By BloodHorse Staff
Veteran jockey agent Ivan Puhich died June 19 at age 89, according to a statement from Santa Anita Park June 22.
"Big Ivan"—as he was affectionately known from his early days at Longacres in Renton, Wash., to Agua Caliente Racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico—was retired for several years and living with his daughter in San Diego, Calif.
Born Dec. 22, 1927 in St. Helena, Calif., and raised in Renton, Puhich during his youth followed older brothers Nick and Stan to the track, where he sold newspapers, mucked stalls, and walked hots. With the outbreak of World War II, Ivan enlisted in the Marine Corps and saw combat in the South Pacific and in China.
Following the war and upon his return to base in San Diego, he obtained permission from his commanding officer to take leave to attend the 1948 Kentucky Derby.
"I'll never forget it," Puhich said during an interview in 1994 at Hollywood Park. "I hitchhiked back there in uniform and got in free. Calumet (Farm) ran one-two with Citation and Coal Town."
Physically fit and an imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and 220-230 pounds, it was no secret that Puhich, who was gregarious by nature, was as adept with his oversized fists as he was with a condition book.
"When I got out of the service, I decided to box at Gonzaga (University in Spokane, Wash.)," Puhich said. "They had a really good boxing program there and I did well, but that wasn't what I wanted to do."
A member of the starting gate team at Agua Caliente for a time in the early 1960s, Puhich unquestionably made his professional mark as a top agent for riders such as William Mahorney, Marco Casteneda, Tyler Baze (who Puhich guided to an Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in 2000), and a 25-year-old Mario Gutierrez, with whom he won the 2012 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) aboard I'll Have Another .
A dyed-in-the-wool San Francisco 49ers fan, Puhich was a regular attendee, rain or shine, at both Kezar Stadium and Candlestick Park, where his all-time favorite "Niner," Joe Montana, took the team to unprecedented heights.
"The greatest quarterback of all-time," Puhich would readily testify on behalf of Montana.
Puhich was pre-deceased by his infant son, Ivan Jr., and another son, Steven. He is survived by his daughter, Robin Freeman, and three grandchildren, Jeanie Freeman, Kevin Freeman, and Brad Puhich.
Ivan Puhich is also survived by extended family that includes a nephew, trainer Michael Puhich.
A celebration of life for Ivan Puhich will be held on a to-be-determined date during the upcoming Del Mar race meeting, which begins July 19.