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Inspiring Storyline, Swell of Support Propel Unbeaten Iowa-Bred Tyler’s Tribe to Breeders’ CupThe Life
No horse has ever cured anyone of leukemia. But Tyler’s Tribe sure helped Tyler James Juhl during his two-year struggle to overcome the disease that threatened his young life.
Eight-year-old Tyler is on the verge of being declared cancer-free after he was diagnosed in August 2020. Chemotherapy was delivered through a port in his chest. He also took one chemotherapy pill daily.
It is impossible to measure how much his grandfather, Tom Lepic, helped him emotionally when he purchased an Iowa-bred Sharp Azteca yearling in the fall of 2021 and named it after Tyler and the large number of supporters he had inspired on social media.
Lepic was eager to find something that might brighten Tyler’s life while the boy fought with everything he had. “When I bought him, [Tyler] had plenty of ups and downs and was in and out of the hospital,” the grandfather said. “Like any young man with leukemia, you hold your breath all the time.”
Tyler has treasured every minute, though, as Tyler’s Tribe enjoyed a dazzling 5-for-5 start to his career that has him bound for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint on Nov. 4 at Keeneland. Those victories, with precocious 20-year-old Kylee Jordan aboard, came by a combined 59 ¾ lengths as Iowa’s Prairie Meadows transformed into racing’s Field of Dreams.
The whole tale has a meant-to-be feel. Lepic, president of the Iowa Quarter Horse Racing Association, spotted an unnamed yearling, part of Sharp Azteca’s first crop, in an online photo and video ahead of the Iowa Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association Fall Mixed Sale.
“I just couldn’t believe how beautiful he was,” Lepic said.
He shared his enthusiasm with Tim Martin, a trainer he had worked with, and they agreed to take a first-hand look at the yearling the day before the sale opened. They were sold.
“He stood out from everything at the sale big time,” Martin said. “He looked like an athlete, big and muscled. Just a beautiful horse.”
They were surprised and overjoyed when they were able to bring him home as co-owners for $34,000. Martin readily agreed when Lepic proposed the name. It did not take long for Martin and Elbin Martinez, his long-time exercise rider, to be impressed as Tyler’s Tribe began working toward his debut at Martin’s Royal Training Center in Royal, Ark.
Martin could not conceal his excitement when he called Lepic soon after the youngster began training. “Boy, I’ll tell you what, you picked out a great one,” he told him. “He’s going to be really good. I love everything about him.”
Lepic confided to Tyler before the June 20 debut that he and Martin thought Tyler’s Tribe was good enough to win his June 20 debut at 4 ½ furlongs. When he demolished the field by 16 ¾ lengths, Tyler ran into his grandfather’s arms.
“Papa, you’re right. We’ve got a good one!” he exclaimed.
Victory after commanding victory helped Tyler cope with his grave illness and his awareness that some friends he made in the hospital did not survive.
“He’s been to every single race. We’ve given him all of the photos and trophies. He can’t believe all of the people who have come out to support him at the races,” Lepic said. “He loves every minute of it. He loves going to the backside to see Tyler’s Tribe.”
The strapping gelding has a gentle personality and is particularly affectionate toward Tyler and other children who visit Iowa’s equine celebrity. On the track, there is no touching him. No foe has come closer than 6 ½ lengths, the margin he achieved in the Oct. 1 Iowa Cradle Stakes as the overwhelming 1-20 choice in his most recent romp.
He appears to be the horse Martin, 60, has longed for since he launched his career as a trainer in 1985.
“You hate to get high on horses. You just kind of let them get you high on them, and he’s done it every time,” Martin said. “Every time he’s done it so easy, without being pushed.”
Martin thinks Tyler’s Tribe may be able to stretch out as a 3-year-old in order to be a Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prospect. For now, though, he is sure to be pushed in the Juvenile Turf after dusting inferior state-breds on dirt. He is set to become only the second Iowa-bred starter since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984. Topper T finished eighth in the 2018 Juvenile.
Martin has won his share of allowance races and listed stakes. Nothing beyond that. He views the Breeders’ Cup as a can’t-lose chance. “This is a great opportunity for the horse, for us,” he said. “I’ve never even had a horse get close to the Breeders’ Cup. We’re going to do the best we can do. The horse is going to do the best he can do. It’s an honor just to get into the Breeders’ Cup.”
At the same time, the connections are not entering merely for the sake of being there. “We’ve got a shot at getting the money with this horse,” Martin emphasized. “He’s fast. Speed is dangerous, any site, anywhere, and time. And he’s got speed.”
Nothing would make the Breeders’ Cup more special than the sight of jubilant, cancer-free Tyler running into his grandfather’s arms after the Juvenile Turf.