Young Trainer Kruljac a Perfect Match for Breeders’ Cup Winner Finest City

Finest City won the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint and is aiming for a repeat in 2017 in what will be her final race. (Eclipse Sportswire)

DEL MAR, Calif. – When it comes to gifts fathers bestow on sons, few can top the generosity of Eric Kruljac.

The veteran trainer presented to his son, Ian Kruljac, very possibly the horse of a lifetime when he gave him Finest City to jump-start the son’s training operation in the summer of 2015.

“I wanted him to have the feeling of what it’s like to have a high-class horse,” Eric said.

Actually, Finest City turned into a special horse for Seltzer Thoroughbreds with the help of Ian’s attentive eye. He was 28 when he became one of the youngest trainers to win a Breeders’ Cup race as the daughter of City Zip captured the $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita Park last November. She is back to defend her title as a 5-year-old on Saturday at Del Mar before she enters the Fasig-Tipton November sale.

Craig Dollase holds the distinction as the youngest trainer to win a Breeders’ Cup race. He was 27 when Reraise dashed home first in the 1998 Sprint at Churchill Downs.

Ian’s relatively tender age and inexperience – he had never trained on his own before Finest City – did not trouble Tyler Seltzer when Eric approached him about transferring the promising horse to his son.

“Age to me was really a very small factor in that decision,” Seltzer said. “When I pick a trainer, I care about their work ethic, I care about their knowledge, I care about their ability to win with the right horse, I care that they are honest and trustworthy with me and my family. Ian met all those criteria.”

Ian Kruljac and Finest City (BENOIT photo)

Tyler wholeheartedly recommended Ian to his father, Wayne, who forms the other half of Seltzer Thoroughbreds. Wayne, incidentally, also is a minority partner in the San Diego Padres.

The Seltzers paid $85,000 to purchase Finest City at the 2013 Keeneland September yearling sale. Eric had spotted her and it was love at first sight despite her being somewhat undersized.

“When she walks, it’s like she’s on a conveyor belt. Her feet barely come off the ground,” Eric said. “She has a great shoulder and great reach. She’s a smallish filly with a huge stride.”

Ian, a fourth-generation horseman, could not have taken the responsibility he was given more seriously.

“You’re the face of it. Your name is on the horse,” he said. “You’ve got to be confident in yourself and make sure you’re making the right decisions.”

In truth, more likely Finest City makes most decisions. There is a reason she is known as “the Queen” around Barn 46 at Santa Anita, a space Ian shares with his father.

“She gets whatever she wants,” Eric said.

And why not? She has produced top-three finishes in all but four of her 19 career starts, with five victories and six runner-up finishes, in earning $1,256,394.

Ian now has eight horses under his care. If he learned anything from Eric, it is to let his horses do the talking.

“I lean on the horses to pretty much tell me what I need to do,” Ian said. “You go there every morning and see what the horses are telling you.”

This summer, after Finest City finished third in the July 8 Great Lady M Stakes at Los Alamitos, she informed Ian that it was time for a freshening, the first extended break of her career. The Filly and Mare Sprint will mark her first start since then. She will be ridden by Corey Nakatani.

Ian is confident the significant layoff will not pose an issue. “We don’t run unless we think she can win,” he said. “We think she’s going to go out there and fire.”

Whatever the race brings, Ian knows the hard part will come the next day. He will fuss over Finest City one last time before she is flown to Lexington, Ky., for the Fasig-Tipton sale.

“It’s going to be a long Sunday,” Ian said. “The last three months have been pretty emotional.  It’s something I’m going to look back on for the rest of my life and cherish it.”

Ian will turn much of his attention to growing his business, understanding that it will be hard to top Finest City, the greatest gift of all.

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