing in Ohio. I didn't owe anybody, but there wasn't much in the retirement fund, never was a lot saved up."

So, a few years ago, Mulinix decided it was now or never if he was going to reach for the brass ring.

"I told my wife I knew I could do as well as the big boys," he recalled. "They didn't have anything on the horsemen in Ohio and Michigan, which is a good smart group, except for better horses. I told her I wanted to try it one time and see if I got lucky."

In late 2010, Mulinix and his friend and partner, Denny Miller of Archbold, went to the annual yearling sale in Harrisburg, Pa. The horse he liked was hip number 971 and it came to auction on the third day of the sale. Mulinix was bidding from the start, got to $15,000, more than he'd ever paid for one horse, closed his eyes, perhaps in prayer, and then heard the gavel drop.

The horse named A Rocknroll Dance was his. The colt went to the races for the first time about a year ago, tied the world record for a 2-year-old pacer in just its third pari-mutuel start, and with his $300,000 payday from winning last weekend's Meadowlands Pace has earned $1.4 million, to date, give or take.

"It has been a life-changing experience for me," Mulinix said. "I mean, with racing income and selling off some shares, that one horse has basically made me a million dollars within a year or so."

The brass ring, indeed.

Oddly enough, Mulinix was for years perfectly content being something of a big fish in a small pond, but things changed after the Jechura family sold Toledo's Raceway Park in 1988. Mulinix, who grew up in Monclova Township, has nothing nice to say about the owners since, including Penn National Gaming, the current ownership group that is planning on moving the track out of town since opening its Hollywood Casino Toledo along the Maumee River.

"The casino people did us horsemen dirty," Mulinix said. "They duped us from the start. Even the [state] racing commission deceived us. I got lucky and picked the right horse, but thousands of people are affected. It's destroying people's lives. Breeding farms are shutting down. A lot of friends are leaving the business. I feel so bad for all those people and for the industry in this area."

In a way, though, the so-called deception and disruption led him to where he has landed, up on top with the best in the business.

When Raceway Park closed its backstretch and razed the barns that so many horsemen called home, Mulinix was forced to expand and improve his Wauseon base. And with the prospect, now considered inevitable, of Raceway relocating out of Toledo, plus having soured on how he saw Ohio horsemen "being mistreated" in their home state where tracks are perhaps salivating more over slot machines than promoting the local horse industry, Mulinix looked north (Ontario) and east to bigger tracks with bigger purses and decided to take a shot at it.

The third and final day of yearling sales is when the quality tapers off and bids become a crapshoot. Hip number 971 was still available because of a mixed bloodline bag - the sire was well-respected Rocknroll Hanover, but the dam, Wichita Hanover, previously had two colts and a filly that had pretty much flopped on the track.

"I've been at it a long time, I've seen some great horses, and I've tried to identify the qualities that made them great," Mulinix said. "There were questions, sure, but he had the bloodlines. I kept being drawn back to him, looking him over. I had a gut feeling. I was pretty pleased to get him.

"We brought him home, started breaking him and working him out and by February [2011] we could tell he was special."

So Mulinix and Miller sat down and started writing checks to stake their horse into 2011's biggest races. It ended up costing more than the horse itself. But there has been a giant payoff.

A Rocknroll Dance won seven of 11 races and $863,325 as a 2-year-old. The bay colt has won three times in eight starts this year, including New Jersey's premier Meadowlands Pace, and has earned $513,925 while shaving a full second off his best mile time.

Of course, you have to deduct turnpike tolls from those winnings. As is the case with many big stakes races, Meadowlands Pace elimination qualifiers are staged one weekend and the finals the next. As is his practice, Mulinix loaded the trailer and brought A Rocknroll Dance home to Wauseon during the week between.

"I've been shipping horses in and out for years," Mulinix said. "I've got the facilities here, there's a 10-acre paddock and he's comfortable, there's green grass and blue skies and fresh water. He's happier here than being stuck in a stall somewhere for a week. Plus, I have between 15 and 20 other horses on the farm at any given time, so it's hard for me to sit around for a week between races with one horse considering the responsibilities I have here.

"It's not too bad on him. We pull over every 100 miles and he puts his head out and we get him a bucket of water. People honk and wave. He's made a lot of friends."

Come late September, Mulinix hopes A Rocknroll Dance makes thousands of friends in Ohio. The Meadowlands Pace may be king out east, but in Ohio there is only one race, The Little Brown Jug. And Mulinix is well aware that no horse with northwest Ohio ownership ties has ever won the premier event for 3-year-old pacers at the fabled fairgrounds in Delaware, north of Columbus.

"It's the dream race if you're an Ohioan," the 60-year-old Mulinix said. "It takes a great horse and a lot of luck to handle that half-mile track late in the season, having to win two heats. It's humbled a lot of really good horses and good trainers.

"So if we were fortunate to win it, I think I could retire and be among a select few Ohioans who have done it. Yeah, that would be something."

Now that the retirement fund has been built up some, it would be the ultimate brass ring.

"A guy asked me last weekend if A Rocknroll Dance was the best horse I've ever had," Mulinix said. "I told him he was as good a horse as anybody's ever had."

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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