BY EMILY SHIELDS
As longtime, staunch supporters of California racing, the Irvin family has had its share of stakes wins.
Watching their Triple Crown trail-bound homebred Smokey Image storm to an impressive victory in the $245,000 California Cup Derby tops the list. Although family patriarch Robert Irvin passed away in 2015, his legacy lives on through the efforts of his wife, Betty, daughter Diane, and the exploits of Smokey Image.
Robert Irvin was a lawyer-turned-businessman, acquiring Armored Transport Inc. and turning it into a
nationwide livelihood. His passion, however, lay in both ranching and horses. In 1968 he purchased C-Punch Ranch in Lovelock, Nev. The fully functional cattle ranch and alfalfa farm has been operating since the mid-1800s, and now boasts an inn and casino in addition to its horse division.
The Irvins tried Quarter Horse racing at first and found modest success, but the pull of Thoroughbred racing soon won them over. A $12,000 purchase, Tepee Party, went on to produce stakes winners Big Squaw and Indian School. Big Squaw ultimately produced $271,854-earner Walk in Time and B.J. Ridder California Cup Starter Handicap winner White Cloud.
As the years rolled by, so did the stakes horses bred under the C-Punch name. Multiple stakes winner
Jeweled Pirate earned $332,610, 10-time winner Kluggie placed in four stakes, and Juniper Pass took both the San Luis Rey Stakes (gr. IIT) and San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap (gr. IIT).
When Robert Irvin died, the ownership of the horses fell solely to Betty, who picked up and cultivated her husband’s passion for the sport.
“They are her horses,” said Diane, who works as her mother’s racing manager. “My job is to talk to trainers, get the horses transported and the mares bred.”
Overseeing a large operation is something Betty was already practiced at, having raised seven children. Diane was educated as a lawyer and toured as a member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association for 10 years. After that, she joined the family business, working alongside her father.
“After being out on golf tour, I came back to work with my dad in 2006,” said Diane, “but didn’t get really involved with the horses until 2009, when I started seeing the horses progress from foals to yearlings, then go out to race. It’s a lot of fun, but it would have been more fun if I had more time to do it alongside my dad.”
The Irvins do believe that Robert is still watching, as holes in the field have inexplicably opened up in races to help keep Smokey Image undefeated.
“He’s cleared a path for Smokey more than once,” Diane said. “We do know he’s watching, but we wish he was here to share it.”
Smokey Image debuted for Northern California trainer Greg James at the Oak Tree at Pleasanton meet in June 2015, winning the first of his six career victories to date. He added the $64,910 Everett Nevin Stakes and the $62,310 Cavonnier Juvenile Stakes before shipping south to Del Mar and substantially tougher competition.
He effortlessly added the $150,000 I’m Smokin Stakes by 41⁄4 lengths, then completed his season by winning the $200,500 Golden State Juvenile, despite a troubled trip.
With an eye on a run at some of the best stakes races Southern California has to offer, Smokey Image was transferred to trainer Carla Gaines.
“Poor Carla was stuck with trying to teach me things,” Diane joked. “It’s been a learning curve, and it’s all very new to us still.”
Smokey Image responded to the move in electrifying fashion: He crushed the Cal Cup Derby by 81⁄2 lengths.
“You always want to win, but to make it look as easy as he did with ears pricked was special,” Diane said. “We never expected him to do that. Betty and I were surprised, Carla was surprised, and we really don’t know just what he can do. Regardless of what his career becomes from here, he’s really just a horse that loves his job.”
Smokey Image is drawing comparisons to another flashy chestnut California-bred who won the same race
two years before: California Chrome. That runner went on to win four grade I events as a 3-year-old, including the
Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I), and was named the national and California- bred Horse of the Year. Smokey Image will try to follow in his footsteps, with an eye on some of the graded stakes races for sophomores at Santa Anita. He has earned $435,100.
The Irvins are prepared for an onslaught of attention if their horse happens to make it to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May, and Diane promised to be “as available as possible Derby week.” They are also realistic, however, and know how difficult it is to reach racing’s greatest stage.
“We’ve been around long enough to know it’s a struggle,” Diane said. “At this point, we’re just proud to be part of the conversation.”
They were also tremendously honored to have Smokey Image voted as California’s champion 2-year-old male for 2015.
“It just means so much to our barn,” Diane said. “Getting this award would have made my dad so proud. Winning this award doesn’t happen every day.”
Betty resides in Los Angeles, and whenever the Irvins have a horse racing at Santa Anita or Del Mar, Diane flies out from Colorado or Nevada to join her at the track. They have 10 horses in active training, including the recently placed Kiwi Attitude, five laid up at the farm, five 2-year-olds preparing for their racing debuts, another five yearlings, and 13 mares waiting to be bred for the 2017 foaling season. Te foals are born in California to enjoy the lucrative Cal-bred program, then return to C-Punch Ranch to be raised.
“We feel very fortunate,” Diane said of her mother’s recent success. “I’ve come to really enjoy the magnificent animals that are her passion.”