Tom Knust has spent five decades racing in California
If you’ve been around Del Mar for a long time, chances are you’ve met – and probably met – Tom Knust. He has been out to Del Mar since he was a teenager and has made his career out of his love of horses.
Nost is now 75 years old and is currently the agent for the jockeys Victor Espinosa and Edwin Maldonado. But his journey to this place in his life was full of peaks and valleys, and if a Vietnamese Army man’s diagnosis were correct, there would be no story to tell.
Knust begins “I moved with my family to Arcadia when I was a junior in high school”. “I lived a few blocks from the (Santa Anita) racetrack. The first time I went to the track, I went with my best friend. We had to sneak in because you had to be 21 at the time. I bet twice, and I had Two hot dogs and a Coke and I left with 80 cents more than I came in and thought ‘This is the greatest game in the world.’ From that time on I was stuck with it.”
That was in 1964. A few years later he found himself on his only tour of Vietnam, and like many others, it changed his life.
“I was with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines,” Knost says. We were an infantry battalion in the demilitarized zone. I’ve only been in Vietnam for less than a month and once we were in the field for nine days. You usually go in the field for two or three days at most. We’ve been in a lot of shootouts and when you’re in the woods sometimes you find a path and your job is to go up that path and see what’s there and come back. This time we were ambushed and I was shot in the head.”
The Corpsmen sortied at the site where several Marines had been wounded, and passed over Knest, thinking that by then he had passed the salvage point.
“I heard one guy manages priorities,” Knost says. I distinctly remember him saying, “Oh, it’s a vegetable.” We’ll leave it until later. It wasn’t a very good bedside manner.”
Knust defied the paramedic’s best judgments and survived the ordeal, though the road to recovery was difficult.
“I was paralyzed on my right side for about six months,” Knost recalls. “I spent the time in the hospital in San Diego, Balboa Naval Hospital (now known as Naval Medical Center San Diego). I couldn’t move anything on my right side and the doctors didn’t know what would come back or how long it would come back. Then one day I moved my little finger and eventually Everything came back except for my foot. I have a foot drop. I can’t move my ankle on my right side. Overall, I’ve been very lucky.”
Really lucky. Since then, Knost has been married to his bride, who is now 49 years old. They have a daughter and Knust has a son who he found out about a few years ago. They both gave Tom a total of four grandchildren.
“Last Veterans Day, I was in a restaurant and there was a guy wearing a Vietnam Veteran hat with his daughter and grandchildren, and I thought to myself, For the first time, I could have killed and then she wouldn’t have any grandchildren. That got me emotional,” Knost says. “.
When he left the Marines and went in search of a life, Knust turned to horse racing and has been in it for over 50 years now.
“I started hiking for Coach Joe Dunn,” Knost recalls. Then I got a job grooming Reggie Cornell. I went to the fairgrounds and was an assistant coach for a while and then I got my coaches license.
“I got married and we’re going to have a baby,” he says. “I went to see Mr. (Jimmy) Kilrow. He was Santa Anita’s president and dean of racing at the time; probably the most respected person in racing. I wanted to try and get a job in the racing office. He told me that if I went back to the University of Arizona and got a degree in a track management program race, he promised me a job.”
So he went to the US and got a degree in animal science with an option in racetrack management.
“I went back to Kilroe and he gave me a job in the stable office as a clerk, and that’s where I started,” says Knust. “I moved into the racing office. I went from being a clerk there to an appointment judge, then assistant driver to assistant race secretary.”
That’s when Knust began taking jobs as a racing secretary at smaller tracks around the state.
“I was a secretary of the races at some fair tracks,” Knost says. “Victorville at Imperial was my first job. Then I was the racing secretary at Valley Racing in Fresno. It worked because I could still go back to Del Mar in the summer.”
Knust’s days in Del Mar go back to before the new grandstand was built in 1991. He fondly remembers the old wooden grandstand and the black top where fans could bring their coolers full of beer.
“My wife used to come with our baby and sit on the old brick wall just inside the main entrance, where the grandstand would be,” Knost says. “There was a lot of history in the adobe grandstand. I liked it. I think it was really cool.”
Knust got his first big gig in Minnesota becoming the racing secretary at Canterbury Downs when it was first built. But after five years he returned to Southern California to be the racing secretary at Santa Anita and Del Mar, a job that lasted 10 years. Then the ax fell.
“When Frank Stronach bought Santa Anita, I worked for him for one year,” Knost recalled. “Cliff Goodrich was the general manager and when he retired they brought in a new GM who fired everyone. Me, Tom Robbins, Craig Daddo, all department heads.”
This new rocket lasted for a year and then it was gone. As for Knust, one door closed, and a new one opened.
“I needed something to do,” says Knust. “Tom Robbins made a deal with Del Mar that he would work here year-round, which made me the odd man out. I had to do something to make a living. I didn’t want to go out of state and there was a chance of picking up Kent Desormeaux, so I became a jocks agent and I’m an agent.” since then “.
That was 22 years ago. He’s had about 16 knights since he started, some he left and some he let go.
“I like it so much,” says Knust. “I had Corey Nakatani, B-Val (Patrick Valenzuela), I was Desormo. I had Richie Migliore, Kevin Krieger, David Cohen, Abel Cedillo. I had Jose Valdivia, Jr. for a while. We both won the Santa Anita Derby and then he kicked me out. I’ve had John Court for two years.”
Knust has learned that you have to grow a thick skin in his line of work and not take anything personal.
“They’re all good people,” he says, “but with everyone, if they don’t do good, they want to make a change whether it’s me or them. I don’t mind someone firing me. But when I have to tell someone I’m going in a different direction, it’s It’s the hard thing. I’d rather they just kick me out, it makes it a lot easier.
“It’s a competitive job,” Knast continues. “You have good times and bad times. I’ve had Patrick Valenzuela four different times; I’ve had Nakatani twice. A lot of good riders but there’s a lot that just doesn’t go together. You can’t blame them when they’re riding, their lives are on the line every day. But you start well and everyone is happy and then things start to turn south and everyone wants a change.”
In his line of work, he says it’s all about relationships.
“You try to establish relationships with trainers who have some good horses or a lot of horses,” Knust explains. “Then there are trainers who have a few horses but you want to ride them. So you try to balance that. You work the horses in the big stables and then, when you can, you work the horses in the smaller stables.
“Then you keep track of the horses you’ve ridden,” says Knust, “and when the (status) book is published you mark the horses you want to ride back and fill in other races with new ones. It’s something that goes on from day to day. You also have to set up (morning) workers for your jockeys which is something Very important in this game because relationships, again. They might work on the horses you don’t ride and someone might work on the horses you do ride. Everything balances out.”
Knust has seen many changes in the horse racing game over the years. So what does he think about the state of horse racing in 2022?
“I still think it’s a game that can survive,” Knost says. “I just don’t think there will be many racetracks in the future. We have to compete with the racetracks in the East, which has number one casino money and number two, you can race two or three places in a two-hour drive. That puts us (Coast Racing) west) on an island.
Knust explains, “We’ve tried for 50 years to get stables to get out and stay here, and none of them have done that. I think a lot of that has to do with the competition. It’s very tough here.”
Knust’s involvement in racing has given him the opportunity to meet some interesting people over the years.
“When I worked in Hollywood Park,” he recalled, “I used to ride the elevator with Cary Grant all the time. Dwight Yoakum owned horses. I was a good friend of B. Wayne Hughes before he passed away. I’m already good friends with Marty Wigod and Paul Rydam. We are now riding for Lee Searing. He puts a lot of money into horse racing. Jed Cohen, from Red Baron Racing, he’s a good friend and he’s put millions into the game. Gary Barber is a good friend.
“You also have opportunities to be with people who aren’t very famous, don’t have a lot of money but are good people,” says Knust, “The track puts you in a situation where you can meet a variety of different people.”
Colorful, interesting people… like Tom Knost.
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