Vets Got Support From The Krusher

BY JIM WELLS

It became evident during Muhammad Ali’s funeral two years ago that he was known in several areas of the world not as a prizefighter but for his humanitarian work, his willingness to reach out to the forgotten, marginal people on the planet. A man widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, yet many people, maybe most, in the world knew him for his support and outreach to the downtrodden.

There are echoes of that narrative in the life of Stan Kowalski, a man many people never knew as a professional wrestler but simply as a dedicated WW II veteran who would leave his home at any hour of the day to help a fellow veteran in need.

A Navy veteran of WW II who served as a gunner’s mate in three submarines in the Pacific, Kowalski dedicated his life after retirement from the ring to assisting the helpless and forgotten, in large and small ways.

A veteran’s water heater was out. He was still suffering the effects of PTSD after serving in Viet Nam and Kowalski was on the phone, maybe at 10 p.m., tracking down a plumber he met in McDonald’s the month before, then arranging help for the still suffering vet.

The shingles on another vet’s roof came off during a summer storm, a repair job he could no longer tackle because of wounds that destroyed the tissue in one of his legs while serving overseas, in a conflict at some godforsaken location no one can locate on a map.

Kowalski was on the phone, talking to a roofer he met at a VFW two years earlier.

Or, as happened several times, he arose at 3 a.m. and drove to Fort Ripley to see off soldiers headed for Afghanistan, Iraq or Kosovo, sending them to their destinations with encouragement or welcoming them back at various times with thanks for their service.

“He just felt that he needed to help veterans, especially those who were homeless,” said his daughter, Stacy Smith.

Kowalski was known to Canterbury Park fans for his visits to the track on Memorial Day each summer to lead festivities honoring veterans, namely those lost while serving the United States.

For the first time in more than a decade, he will not be here today, although his legacy is very much alive. A year ago, he attracted national attention in the racing industry for his interaction with jockey Jareth Loveberry, who lost a brother in the service a few years ago. Their story captured the hearts of veterans and racing fans.

Today, among those participating in activities is State Senator Jim Abeler, who assisted in making Kowalski’s dream come to fruition as the Anoka Eagles Nest, housing for veterans who are trying to make transitions in their lives. It is now operating.

Kowalski was fully aware that his dream would be fulfilled before dying last October at 91, although his legacy had long since been established, as a state commander of the VFW and as a tireless promoter of the United Way, an organization for which he gave hundreds of speeches and raised millions of dollars.

Kowalski’s son, Scott Smith, said his father got the idea of helping veterans more than 20 years ago. “In the late 1980s a homeless vet froze to death overnight. Dad didn’t go out for the next week without talking about that incident. ‘We’ve got homeless veterans who are sleeping and dying on park benches.’ ” he would say.

Smith,51, recalls the first time he saw his father wrestle, as if it were yesterday.

He was five years old and they were in Memphis, Tenn. “I got upset watching him getting hurt,” he recalled, “but he and his opponent talked me through it. I was in on it, one of the boys that night. He’d tell me to watch the next move after he got hit or his opponent would let me know that he wasn’t hurt.”

Smith said that selfish motives were a part of his fears that day. “Dad was taking me to the zoo the next day. I thought that if he got beat up we wouldn’t go,” he said.

Kowalski’s ring career over 28 years included an association with Tiny Mills, a Canadian wrestler. They were known as Murder Incorporated and won several world tag-team titles. Known as Killer Kowalski among other sobriquets, his long wrestling career included some 6,600 matches. He retired with shoulders and knees made primarily of titanium and, Scott said, having suffered “countless concussions.” Yet he remained coherent and alert to his last day.

Kowalski was 6-3 and weighed 280 pounds during the prime of his career, yet was nearly unrecognizable in that regard in his later years. He often made appearances in a wheelchair.

“He could still walk and get around,” Stacy said, “but he was a lot more comfortable doing it that way.”

Kowalski was born Bert Smith and changed his name for the wrestling ring, but his legal named remained Smith.

“Dad told us that if we ever needed anything to go by the name Kowalski,” Scott recalled. “Wrestling opened doors.”

And through many of those doors that opened walked a vet in need of shelter, medical assistance or simply a meal, doors that will continue to open either at the Eagles Nest or through another aspect of Kowalski’s legacy.

The Krusher in the ring was a man who sought to support and uplift lives outside of it.

CANTERBURY RIDER INVITED TO DINNER AT THE WHITE HOUSE

BY JIM WELLS

Jareth Loveberry knew he was good for only a few words. To make himself heard, he knelt in front of Stan Kowalski, a 91-year-old  World War II veteran, during the Memorial Day ceremony last Monday in the winner’s circle.

Loveberry thanked Kowalski for the speech he has just given and then his words ran out.

“I choked up. I only got out ‘my brother,’ ” Loveberry said. Kowalski seemed to understand and nodded an acknowledgement only those who have undergone similar experiences can provide.

While Kowalski paid tribute to all the men and women who’ve lost their lives in the service of the United States, Loveberry was thinking of his brother, Justin, three years his elder.

The conversation shifted. “What horse are you on in the next race?” Kowalski asked. “The four horse,” Loveberry said. “I’ll be rooting for you,” Kowalski said.

In those brief moments, the past became the present.

” It was November 13, 2004,” Loveberry said, the date branded in his memory.

Jareth, then 17,  was across the street from the family home on the edge of Mount Pleasant, Michigan that day, mucking stalls with a younger brother at the farm where he had worked since he was a  youngster. “Our boss told us we should go home early that day,” he said.

Jareth’s father gathered the family in the living room.  Justin, 20 years old, had been killed earlier that day in Iraq.  He had put himself in front of an IED, losing his life and sparing those of his comrades. “They were returning from a mission,” Jareth recalled.

Justin Ellsworth   Fallujah, Iraq. November 13, 2004. “We had different fathers, but we grew up together,” Jareth said, explaining the difference in their last names.

Jareth and other members of his family are invited to a dinner at the White House on Monday as part of a Gold Star Family acknowledgement. He’s not certain what to expect. “I’ve never been to D.C.,” he said.

Will the President be there? “I don’t know. They haven’t told us much,” Loveberry said.

Loveberry will fly to Washington, D.C., on Sunday and return Tuesday to Minnesota, where he is riding at Canterbury Park for the first time.

Loveberry will turn 30 in August and originally saw himself as an architect. He began school at a career college in Michigan before relenting and returning to what already had a hold of him _ horses. He had been breaking babies since he was 13 years old, and rode his first race at Great Lakes Downs on what would have been Justin’s 21st birthday in 2005.

He has ridden in Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arkansas. “I knew some Oklahoma people who liked coming up here,” he explained. “And while I was at Remington, Mac Robertson suggested that I come up here, too.”

He is off to a good start, recording his ninth win of the meet on Friday’s card.

“I like it here,” Loveberry said, “everything about it…the weather, the community, the racing, the public. It’s kind of like Oaklawn (Park). People come out for the racing. That’s really neat.”

Loveberry arrived without an agent but quickly found one in Richard Grunder. They had never met but Grunder had seen him ride on racing simulcasts. “I talked to people I trust who know him,” Grunder said. “He’s a good rider. I’m blessed to have him.”

“This is a good place to be,” Loveberry added. “A good location.”

Loveberry’s family _ his wife, Stacie and two children _ are living in Texas but are looking for a house in Oklahoma, something between, say, Remington Park and Oaklawn, where they can set down roots around Jareth’s career that takes him from place to place throughout the year.

Originally, his wife was to accompany him to the Gold Star dinner, and although she will accompany him to Washington, D.C., only immediate family members will attend the dinner after officials changed original plans.

The Loveberrys have two children, five-year-old Kennedy and seven-month old Colton, whose middle name is Justin.

That’s an additional tribute to Jareth’s brother, as was that win aboard the four horse on Memorial Day, with Kowalski rooting him on.

“It’s become my favorite day to win a race,” he said.

WAR HEROES, PAST CHAMPIONS MEMORIALIZED

BY JIM WELLS

While many Minnesotans were gathered around the grill in their backyards, around the cabin at the Lake, or visiting the local American Legion or VFW, patrons at Canterbury Park honored the servicemen and women for whom the day is reserved, while taking in a card that included two stakes races as well as the annual running of the bulldogs.

Memorial Day at the racetrack has come to be mean saluting veterans of the armed services, cheering bulldogs of the Twin Cities and surrounding communities and wagering on stakes races named for Hall of Fame champions’ from Canterbury’s past.

Such was the case on Monday as 12,893 patrons arrived and among their number was an occasional bulldog in tow, here and there one pulling on the bit, so to speak, while slobbering lavishly in anticipation of the awaiting festivities, or perhaps nothing more than a bone or treat.

Imagine for a moment the picture of a bulldog bearing any one of these names: Duke, Lugnut, Angus, Boomer, Pork Chop, Grimace or Meatball. They were all on hand, competing for the fastest bulldog of 2017.

The winner last year was a dog named Winston, one of three with that name, or one less than entered the contest with such an appellation this time. As a matter of fact, dogs named Winston finished first, second and third in 2016 and were ganging up to repeat the effort this time.

Although three of the four Winstons advanced to the final on Monday, the title this time was claimed by a fellow named Frank the Tank, owned by Tricia Olson of Lester Prairie. The cliff notes on Frank the Tank seemed nearly to eliminate him from consideration: “It’s surprising Frank is the ‘The Tank’ considering he never stops running. Add a ball to the equation and you may never get him back.”

The only thing Frank ran off with on Monday, however, was the 2017 bulldog title.

It was another dog who required the services of an outrider to run him down. Owned by Jenny Price, a 72-pound fellow named Chesty proved difficult to corral after the fourth heat. His bio included this information: “Named after the Marine with the most accolades, Chesty’s goal in life is to become the most decorated bulldog.” If not the most decorated, he was certainly the most chased.

The two stakes races on the card honored former champions at Canterbury. Northbound Pride had a rich history in Shakopee, winning 10 times from 21 starts at Canterbury Downs, victories that included the Frances Genter Stakes, the Minnesota Breeders’ Oaks and the Aquatennial Stakes.

Honor the Hero was not only a star at Canterbury but became a world traveler with career earnings approaching $700,000. He competed in the 1994 Breeders ‘ Cup sprint and as well as the Japan Cup the same year. Honor the Hero still holds the Canterbury track record for seven and one-half furlongs on the turf.

The Northbound Pride Oaks was first run in 1985 and was won by a ship-in from California named Savannah Slew, from the Alan Paulson stable. Savannah Slew was trained by Ron McAnally and ridden by one of the sport’s truly legendary jockeys, Bill Shoemaker. The Oaks was twice run as a Grade III race, in 1988 and again the next year.

$50,000 NORTHBOUND PRIDE OAKS

Eight fillies and mares lined up for this race, run at a mile on the grass, and the post-time favorite proved to be a winner at 8/5 under a solid ride from Alex Canchari, who put his horse, Hotshot Anna,  in position along the rail, just off a front-running trio much of the way before making his bid at the top of the stretch.

The winning move required Canchari to swing his horse out from the rail to overtake the trio in front of him as they came out of the turn.

“I was just hoping he wouldn’t stand up at the three-eighths pole,” winning trainer Mac Robertson cracked. “No, it was a good ride. I knew then (at the 3-8ths) that we were good.”

As Canchari overtook the front-runners, he recorded his horse’s strengths. “She doesn’t have a huge kick,” he said, “but she picked it up very nicely.”

The winning margin was a neck in a time of 1:36.70, with Starr Bear, ridden by Jareth Loveberry, second by three-quarters of a length over Super Marina and Nik Goodwin.

  $50,000 HONOR THE  HERO

Deshawn Parker was headed to a shower after this race when approached by a fellow offering his congratulations and an invitation to a meal later that evening consisting of elk ribs.

Not a bad way to celebrate a stakes victory, if you enjoy elk ribs that is, and Parker was indeed in a celebratory mood. He rode the winner Shadow Rock, a seven-year-old gelded son of Distorted Humor, but had to await the outcome of a claim of foul by Robertino Diodoro, the trainer of Wildfire Kid who finished second by ¾ length.

The first and second-place horses had light contact in the upper stretch but not sufficient enough, the racing stewards ruled, to have altered the outcome.

There was a head’s difference between Wildfire Kid and Shogood at the wire.

The winning horse is trained by Mike Maker, and when Parker was asked how he acquired the mount he laughed and said, “I’ve good a good agent.”

He rode four horses for Maker at Belterra on Sunday with nothing better than a second place to show for it, so the winning mount Monday, in his mind, “made up” for those efforts.