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Da Doo Ron Ron for The Cristels

Da Doo Ron Ron for The Cristels

By M. Scott McMannis

"I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still,” sang the Crystals to begin their 1963 hit, Da Doo Ron Ron.

They weren’t singing about trainer Mark Cristel, since he was 12 years old when that song was popular.  However, Cristel is winning at an 18% clip, so the horses do run for him.

The 54-year-old Cristel was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, but raised on a farm near Edwardsville, Illinois.  He is a graduate of Edwardsville High School, Class of ’69.

Cristel’s father was in the cattle business, but also had horses on his farm.  “I began galloping horses at an early age,” young Cristel began.  “I always wanted to become a trainer.

“I started at the bottom,” Cristel continued.  “The day after I graduated I went to work as a groom.  In 1970 I took out my trainer license.  I only had a couple of horses to train, so I continued grooming and galloping for others.  That June I scored my first win as a trainer with Restless Alibi.  I’ll never forget the feeling.”

In 1971 Cristel was drafted into the Army.  “It worked out just fine,” Cristel summarized.  “I married Judy in 1972 and we went to Germany were I was assigned.”

Mustered out in 1973, the Cristels returned to Southern Illinois.  Mark resumed training, again getting off to a slow start.  “Once more I had a couple of horses and was galloping for others,” he told.  “I made it count when I got my only 1973 win with Judy’s Lark, a filly that my father-in-law gave me to train.  She beat the boys at Fairmount and paid 145-1!”

Cristel made another significant score in 1977 when he claimed Our Dad Max for $3,250 at Fairmount Park.  “It was the kind of claim one dreams about, but rarely does the dream come true like Our Dad Max,” admitted Cristel.  “We campaigned that guy for seven years and won 26 races with him.  He got his last win as an 11-year-old, and then we retired him to my dad’s farm.  He had been good to us, and we wanted to be good to him.”

Cristel campaigned at Fairmount and the long-gone Cahokia Downs.  He was leading trainer at Fairmount four times.  In 1985 he moved his operation to Chicago and in 1992 notched his 1,000th training win.  That same year the Cristel’s bought a home and settled in Hoffman Estates.  They have four children:  Tom (30), Beth (29), Angela (25), and Jeff (18).

Fans of a more recent vintage may remember such Cristel trainees as Buckburner, Brite Venture, and Star Beam.  All earned over $100,000. 

Then there is Proven Cat.  “My brother, Jim, picked out Proven Cat and Donnie’s Pride late last year at Fairmount,” explained Cristel.  Jim has been Mark’s biggest client since 1976.  “We put in claims and got both,” continued Cristel.  “Proven Cat, whom we claimed for $10,000, now has won five times for us.  She finished last in her most recent start but had some trouble in that race.  She’s coming back in the Peach Of It on Illinois Day.”

Cristel is a frequent visitor to the video library housed in the Handicapping & Business Center, third floor grandstand.  “Every track should provide this service, for fans as well as trainers,” stated Cristel.  “We can watch a horse’s race over and over as we want.  This is great for studying prospective claims in action.”  Another Our Dad Max would do nicely.

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