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Owners dream, some come true

Feb 17, 2004 7:29 AM

Owners are dreamers, lost in reverie, out of touch with reality.

They live in a fantasy world, conjuring up images of buying a cheap horse and having him march to glory, taking them from a mundane existence to incredible heights of happiness.

  It doesn’t happen that way.

Except that it sometimes does, which is the magic of horse racing and the point of this story.

It happened to Cheryl and Ed Sayfie of Rockford, Michigan, and their partners Gary and Laurel Gust of nearby Cedar Springs.

The Sayfies and Gusts became friends after Gary Gust became friendly with Ed’s father at a health club where they both worked out. The two couples became close, and in 1997 the Sayfies went to an auction in Pebble Creek, Michigan, where breeder Judy Ekstrand sells her yearlings.

The Gusts told them to look for a gray, and Ed and Cheryl liked one by Admirals Galley, a good gray that won $324,259 on the racetrack and sired nine $100,000 winners, and was a son of the tough and successful gray Laag.

They got the colt for $3,700, and they raced him at 2 and 3 on the Michigan fair circuit with trainer Keith Hough, who Ed Sayfie credits with creating the solid background that produced an iron tough older horse.

They named him Admiral’s Express, gelded him as a yearling, and today he is the most popular pacer in Ontario, a darling of the fans and a battle-hardened warrior on the racetrack. Frank Salive, Woodbine Entertainment’s excellent race-caller, dubbed him "the Gray Gladiator," and the name stuck. In a popularity poll conducted by Standardbred Canada on its Web site, Admiral’s Express won by open lengths, going away.

The Sayfies and Gusts are ordinary people who stood out in the rain of the county fair circuit and were struck by lightning.

  Gary Gust is a fourth generation general contractor who builds schools in the Grand Rapids area. Ed Sayfie owns a night club there.

They did not buy Admirals Express expecting to get a Grand Circuit horse. They bought him to have fun at the fairs, and they did. As a 2-year-old, he won five races and $16,108, taking a half-mile track record of 2:01.3.

At three, he won seven races and $66,818, and the Gusts and Sayfies were enjoying great times together.

The next year, 2000, they sent him to trainer Mike Hales in Ontario, to tap the rich mother lode there.

Admiral’s Express won eight races and $140,054, and it became apparent they had a very solid racehorse. None of the four owners knew how solid, however.

At five he won another $114,450, then another $175,136 at six.

Then, last year at seven, he exploded, winning 11 races and $225,516 and taking a sizzling mile record of 1:49.1 at Woodbine. In one stretch last year, with different drivers, he won five races in a row on the tough Ontario circuit, four of them faster than 1:50.

Driver Paul MacDonnell, who has driven him recently, described him this way: "He is just what you see: heart and guts all the way."

Despite his iron toughness and strength and battling nature, Admiral’s Express has had the setbacks that all owners in this sport learn is part of the game. He has been counted out twice, pronounced all done, first with pneumonia two years ago and then with an ankle infection last February that vets again thought might sideline him forever. He bounced back to pace those four sub-1:50 miles in a row.

Trainer Hales, who keeps the warrior at his farm in Orillia, an hour and twenty minutes north of Woodbine, says when the gallant gray was younger he would come into the paddock bucking, kicking and carrying on. He is better now, but when he leaves the paddock for the track no one is going to stop him. He is a bull with a mind of his own.

The Sayfies now have 20 horses, and have had other good ones ”” but none as good as Admiral’s Express ”” before.

Frank O’Mara and his son Mark, both legendary driving figures in Michigan, have raced horses for the Sayfies, and for the last five years they have had at least one state champion on the fair circuit, where they still race with enjoyment and success.

Ed Sayfie drives in amateur races, and has competed in Billings and Gentlemen’s Driving Club events and in amateur competition in Michigan. He has jogged Admiral’s Express but never raced him, and has a trainer’s license but doesn’t train. His wife Cheryl also jogs.

Gary Gust does not, but he rode horses as a kid after his grandfather game him one as a present when he was 3, and he has had quarter horses in the past. Last year the Gusts bought a yearling as a gift for their daughter and her husband.

"I assume it was a gray," I said, and Gary Gust laughed.

"No, it’s a bay," he said. "We’re not hung up on grays, we just like them."

It’s easy to get to like them when you buy one for $3,700 and he makes 168 starts, wins 43 of them and $800,000, and is still battling, winning and earning week by week.

Paul MacDonnell put it best. "There’s no quit in him," he said. "He is just a great horse."

So take heart, and go get one like him. As the state lotteries like to say, "Somebody has to win."