Living the dream

It's a long way from New York's paved streets to a sliding track perched on the edge of California's Silicon Valley.It's a long way from New York's paved streets to a sliding track perched on the edge of California's Silicon Valley.

Story originally posted by: Katie Tims

It’s a long way from New York’s paved streets to a sliding track perched on the edge of California’s Silicon Valley.

Frank Bolea doesn’t like to dwell on the past. A here-and-now kind of guy, Bolea, 58, prefers to discuss projects in the works, ones demanding his time and attention today. Preciseness is his nature, unyielding ambition his motive.

He didn’t have horses as a kid. These days Bolea is now a serious player in the reining horse business, ranked as the No. 1 owner in the QHN’s 14-year Reining Statistics Report. His horses have earned $700,000-plus in the show pen, two are NRHA Open Futurity champions and several more have won prestigious titles and qualified for multiple aged event finals. Bolea has affected the fate of at least one well-known trainer.

Horses, reining, ranch building – subjects that punctuate and enliven Bolea’s conversation. Miles and years separate Bolea’s childhood days in Niagara Falls, New York, and the dream he’s managed for himself in central California.

The Beginning
Bolea was the son of Italian immigrants, both having arrived in the United States as children. Sam Bolea worked in a paper factory while mother, Angela, stayed at home with Frank, his two brothers, Angelo and Raymond, along with sister, Marie.

The Boleas never considered owning horses. There was no time, no reason, no place. Sam worked two jobs, six days a week, demonstrating a dedicated work ethic his kids learned and never abandoned. Frank owns car dealerships. Angelo is a neuro psychologist. Raymond retired from the insurance industry and Marie still works in real estate.

Frank Bolea said he never watched Westerns, never wore a Roy Rogers hat. Instead he cleared a path among tough peers and high expectations.

"The streets were asphalt," Bolea recalled plainly. "The only ‘horses’ you got were the ones that’d kick you in the head if you got off the street."

He passed on playing cowboy, but loved horses anyway. Occasional contact with animals was possible but consistent riding impossible.

After high school graduation, Bolea attended Indiana University where he majored in chemistry. Restaurant jobs paid the way. Three years into his advanced education Bolea realized the limitations of a chemist’s conservative pay scale.

"I found out how much money they make and I got out of it," he said. Then Bolea added with a laugh, "I couldn’t have afforded my horses if I’d stayed with that."

Bolea went to work full time in the restaurant business, progressively tackling more and more responsibility. Good ideas, extreme organization and strong human resources skills propelled Bolea into management and up through the ranks. Pretty soon he opened his own restaurant. Then two. Then three. By the early 1960s Bolea had linked together a fast food chain approximately several franchises long, stretching from Niagara Falls to Chicago.

Then he sold it all. Bolea dispersed and headed a new direction, right into selling cars. A friend helped him get a sales/customer service position at a Chevrolet dealership in Illinois. After learning the auto business from the bottom side up, Bolea invested in the dealership and became a partner.

Toward the close of the 1970s, Bolea sold his interest in the Illinois store and went to Wisconsin where he purchased three dealerships, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Cadillac. Why Wisconsin?

"Because it was fun up there in the summertime," Bolea replied.

The same competitive personality that pushed Bolea in his professional world spilled over into his personal time. Airplanes and offshore racers were his passions. Along Wisconsin’s many lakes, Bolea unloaded stress and escaped workday pressure by speeding along in custom-designed boats.

One time it got a little scary. During a trip with a friend, Bolea found himself in big trouble in Lake Michigan’s deep waters.

"We hit probably about 15-foot seas," he recounted. "We didn’t know whether or not we were going to make it."

In 1980, Bolea sold his three car dealerships and traveled west. He’d had it with humidity. He was finished with snow.

"I’d heard California didn’t have those things unless you wanted to go to the mountains," Bolea said.

Looking for the perfect climate in a vibrant area with a willing market, Bolea settled in the town of Sunnyvale, located about one hour south of San Francisco. Once there, he returned to the car business.

"I started as a salesman so I could learn the California ways," Bolea said.

Within a year, he was running the store as general manager. A few years later Bolea owned his own dealership, Gilroy Toyota, the one he still has today in Gilroy, Calif.

The Bolea Pleasure horses
Gilroy is a place where 70 percent of the days are sunny, temperatures seldom go above 90 degrees in the summer or below 55 in the winter, and the average annual rainfall is around 20 inches. It’s a place perfect for agriculture. Perfect for garlic, for which it’s been dubbed the World Capitol. It’s a place perfect for riding and keeping horses.

With a self-acknowledged type – A personality, Bolea bought into horses as a way to control stress. He rented stalls at a nearby stable and started off trail riding. He’d paid about $1,000 for a sorrel pleasure-bred mare that was reliable and willing to traverse the many scenic areas surrounding Gilroy. After working all day, Bolea relaxed by spending time in the saddle, riding from 9 to 11 p.m. nearly every night.

In 1981, a friend talked Bolea into showing the mare in a pleasure class at Saratoga, a town halfway between Gilroy and San Jose.

"I bought this little cowboy hat, these little chaps and I went into the class and won it," Bolea said. "They gave me a little trophy, about 3 inches high, and I’ve been showing ever since."

It was the humble beginning of so many great Bolea victories to come.

That first taste of success whetted Bolea’s desire. He set out to find a reputable, proven trainer who could teach riding skills, find horses and most importantly, win. Conversation pointed him to the Indian Creek Ranch, a facility where Barney Hinds was the head trainer. After a casual discussion Hinds asked Bolea what he wanted to do in the horse business.

"I said, ‘I want to ride as good as you!’" Bolea remembered answering. "Barney, in those days, he won everything."

Indian Creek Ranch was located north of Sacramento, a two and a half-hour drive that was impossible for Bolea to regularly make. Hinds suggested Bolea visit David Busick, an up-and-coming AQHA trainer who lived in Watsonville, less than an hour from Gilroy. A deal was struck and Bolea began taking lessons from and buying horses through Busick.

With the same ferocity in which he built his businesses, Bolea learned to ride and show pleasure horses over the next four years. By 1986, he was consistently competing and winning on California’s circuit. In June of that same year, Bolea purchased Passing Malarky, a 3-year-old Barpasser gelding that carried the amateur to a new level.

"I wanted to go to Congress and some of those shows I’d read about in magazines," Bolea remembered thinking at the time.

Over objections and cautions, Bolea surprised his trainer, friends and himself by topping the 1988 Tom Powers Futurity, an aged-event held in conjunction with the All-American Congress Quarter Horse Show in Columbus, Ohio. On a Zippo Pine Bar horse, Bolea won his first major title.

In those days, class winners were called in descending order -10th, 9th, 8th and so on until the champion was revealed. When second-place was called, Bolea was confused, he hadn’t expected to win but then again, he hadn’t done so bad either. When the loud speaker finally revealed his name, Bolea could hardly believe his ears.

"I was so nervous I couldn’t make my horse jog or lope off to go get my prizes," he said.

As Bolea rode to his first big success, Todd Sommers leaned up against the fence and watched. Fresh from a 3-year assistant stint with Jody Galyean, Sommers was on his own riding, showing and training horses. After the class, the young trainer congratulated Bolea on a job well done.

Thrilled by the compliment, Bolea promised to follow up when Sommers proposed an invitation to visit Texas and search for talented pleasure prospects.

"A year later I did," Bolea said. "We looked at a bunch of horses and Todd was cordial."

The trainer was nice enough to help Bolea find a 2-year-old bay stallion named Zipped My Zipper. This 1987 colt by Flashy Zipper, out of Tes Rosebud by Mr Te Dell, put the Bolea/Sommers team on the pleasure horse map. By the end of 1989, Zipped My Zipper was the NSBA High-Point Horse and had earned an AQHA World Show third placing in the 2-year-old Western Pleasure.

In 1990, Zipped My Zipper won the Reserve Championship at the NSBA 3-year-old Derby at Congress. Later that same year, Bolea sold the horse.

"I had a great time for years doing pleasure," Bolea said. Cool Brew was his favorite. This Eternal Impression gelding carried him to several first-place finishes between 1988 and 1990.

Without Non-Pro divisions offered at major aged events, Bolea found the daunting challenge both stimulating and humbling. He still holds the record for having been the only non-pro to qualify for the 2-year-old Western Pleasure finals at Congress.

"When I went in there with those (open) guys, the crowd would start clapping when I went through the gate. They knew I was a non-pro. Heck, I didn’t know anything about the game in those days."

The Bolea reiners
Just when Bolea was satiating his competitive appetite in the pleasure ring, he decided he simply wanted to go faster. Just as he’d done in the restaurant and car businesses, Bolea wanted to cash out existing success and start fresh again. His reining career began with the purchase of Ms Ida Dun, a Dun Commander mare Sommers had been riding.

There was a lot to learn and Bolea made frequent trips to Texas, going to Sommers’ place for reining lessons.

"My bottom would be flapping and Todd would be laughing on the sidelines, making fun of me," Bolea remembered with a laugh. "He wanted me to go slow for years, now he wanted me to go fast and I couldn’t sit that saddle no how."

And so went the arena conversation at Bolea’s very first reining, in a class where he managed a 70-point score. Speed, it turned out, was in the eye of the beholder.

"I came around the end and Todd yelled, ‘go faster!’" Bolea explained. "That’s when I yelled back, ‘I AM going faster!’"

Before the end of 1990, Bolea owned Le A Netta Command, a Fritz Command mare that Sommers rode to the Limited Open Championship at the Southwest Reining Horse Association’s Futurity and placed fifth at the NRHA Limited Open Futurity. The next spring, Le A Netta Command was fifth in the Limited Open at the Lazy E Classic and fourth in the Carolina Classic’s Open Division.

Then came Slide Me To The Bar, a horse Sommers had purchased as a weaning. When the colt was two, Sommers sold the horse to Bolea.

"He was probably one of the smallest, plain little colts I’ve ever seen," the new owner remembered.

But Bolea was impressed by the stud’s pedigree that had Freckles Solis on the top and Lady Ruffles by Royal King on the bottom.

"On black and white paper he looked good but he was just a plain little colt."

Sommers continued to ride the horse and later that summer called Bolea to relate how well the colt was progressing. The owner traveled to Texas for a personalized look. Bolea observed as the horse worked quietly, maintained a positive demeanor and slid to his stops like crazy.

"I thought that was good but I didn’t know much about it anyhow – good, bad or indifferent," he said. "I just didn’t know."

Both men thought Slide Me To The Bar was talented enough to compete at the Futurity in November. The horse was entered in the Open and Limited divisions. Apparently there was a misunderstanding when Frank’s private secretary at the time missed the last payment and caused the horse to be dropped from the Limited Open. Disappointed and with no recourse, Bolea knew his horse was up against incredible odds.

"I told Todd to have fun and just do the best he could in the Open," he remembered saying.

Through Round No. 1 and Round No. 2, Slide Me To The Bar and Sommers held strong to make the finals. Bolea, who was experiencing a nearly catastrophic business slow-down at the time, had stayed in Gilroy. Although he was pleased his horse made the finals Bolea now believes he should have been more impressed.

"I didn’t know that much about reining, I was still just learning," he explained. Amazingly, Slide Me To The Bar and Sommers crashed through the last round, into the championship and NRHA Futurity history. Meanwhile Bolea was at home eating Chinese food for dinner.

"It was pouring rain and I was all depressed over business," he said. Then Todd called and said, "We won it all!"

"I about choked," Bolea recalled. The good news cheered him right up and momentarily dissolved his immediate business worries.

"Plus it cured me from ever missing another show!"

After winning $109,317 in 1991, Bolea’s reining activity slowed down for a few years. He sold Slide Me To The Bar a new owner in Italy in March 1992 and pegged less than $1,000 in winnings through 1994.

Things perked up in 1995 when Bob Loomis and Bolea showed Moonstone Cody for $3,000 earnings. By Topsail Cody and out of My Moonstone Chex by King Fritz, the 1991 bay stallion would go on to over $10,000 and become one of Bolea Farms’ featured stallions.

Tumbleweed Tilly, Topsail Cody and out Cee Blair Masota by Blair Cee, and Dean Latimer made the 1995 NRHA Open Futurity finals, finished fourth at the 1996 NRBC and was a finalist at the NRHA Derby. In 1997, Bolea continued to show Moonstone Cody plus his limited age horse, Jax Dun It 489, by Hollywood Dun It and out of Jax Sugaree 489 by Jax Doc, made the finals at two aged events with Tim McQuay and Benjamin Gerst.

Topgun Whiz shot onto the scene in 1998. With Duane Latimer at the reins, the flashy bay stallion won Open Championship and finished Reserve in the Intermediate Open at the Southwest Futurity. Success was amplified at the NRHA Futurity where the pair won the Limited Open and placed third in the Open.

Not only did Topgun Whiz go on to win the 1999 NRHA Derby, but he also took the Junior Reining Gold at the AQHA World Show and tied for second at the NRBC. Todd Sommers rode Bolea’s 1999 Futurity horse, Oaken Rooster, to a ninth-place finish. Including the money he won on Moonstone Cody, Bolea’s total earnings for 1999 were $73,500.

Meanwhile, Bolea and Sommers were choosing their next prospect. Heeding advice from the trainer, Bolea set his sights on Von Reminic, a 1997 bay stallion by Reminic and out of Colonel Freckles daughter Von Freckles. The colt sold for $92,000 and wound up being the high seller at the 1998 NRHA Breeders Showcase Sale.

"It was a big gamble," Bolea said about paying so much for the yearling Von Reminic. "But the beauty of that horse, he was just phenomenal. He is for sure, the most gorgeous horse I’ve ever owned."

If 1999 was a great year, 2000 was off the map. Von Reminic topped the NRHA Open Futurity, making the Bolea/Sommers team the only owner-trainer combo to have dual Futurity Championships. Latimer rode Bolea’s Sailing Spark to a fourth-place tie in the finals, bringing the owner’s Futurity prize money right close to $200,000.

That same year Bolea rode Cattitude, a Jae Bar Catalyst stallion out of Swing Chex by King Fritz, to a fifth-place in the Intermediate Non-Pro at the 2000 NRHA Derby. A finals finish with Sommers and Oaken Rooster at the Derby, third-placing with Latimer and Topgun Whiz at the NRBC and showings with Bolea on WR Lena all added up to $235,596 worth of 2000 winnings.

At the 2001 USET Championships, Cattitude and Sommers won the silver medal. At the NRHA Derby that year, three Bolea horses finished strong in the Open finals: Latimer and Sailing Spark were third; Sommers rode Von Reminic into a seventh-place tie; and David Hanson was 19th. Von Reminic and Sommers also tied for fourth at the NRBC. All together, including Bolea’s several non-pro showings, the earnings for 2001 were $96,051.

The here and now
A man with a schedule, Bolea is up early every morning. He works out for an hour, eats breakfast, rides at least three horses, cleans up and heads to work where he stays late into the evening.

He craves the challenge and buzz of big business.

"I still have it today," he said about the work ethic instilled by his father all those years ago. "I’m at my dealership seven days a week if I’m not at a horse show."

Describing himself as "fast track," Bolea is fervent about keeping property in order, facilities clean and equipment neat. His stalls are picked four or five times a day, barns sanitized and manure hauled away daily, pastures cleaned every two weeks and all roads and walking areas constantly groomed and resurfaced. In Gilroy, between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons of water are used daily to maintain impeccable landscaping.

Bolea expects perfection from himself and his employees.

"That’s just the way it is," he said. "I ride with people who do the same thing. Both Todd and Duane are very, very organized men and they work very, very hard."

Somewhere in his full agenda, Bolea has carved time to re-create a ranch in Lodi, Calif., about a half-hour south of Sacramento. About a year ago, he purchased a working ranch that was built and developed in the 1920s, a spread that’s now turning into an equine show place.

Of the 265 total acres, 100 are in irrigated pasture and there are over 100 full-grown oak trees, some as old as 300 years. Right now, a brigade of 30 men are working six days a week pruning trees, cleaning land, building fence, constructing facilities and restoring the original barns, homes and out buildings. Every single structure was torn down to its skeletal 2-by-4s and carefully renovated according to the original 1920s Americana architectural style.

"I love old barns but I made them new, when I say new I mean new," Bolea said.

There are also new barns that are actually new. By November the 125-foot x 250-foot covered arena will be finished along with the 14,000-square-foot stall barn, 400-foot slide track alongside a creek bed, round pens and other facilities.

"I always wanted a big ranch," Bolea said. "I just wanted to get out on a horse and go ride, just go on a ride for an hour or so."

He’s also hired Joe Schmidt to be the resident trainer at the new place. Having been an assistant for Casey Hinton in Texas for three years, Schmidt has already arrived in California and where he’s working at the Gilroy ranch until the Lodi ranch is completed.

Right now, Bolea has horses in several states. He plans to bring them all to the new ranch where his band of 10 high-quality broodmares will stay and raise foals. Schmidt is to start Bolea’s 2-year-olds and together the two men will determine which ones to sell or keep for the aged events. Sommers and Latimer will continue to ride aged horses for Bolea at the futurities and derbies.

Personally, Bolea is working hard to promote his stallions, which he has dubbed "the fabulous four". For now, the stallions (Von Reminic, Topgun Whiz, Cattitude and Moonstone Cody) stand at Valley Oak Ranch in Oakdale, Calif. He is also excited about his new show horse, Slide Zone, the gray Lenas Wright On gelding that won the 2001 NRHA Intermediate Open Futurity with Trent Pederson.

Although he doesn’t see himself ever retiring, Bolea does take time out for wife, Juli, daughter Blythe, 17, and two sons Christian 8, and Ethan, 6. Two older children, Michael and Lynette, reside in New York.

Juli attends most of Bolea’s horse shows.

"She knows how I’m supposed to ride and she’ll tell it like it is," he said. "I appreciate her telling me the truth."

Professionally, Bolea is busy with Gilroy Toyota and he’s considering the addition of a luxury dealership, probably Lexus, in the near future. Business takes most of his time. On a typical day, Bolea figures his cell phone rings about 30 to 40 times. For all the work-related pressure and compressed time, it’s riding that keeps Bolea’s life scales balanced.

"I tried golf, boats and everything else," he said. "I could be stressed to the max, I get on a great horse and jog or lope off and within 10 minutes I’m a different guy."

Although he sampled the cow horses, Bolea’s main priority has stayed focused on reiners. For this year’s Futurity, he started off with about 10 prospects and has whittled the field down to three – a Rooster with Sommers, a Topsail Whiz with Latimer and a Lil Ruf Peppy with Tom McCutcheon. What’s more, he has a black Gray Starlight that’s headed to the this year’s NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity with David Hansen.

"These guys do a good job riding my horses," Bolea said. "Also, Tracy Brumley has really helped me a lot with the shows here at home."

The Lodi ranch is scheduled for completion by the end of the year. The aged event season is about to start. Show horses need to be ridden, weanlings attended to, yearlings maintained and 2-year-olds ridden. With everything he has going with work and family, Bolea could have more time if he didn’t have horses, if he didn’t have an after-hours list that overflows. But then what would he do?

"This keeps me alive," Bolea said about his horse project. "A lot of people live to ride. I ride to live."