Bobby Zen

So what happens when you keep pursuing the dream, keep persevering, only to find that it’s taken you right to the cliff’s edge? At some point you quit, right?

Not if you’re Ramon “R.J.” Rangel, you don’t.

He was still working with yearlings at Dixiana when he leased his first 10 acres. His wife at the time had quit her own job at Dixiana to care for their little farm and he would come back in the afternoons to put in a second shift on the heavier work. Gradually they worked up from two mares to seven and eventually scraped together enough to buy 30 acres of their own. And, for a time, they were actually doing okay. The odd pinhook proved tough, but they sold a few babies profitably and had some good boarding patrons like Elisabeth Jerkens.

Then came the 2008-2009 slump. Clients dropped away and the bank wanted to force a sale.

“So we put the farm on the market,” Rangel recalls. “A few people came to look, but nobody was buying at that time. So we started selling off the equipment, a little at a time, every time just to buy ourselves another month. But eventually we ran out of things to sell and the bank took over the farm.”

The marriage did not survive that stress. Rangel admits that he ended up “practically homeless,” staying with a brother like he was a kid starting out again. (He’s now 58). But he found some work showing horses for Mill Ridge, where his horsemanship was noticed and valued.

After all, he had been born to the game. His father had always worked at the track, notably for Jack Van Berg in California. In 1978, the whole family moved up from Mexico and Rangel would go to the barn at Del Mar to help during weekends and vacations.

“But things were tough in those days,” he recalls. “My grandpa used to have a farm, back in the day, had a lot of money, land, cattle. But his sons all liked to drink, and ended up with nothing. We always had money problems, always had a hard time paying the rent. With two sisters and five brothers, I decided–because I was the oldest–to quit school and work at the track. I was 15, too young to be allowed, so I snuck in there. I jumped the fence and would sleep in the tack-room. My mom didn’t like it, she cried. But I said, ‘You have to understand, I’m tired of always hearing that we don’t have enough money.’ So I started contributing to the welfare of my family, trying to help out, let the younger kids go to school.”

Rangel started out walking hots for Lester Holt. With time he started grooming, for Van Berg and also for Richard Cross, developing such an affinity with horses that he was soon galloping them, too. Then came the revelation of Kentucky, and the bloodstock industry, where he was certain he had found his true vocation.

Now, after years of patient toil, it looked as though he had been wrong.

“When you fall in love with these animals, you start with one, then you take another and another,” he says with a shrug. “And it just ended up to be too many.”

Even after losing the farm to the bank, however, the flame remained undimmed. And when one of Mill Ridge’s principal clients was unlucky to breed a filly that was born contracted, in 2017, everyone was more than happy for Rangel to take her off their hands. He figured that if he was patient enough, he might be able to breed from her. After all, she was by Quality Road out of a stakes winner. So he put her on a friend’s farm and would go to feed her before and after work.

This filly, Vigui’s Heart, was how Rangel renewed his love of Thoroughbreds after he had hit rock bottom: no home of his own, divorced, almost back to square one. Most of us would take the hint and start over in a less precarious walk of life. Wasn’t he ever tempted to do that?

“No,” he says adamantly. “You got to stay with it to the end. I loved that I could go and see this filly every day. It’s not even hard to get up earlier in the morning, when you can take care of a lovely mare like that. I always loved working with the babies and the idea of her foaling, that gave you all the energy you could need. Yes, it was hard. Hard to pay all her bills, the feed and blacksmith and dentist and vet. But she was such a nice, friendly mare, who’d never push other horses around, never do anything wrong.”

By this time Rangel had been hired by Spendthrift manager Ned Toffey, who had witnessed his work during his own time at Dixiana, to work with the yearlings. So when Vigui’s Heart turned three, Rangel asked his employers if they might agree to a Malibu Moon foal share.

“Obviously, I had no money, but with a nice Quality Road mare, we could just take a chance and see,” he says. “Malibu Moon was a little old, but he was such a solid stallion. And of course she was a young mare, so I figured that could work.”

One February night, Vigui’s Heart delivered a fine big colt.

“And she was a real good mama,” Rangel recalls affectionately. “The only thing that she did wrong is that in the summertime she would want to dump the water tank all the time. You’d have just cleaned it and filled it, and then over it goes. When I get the hose and call her, she’ll come from far away to stand there and get all wet. And her weanling, he would love it too, especially with the hose in between his ears. You don’t see that a lot. Most of the babies, they just run away. He was just like his mom, very nice to work around, I never had a hard time with him at all.”

And he made what felt like a terrific sum, $75,000, at the Keeneland November Sale. His purchasers brought the colt back to the same ring the following September, but had to settle for only a marginal pinhook at $100,000. And Rangel was initially disappointed to learn that he was now being exported to Europe. He didn’t view him as a turf horse and it would be harder to keep tabs on the colt over there.

But then he saw Valiant Force sent into a listed race for his debut in Ireland, running a very encouraging second and duly pitched into group company next time. That did not work out so well, however, and Rangel did not feel too enthused to see him starting at 150-1 for the G2 Norfolk S. at Royal Ascot.

“I was disappointed they were running him,” he admits. “It’s so tough there, man, I just hoped that he would come out of it good. At least he had already finished second in a stakes, so I said to myself, ‘Wait, he’s already done what any breeder would hope, for the first baby to give the mare a bit of black type.’ But I wasn’t expecting anything, I was mucking a few stalls and just went to watch the race on my phone in the tack-room.

“There they go. I lost him for a little bit. When the announcer says, ‘Valiant Force in front,’ I’m like, woah. So I started pushing and screaming and my heart’s coming out of my mouth. It was a great moment. I didn’t really realize how big of a deal it was until people started calling, congratulating me.”

Among those to do so, through Mill Ridge, were the Amerman family who had gifted Vigui’s Heart.

“Hopefully they still have some of the family,” Rangel says gratefully. “But it was a wonderful thing for me. In fact, I’m now looking to buy a house. I’m going to have a roof over my head at last.”

That’s because he sold Vigui’s Heart (in foal to Vekoma) at Fasig-Tipton last November for $525,000; and she was followed into the ring by her second foal, a Mitole filly, who realized $300,000. (Unsurprisingly, they sold through Mill Ridge.) Ten minutes that transformed his life, completing a 180-degree turnaround in what had become an increasingly demoralizing love affair with horses.

“Oh, it was exciting,” he says. “I had a bunch of my friends there, and everybody was rooting for me. They were so happy for me because they know where I come from, knew how things have been. And also because I’m buying them a few drinks! My mom’s house needed a little makeover, and I can now fix it for her, and she’s really happy. So things have changed for me. I feel a lot more comfortable.”

Incorrigibly, Rangel admits that ideally he would have bought another little farm. But he acknowledged that doing so would probably just be a way of squandering his great reprieve. With the help of Price Bell at Mill Ridge, he instead settled for a young Speightstown mare named Undefinable at Keeneland, later the same week, for $40,000. Her dam was a multiple graded stakes winner out of a half-sister to Editor’s Note and Hold That Tiger.

“I want to keep two or three mares,” he says. “My goal was to buy a farm, but it’s just too much money. So I’ll keep my horses with my friend, just pay by the head and take care of them in the morning and in the afternoon, keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing.”

And destiny may yet be reserving Rangel some further reward, because he has certainly disclosed a Midas touch since turning round his fortunes. Trusting them as they do, the owners of Mill Ridge had additionally approached Rangel to find a good home for an Empire Maker mare homebred by Dr. John Chandler. She had proved a disappointing producer, her latest foal by Noble Mission (GB) raising only $3,500 as a yearling. Rangel had a friend working at the Horse Park who placed her with a neighbor. The Noble Mission colt turned out to be Nobals, who won the GI Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint the day after Valiant Force was beaten by only half a length in the equivalent race for juveniles.

“I know people contacted the neighbor to try to buy the mare,” Rangel says. “She’s not interested in selling. But I think when you make these decisions with horses, whether you sell them or give them away, you just hope that the next person does well, and never regret any of it.

“Maybe Valiant Force can come back and win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. You never know, his dam could become worth a lot more. But that’s good. She did something great for me, hopefully she will do something good for the new owners as well.”

Certainly Rangel has been grateful for the good will of friends  and colleagues, above all at Spendthrift, where the late B. Wayne Hughes would surely have enjoyed such a remarkable example of the smaller breeder thriving. Rangel is next sending Undefinable to Authentic.

“They always say it takes money to make money,” he says. “And now I can afford to breed to a good stallion, to this well-respected son of Into Mischief.”

But actually Rangel has proved the aphorism all wrong. It didn’t take money for him. Just sweat, tears and exceptional belief.

“It’s true,” he acknowledges. “I did it the hard way. We were all raised that way. Just do the best that you can all the time. Mom used to say, ‘The only thing that I can give you is school–and you guys don’t want to go!’ But my dad said, ‘Well, as long as you’re a good worker, you’re always going to have food on your table.’”

And, albeit not such a good role model in certain other ways, his father has been proved right there. Several of Rangel’s siblings have made good in the industry. Paco is also at Spendthrift, as assistant broodmare manager, while Cesar and their sister Betty work at Siena Farm.

“Okay, I went through bankruptcy,” Rangel reflects. “But you’ve always got to keep your head up, keep working, keep saving. And when you have enough… then you buy a horse! I cannot just work with horses, I have to be part of them. And anybody can do that on a small scale. Like I said, I don’t want to own a bunch of horses. Just two or three mares will fill the need, will make me happy. It’s a great feeling to be in the outdoors with your horses.”

And a new cycle of his epic adventure has now begun, with Undefinable now having delivered her Flameaway foal, apparently “a lovely filly.”

“Of course all this has been exciting,” Rangel concludes. “That mare really took care of me. Things happen in this game, great stories happen. I never thought that I was going to be one of them. I’ve always tried to play my cards right. Just keep my mouth shut, work hard, do the best that I can every day. There’s an energy you can feel with people. Sometimes you can talk to somebody and they don’t give a good vibe. But I think that good things happen to good people. You never know that it’s going to be you. But if you walk through life trying to do things well, if you respect people, help them if you can, sooner or later, something good will happen to you.”

The post How a Rangel Earned His Wings appeared first on TDN | Thoroughbred Daily News | Horse Racing News, Results and Video | Thoroughbred Breeding and Auctions.

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