av Lisa Harkema
The 1998 Hambletonian was won by Muscles Yankee, the outstanding 3-year-old in a good crop. But were there contemporaries who could beat him? In Sweden, one trainer did not exactly feel threatened by the Valley Victory son:
– Viking Kronos would beat Muscles Yankee easily even if he had to run outside him the whole race.
Ridiculous to some, but Swedish trainer Lutfi Kolgjini («Ludde») meant it. Always believing in his horses, Kolgjini is a very emotional person who says exactly what is on his mind, something that has made him hated by a few but loved by most people. When Mosaique Face beat Maven and Papagayo E in 2015 to win in 1:51 in Gävle, the interviewer asked «surely this is the best horse you have ever trained?» expecting an affirmative answer. Kolgjini, however, simply responded «not even close, that honor belongs to Viking Kronos.»
Viking Kronos photo by Claes Kärrstrand
What is the deal about Viking Kronos? He was a fantastic racehorse, an even better stallion and for Kolgjini he has meant everything. Absolutely everything. To fully understand what the horse usually just called «Vikingen» means to Kolgjini one needs to briefly know Ludde’s story. Kolgjini’s family fled from Albania to Kosovo in 1948 when the communists took control of the country. Some family members had already been killed at that time. In 1967 the family moved from Kosovo (then in Yugoslavia) to Sweden. After finishing high school he started working for a trainer at Jagersro (Malmo, Sweden) at 18, and at 25 started on his own. Not too many years later he was twice champion trainer at Jagersro but then things started to go downhill: he lost some owners, the remaining horses failed to perform and his partner Anna left him. Kolgjini is a very emotional person and it all culminated in a race at Jagersro in 1995. Kolgjini felt Adielsson had taken a few liberties with him earlier in the race and in retaliation he deliberate drove his horse into Erik Adielsson. It was, as Kolgjini later admitted both a stupid but also a really dangerous move. He received a 3 months suspension and for a while there was no end of negative press.
Several owners stuck by Kolgjini’s side, however. One was Thomas Moberg, a Swede who, together with Lars Omnell and Italian Antonio Carraretto bred trotters under the «Kronos» breeding name at the latter’s farm in Italy. (The «Kronos» venture was initially started in 1989 with Thomas Moberg and Lars Omnell with Carraretto a 20 % partner, when Omnell died in 99 Carraretto became a 50 % partner while Moberg sold his part in 2002 to Kolgjini, Falk and Dieden («Mr Lavec»).) Moberg had bought Conch in foal to Speedy Crown from Hugh Grant in 1988. The resulting foal, King Conch, finished second in the Hambletonian and also won the Review Futurity, the Tompkins-Geers and the Hanover Hempt Stakes for Moberg.
Since Conch wasn’t the smallest of mares, Moberg believed American Winner’s lighter type would be a good fit for his mare. He bred Conch to American Winner in 1994 (his first year at stud). Believing it to be a really good cross, Moberg also told Kolgjini that «gold may be on its way.» Kolgjini agreed and badly wanted to buy the resulting foal. However, money was an issue for him in 1996. In fact, in his own words, he «could not even afford the flight down to Italy to go to the auction.» But somehow he managed to secure a deal to buy the foal, Viking Kronos, on credit.
To quote Kolgjini, «3 days after the auction the horse came to my farm in Vomb. That was the first time I even saw him. Wow! He was a fantastic horse to look at. Now the big question was only, could he run too? Or am I even more in debt?» He had reunited with Anna and now he had Vikingen there, too. Although he did not know it at the time, this was when absolutely everything came together for him. Breaking him in, Vikingen did everything right and after only 10 days Kolgjini decided to test him, something he would ordinarily never do. What happened then Kolgjini would later describe by «that feeling that he gave me that day, it was euphoria, I got goosebumps all over.» Now he knew. Viking Kronos was a future superstar. «I have had many stars in my training but nobody with that kind of talent» he would later add.
To return the generosity of his breeders who let him buy the horse on credit, Kolgjini gave 25 % of the ownership back to the them. Looking to cash in on some of his good fortune, Kolgjini then sold off part of Viking Kronos, including 30 % to Fulvio Montipo («Scuderia Terra Reggiana», breeders of the Italian «Rex» horses) as well as a part to Lou Guida. In his 6 races as a 2-year-old, needless to say he won them all, Viking Kronos set several race, track, Italian and European records – and also one World record (for 2-year-old horses on 1 5/16 mile race). After his first start people flocked to the tracks to watch the young colt race. Kolgjini and Viking Kronos not only won but also put on a great show. Usually winning by 20-30 lengths, Vikingen was totally superior to the others and Kolgjini would also charm the crowd from the sulky. His first three starts as a 3-year-old were nothing different.
When in Italy, the daily training was carried out by Jerry Riordan who said the following about Viking Kronos: «In working with Chuck Sylvester, I had the honor to train some of the greatest horses in the history of harness racing, including Mack Lobell. But Viking Kronos may just be the greatest 2-year-old I have ever trained or that anyone else has ever trained. I have seen the top 2-year olds of 1997, including those in the United States, and in my judgement, none of them is in this horse’s class. He may just go down in history as the greatest of them all if he continues on his current path. He is, by far, the best looking horse I have ever seen on a race track.»
But in the warm-up ahead of his 10th life start at the Gran Premio Etruria in Florence, Kolgjini immediately felt something was very wrong. The story of what happened both there and following this was laid out by Kolgjini in an interview on Swedish radio July 5, 2012. Since it contains some implicit accusations the following is a verbatim reproduction of what Kolgjini himself stated on the radio. I am not in a position to verify or dispute the claims but I think it is worth to note that the content has never been challenged or disputed by the other party.
«I realized immediately that something was wrong. Vikingen behaved like a madman, he was not controllable. I had never felt him like this before. After the warm-up I asked the caretaker if he had always kept the horse, who was stabled at Montipo’s farm outside of Bologna, in his sights. Tommy (the caretaker) said . I did not know what to do but I was hoping he could calm down. It was difficult, there were so many spectators who wanted to see him. I decided to let him race, perhaps the most difficult decision I ever made. Vikingen would never be the same. The magic disappeared that day. He finished second and for the first time ever he was dead tired after the race. Thoughts flew through my head: was he sick? was this sabotage? I decided to take the horse back to Sweden immediately and I asked Tommy prepare the trip. The day after I get a call from Tommy who said the transport was stopped by Montipo’s people. Montipo said the horse was not allowed to leave Italy. Having already checked in at the airport, I immediately rented a car and went to Montipo’s farm. With me was Lou Guida who earlier also had bought part of Viking Kronos.
Montipo referred to the contract which had a clause stipulating that the horse should be stabled at his farm for as long as he is competing. I told Montipo that the horse is sick and he needs to come to Sweden so I can have complete control and figure out exactly what the problem is. Montipo refused. I referred to the contract which specified that I would be deciding for how long Vikingen would compete. I told Montipo that I had just decided to retire the horse. Montipo said his lawyers would challenge this and reminded me that in Italy such a process could easily take a year or two. In the meantime the horse would not be allowed to leave the farm, end of discussion. I was shocked, what were the alternatives? Montipo laid out the alternatives, either he bought me out or I bought him out. If I wanted to buy him out, his part in Viking Kronos would cost me 1 million dollars. I had nothing like that available. I asked him long I would have to produce that kind of money. The incredible answer was … Lou Guida had never said a word but now he turned to me and said we should eat lunch. We left for the nearest restaurant but food was the farthest thing from my mind. Outside the restaurant I paced back and forth, trying to figure out what to do. Suddenly it hit me. One year earlier I had met Michael Schröer, owner of the big November stables in Germany.
I got his phone number. I was lucky that he answered right away. Would he buy Montipo’s share in Viking Kronos? Yes, he answered immediately. When he heard that the price was 1 million dollars for 30 % he wanted to think about it and discuss it over with his wife. I told him that he would never regret it and that it would be the best horse deal he would ever do. He asked me how long he had to think about it. 45 minutes, I said. Lou and I drove back to Montipo’s farm. On the way there Guida tried to convince me to let go. Cash in and get rich he said. Guida meant well, that I am convinced about, he just wanted me to get lots of money now that would secure the future of me and my family. But I was livid at this kind of blackmail and never wanted to sell. As we parked the car, Schröer called. My heart jumped. My future was at stake. Schröer asked who would be driving the horse. Me, I answered. Could the horse please compete in the blue colors of the November stables? I laughed and put the question to Guida, the other owner of Viking Kronos. He simply responded <kolgjini, i=»» don’t=»» give=»» a=»» shit=»» if=»» you=»» race=»» in=»» pink,=»» do=»» the=»» business=»»>. Guida and I walked into Montipo’s office where he asked me for my answer. I pressed the green button on my cell phone while saying . I have never seen anybody as surprised as Montipo was just then. They talked for a few minutes and I had just won the most difficult battle of my life.»</kolgjini,>
2 days later Viking Kronos came to Sweden. Fortunately they did not find anything wrong with him. A month later the horse went back to Italy for the Gran Premio Nazionale. Quite incredibly, before the race Montipo wanted to buy into the horse again! The Italian ex-owner had received a lot of bad press and hateful comments from fans in Italy for selling his part in the biggest trotting talent Europe had seen – and to a German at that! Montipo convinced the owners to meet with him. In the meeting the arguments were very heated and emotions flew very high. Kolgjini refused point blank to let Montipo buy into the horse again – regardless of how much he was willing to pay and how much he wanted to save face. Still, in the end Schröer and Guida actually sold 10 % each of their shares to the Italian as they wanted peace and quiet around the horse. Viking Kronos won the Gran Premio Nazionale in a new world record (Varenne was second) and, according to a still irate Kolgjini, «Montipo celebrated in the winner’s circle as if nothing had happened» .
Viking Kronos returned to Sweden (where he has been trained most of his career) for the E3 stake elimination and final, in which he toyed with the Scandinavian 3-year-olds (including Victory Tilly and future Elitlopp winner Gidde Palema) and set another world record for 3-year-olds on 5/8 track. According to one source, however, «In my opinion the great athlete already at that point showed that he was suffering from problems. His excellent gait was not any longer what it had been before.»
He would only make one more start, in the Italian Derby, where he would finish a disappointing 4th. Something was clearly very wrong and a complete veterinary check-up uncovered both OCD and throat problems. Both problems required surgery and the owners did not want to take any risks with the superstar, especially not Kolgjini. Instead he retired Viking Kronos to stud. Just like on the racetrack, Viking Kronos immediately established himself as the best in no time at all.
The first crop contained Thai Tanic, winner of the 2004 Norwegian Derby and 2006 Olympiatravet (he was also second in the 2006 Elitlopp) and Nordic Gold November, winner of the 2003 Germany Filly Derby. But Vikingen was just getting started. The following year he produced Triton Sund, winner of 2009 Olympiatravet, 2009 Copenhagen Cup and 2008 and 2009 Swedish Championship; Turbo Sund, winner 2004 European Championship for 3-year-olds and Fama Currit, winner of the filly Derby, Stochampionatet and Drottningpokalen in 2009.
The list of top trotters produced by Viking Kronos has just continued to grow and now contains names such as Prix d’Amerique winner Maharajah, Raja Mirchi, Going Kronos, Lantern Kronos (Hambo Oaks), Joke Face, Micro Mesh, Gift Kronos, Juggle Face and more. Although unknown to many North Americans, every European trotting fan immediately recognizes these names and more. What is particularly interesting is that fertility problems have severely restricted the number of foals, in 2014 and 2015 he was restricted to 6 mares each year… The Viking Kronos foals are generally very talented and easy to handle. He produces both speedy and strong trotters. He is already the damsire of several big race winners, most notably Prix d’Amerique-winner Readly Express, The Bank and Nesta Effe.
Eventually, Montipo, Schröer and Guida were all bought out. Kolgjini then later owned the stallion together with Margareta Wallenius-Kleberg/Menhammar. Every owner has made excellent money on the horse that Kolgjini couldn’t initially afford. Still, Viking Kronos has not made everybody money. In 1997, Lutfi Kolgjini had some work done at his farm. Still struggling financially and not really knowing how he would pay them, he offered the workers a deal they obviously could refuse: «I have acquired a fantastic colt recently. I can give you 25 per cent ownership in this horse for your work.» Smelling a bad deal, they declined.