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Filly Grace Hall is a winner for former wrestling champ

Almost as soon as horse trainer Tony Dutrow bought the filly for $95,000 in 2010, his wife Kim knew the name. She could only be Grace Hall.

Almost as soon as horse trainer Tony Dutrow bought the filly for $95,000 in 2010, his wife Kim knew the name. She could only be Grace Hall.

One of her owners was Mike Caruso, the three-time NCAA champion Lehigh wrestler from the mid-1960s, a man whose high school and college record was 141-1. Then as now, the Lehigh wrestling venue was intimidating Grace Hall, named after Eugene Grace, the president of Bethlehem Steel and a great Lehigh baseball player.

"I've lived in Bethlehem the last 50 years since I came to Lehigh," said Caruso, who went to St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J. He was on the Lehigh board of trustees for 14 years. He is now a trustee emeritus.

"Wrestling means a lot to me because I believe in the lessons it teaches young men and young women today," he said. "It has so much to do with building character and had so much discipline and so much to do with the quality of my life."

So Grace Hall really needed to be something more than just another horse. She certainly is that.

She won her first start for Dutrow on July 30, 2011, at Delaware Park. She won the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga in her next start, Caruso's first Grade I win in 33 years as a horse owner. She has won four of six starts, with two seconds. Friday, the 3-year-old filly may be the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.

"I always said I'll never go to the Derby until I had a horse in it," Caruso said. "Once I got my Medicare card last year, I said, 'I'm running out of years. I've got to go one of these years. Grace Hall kind of gave me the excuse, but I think I was going to go anyway."

He will stay over after Friday's race to watch Saturday's Derby.

"With what the name Grace Hall means to me, it's almost like this was destined," Caruso said.

The Dutrows live in Newtown, Bucks County. Their son John, a Council Rock North junior, is one of the best wrestlers in the state. He is in demand by colleges, perhaps even including Lehigh.

He could have no better role model than Caruso, who never lost in high school and lost just once at Lehigh.

"I weighed 81 pounds when I went out for the high school team," Caruso said. He wrestled at 123 in college.

In three consecutive years, he wrestled the same Michigan student for the NCAA championship. The first year, he won by three points, the second year by two, the third year by one point.

His opponent, Bob Fehrs, went to the Milton Hershey School and is the superintendent of the middle school there.

"I tell everybody I'm very glad I didn't have to wrestle a fourth year," Caruso said.

Lehigh sports already has taken down Duke basketball this year. Why not win a famous horse race like the Oaks with a horse named after its legendary wrestling facility?

Grace Hall has become like a folk hero in the Lehigh Valley," Caruso said.

A new wrestling practice facility is being built. It will be named after Mike Caruso.

Wrestling, he said, was a means to an end, a steppingstone to "make contributions to the world."

That one loss?

It was when he was a sophomore in a match at West Point against a cadet named Bob Steenlage, a man he beat in the NCAA semis the next year. Rumor has it that Caruso was quite sick with a temperature that day.

"I'm not one to make excuses," Caruso said. "I think he beat me fairly and squarely. I did move up a weight . . . I still have the press clippings from that night. It said that 1,200 people were in attendance. To this day, at least 10,000 people have come up to me and said, 'I was there the night you got beat.' "

You don't go 141-1 without being competitive. Mike Caruso is gracious, but never forgot that night at West Point.

"That's why to this day in the Army-Navy game I always root for the Navy," he said.