Horse racing, perhaps more than any other sport, can produce unexpected and heart-warming stories that almost defy believability. In the 1930s, a former claiming horse named Seabiscuit rose to stardom and captured the attention of a nation reeling from the Great Depression. And just last year, Cody’s Wish scored an upset in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and gave teenager Cody Dorman, who was born with a rare genetic disorder and inspired the horse’s name, a truly special moment in the winner’s circle at Keeneland Race Course. The latest improbable feel-good story from the horse racing world is Texas-bred Vietnam Victory and his first-time owner, Vietnam veteran James Stodola.
Sure, there have been plenty of examples of owners catching lightning in a bottle with their first horse, but none quite like that of Stodola.
So what made the affable Stodola decide to try his hand at horse racing?
“I’m going to be 80 years old this month, and a while back I told my niece and nephew that I’m not going to let them inherit all my money; I’m going to spend it,” he said with a chuckle. “So they asked what was I going to spend it on. I’ve always wanted to own a racehorse, so that’s how it happened.” As an interested new owner, Stodola asked a friend who had racehorses in the past about finding a trainer. His friend suggested Bret Calhoun, a native Texan and perennial top conditioner at both Lone Star Park and Sam Houston Race Park.
“He just kind of called me out of the blue and a little tongue-in-cheek told me about all the Kentucky Derby winners he’s picked, so he said he wanted to buy one to win the Derby,” said Calhoun. “He told me his budget, and we talked about going to the sale.”
The two met up at the 2021 Texas Summer Yearling Sale at Lone Star Park, not far from Stodola’s home in Denton.
“I think we were watching three horses,” said Calhoun. “The first one through the ring in our price range was this horse.”
Stodola had a name picked out before he even picked the horse.
“I fought in Vietnam, and I volunteered to fight in Vietnam,” said Stodola, who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross medal in the war and last year was inducted into the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame. “I figured we had a lot of victories in Vietnam, but we could use some more, so I named him Vietnam Victory.”
One look at the silks worn by jockey Jose Alvarez and there can be no doubt that Stodola is a proud American. In fact, he’s the one who insisted on the red, white and blue design.
As for Vietnam Victory, he is a son of Grade 1 winner Klimt bred by CJ Thoroughbreds, the Texas group comprised of the father-son team of Corey and C.J. Johnsen and Mike Renfro.
“I was on the board of the Texas Thoroughbred Association, and we were fortunate to get House Bill 2463 passed, and I knew purses were going to go up,” said Corey. “We wanted to support Texas racing, so we bought nine mares to foal in Texas.” The colt was raised at Valor Farm near Pilot Point, Texas, and sold for $30,000 from the consignment of KP Sales. Since that fateful day in August 2021, not only has Vietnam Victory earned his owner that original purchase amount several times over, but he’s brought him on the ride of a lifetime.
You might call it beginner’s luck or good karma as Vietnam Victory earned a victory in his first career start when he scored his maiden win on May 15 last year in a 4 ½-furlong dash at Lone Star Park, just a few hundred yards from where Stodola first saw him the previous August.
“I didn’t know what would happen that first time, but I do now,” said Stodola, who is quick to credit Calhoun and Alvarez for the horse’s success. “He likes to win.”
Vietnam Victory liked winning so much that he did it again in his second start, this time in the $150,000 Texas Thoroughbred Association Futurity in July at Lone Star. The Texas-bred made one more start as a 2-year-old with a respectable fourth-place effort at Remington Park in Oklahoma City in an open stakes race.
After a four-month break, Vietnam Victory returned to his winning ways in his home state as he captured the $100,000 Groovy Stakes on January 28 at Sam Houston.
In just four starts, the now 3-year-old gelding has three wins and a bankroll of $169,920.
“I’m so thrilled how things have worked out,” said Corey, a longtime industry veteran who was instrumental in the success of both Lone Star and Kentucky Downs. “Not only did we get the foal sold, but he went to a fine gentleman and someone who served our country. For him to have this success is important to us. It’s a great story; you can’t make this up.” Even though this is the first racehorse for Stodola, he’s not a newcomer to racing or horses. “I had a small ranch some time ago and raised Hereford cattle and coastal hay,” he said. “And I have followed the Kentucky Derby since the 1970s.” As a handicapper, Stodola, who said his nickname is “Cowboy,” has picked more than his share of Kentucky Derby winners.
“What I do is I watch all the prep races from January on, but I won’t tell you what my parameters are,” he added.
While Vietnam Victory probably doesn’t have time to jump into the Kentucky Derby picture, his proud Vietnam veteran owner has certainly picked himself a winner and has a big shot of winning a different derby. The gelding is being pointed to the $100,000 Texas Thoroughbred Association Derby for sale graduates on March 25 at Sam Houston. If he wins that, Stodola is ready to think ambitiously once again.
“I’m going to try to talk Bret into the Lexington Stakes,” he said about the Grade 3, $400,000 race at Keeneland on April 15. “Who knows?”
Stodola hopes to keep racing Vietnam Victory at least through his 4-year-old season, and then perhaps he’ll send the horse on to a second career in dressage.
It’s been a great experience not only for Stodola but also for Calhoun. Despite the fact that the trainer has more than 3,500 career wins and numerous graded stakes horses, the victories with Vietnam Victory are a just a bit different.
“It’s been a lot of fun so far,” said Calhoun. “Mr. Stodola is a very proud veteran, as he should be. He has some health issues, so it’s a big effort for him to make the races, but that makes it special when he’s there. He’s so enthused about this.”
No matter the number of wins or losses in the future for Vietnam Victory, Stodola is cherishing his first Texas-bred.
“I’ve always wanted to own a racehorse,” he said. “I just love to go out to the races, and I put my arm underneath his head and give him a hug. He’s a great horse to be around.”
Story by Denis Blake. Photo by Coady Photography.