Someone tells you that if you take the plunge, you’ll win a $200,000 stakes race nearly off the bat, you’ll have success wherever you go and you just generally won’t believe your good luck, would you do it?
Would you hop in the vehicle one day and leave rural Alpha, Minnesota, for rural Oklahoma City, approach a random farm house and ask the occupant if he has any broodmares for sale?
“That’s pretty much what they did,” Neal Von Ohlen said of his parents, Rodney and Sylvia.
The years were passing swiftly and a nagging item on the bucket list kept gnawing at them for attention. “I wasn’t getting any younger. I was in my early fifties,” Rodney recalled. “We decided if we were going to do it, we’d better do it then.”
It did not transpire that fluidly, of course, although there were times in the first year or two when it seemed that horse racing was a tree with money growing on it. Everything happened so easily; the pieces seemed to fall in place by themselves.
They were the owners/breeders of a horse named Fols Bunka, who put them on the quarter horse map in 1987 by winning the $200,000 Black Gold Futurity at Blue Ribbons Downs.
The mare they bought at that random farm house was Bunch of Money and she was in foal. They hauled her back to Minnesota and she gave birth to Redi to Par. A subsequent trip to Oklahoma and mating with Six Fols resulted in Fols Bunka.
Rodney’s recollection of those days is one filled with errors he made during the learning curve that took place, yet lots of good luck to balance it off and some head-shaking occurrences at times too.
There were more than 400 entries in the Blue Ribbon Futurity when they sent out that first horse of theirs, Redi to Par, who won his heat by an amazing five lengths, but whose time was 11th on the list of 10 qualifiers.
A head-shaker for certain.
Von Ohlen did not receive much encouragement either when Fols Bunka won the Black Gold Futurity after going seven-for-seven previously. He was approached afterward by a horseman who told him: “I feel bad for you. Here you are almost brand new in the business, and your big day is already behind you.”
The Von Ohlens found success at Canterbury Downs, too, when they showed up there in 1987.
“For a while there, I was really hopping,” he said. “Everything was going so good it was almost embarrassing. But I found out then that things can change, and change in a hurry.”
Yet the vicissitudes of the horse business did not stop the Von Ohlens from pursuing their dream. “They ran those Minnesota-breds at tracks all over the place with success,” said Ed Ross Hardy, who has trained for them some 15 years.
“Sylvia always stayed in the background,” said Sharon Wilmes, mother-in-law to Hardy. “But she was a big part of the operation. Rodney always told us how he couldn’t do without her, and we saw that for ourselves.”
Sylvia cared for the barns in the summer, and Rodney took over in the winter months, and they made regular trips to Oklahoma to breed their mares to quarter horse stallions.
“The first 20 to 25 years they’d haul three or four mares down there every season, breed them and haul them back. They made a lot of trips to Oklahoma,” Neal added.
During one of those trips Rodney ran into a well-known quarter horse trainer named Bob Baffert. “He had a stall near us,” he recalled. “He was just making the change to thoroughbreds. Very nice guy.”
Starting the 2018 season, the Von Ohlens had sent out winners of six different quarter horse stakes races at Canterbury over the years, the best of them undoubtedly First Class Smarty, winner of the Canterbury Derby, the Northlands Futurity and the Bob Morehouse twice. They had winners in the Minnesota Derby and the Minnesota Futurity three times each. In 2006, First Class Smarty set the record (:17.735) that stands in the Northlands Futurity.
They are the second-leading quarter horse owners all time in the Minnesota Festival with six winners. They started the season as second-leading owners in earnings at Canterbury, third in career winners.
Rodney lost Syliva last May after a battle with cancer, and says in three years he’ll retire. “We have a mare in the barn in foal,” he said. “After that I’ll be done.” Yet, the Von Ohlens have already accomplished all they need and more for a place in Canterbury Park’s Hall of Fame.