Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Memory of a Lifetime
HIGHLANDS, NJ, January 9, 2012—I have been blessed in ways I can’t measure: Family, friends, and a living made from would otherwise be a diversion, a fanciful pursuit, the equivalent of making money from Johnny Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Last Sunday was the day I would break my winning maiden as an owner with a horse I share in partnership with Gabrielle Parisella, the daughter of my old St. John’s classmate. But I couldn’t be at the races to see her win.
My oldest daughter, Jennifer, is moving into a new townhouse this week and Sunday, the day Dubai’s Connection was entered in the fifth race at Aqueduct, Toni and I had plans to visit Jen and see her new digs in advance of heading south to Gulfstream.
Post time was 2:13 EDT and we arrived at her old apartment in plenty of time to catch the race live on television. The horse, Dubai’s Connection, is a 7-year-old mare racing for a bottom level $7,500 claiming tag.
She was claimed out of a race in Saratoga for $14,000 and later purchased by my trainer and myself. At her age, her best days are behind her and so we decided to be realistic, entering her at a reduced level to give her best chance to win.
And with the new slots money scheduled to inflate purses in New York at the beginning of this year, it was the right move to make. She has her issues but is fortunate to have a horseman with legendary skills to keep horses racing at their best despite infirmities.
Forget that he’s one of my best friends. New York and Florida and Kentucky and Northern California horseplayers know they get a good run for their money with a John Parisella-trained racehorse.
Although we work different sides of the same street, I got to see John work his magic close-up, one of the reasons I extended myself to do this bucket-list thing in the first place.
To no one’s surprise, it’s really expensive, between the day money, farrier and vet bills, and all the hidden charges you don’t know see until you get an itemized statement from the ladies who work as “horsemen’s bookkeepers” at the NYRA tracks. They do a terrific and mostly thankless job behind the scenes.
As stated, the upkeep is expensive and you don’t realize how much until you actually win some purse money. There are registration fees with the Jockey Club, mount fees plus a percentage of any winnings, etc.
But some of the earnings go towards “feel good” expenses, such as a fund for disabled jockeys, even if they are by definition independent contractors, and another portion towards horse retirement—money very well spent and as it should be.
Despite her issues, Dubai’s Connection runs as hard as she can and as fast as she can every time, which is rare and wonderful. You don’t compile a lifetime slate of (38) 13-6-5 if you weren’t a genuine racehorse.
She is a sweetheart in the shedrow, too. One morning, as Toni was loving on her, singing to her, whispering her to sleep. The mare lowered her head, her eyes were closed but her ears were still going every which way, trying to hear everything.
Damndest thing you ever saw.
But she’s still a tigress on the racetrack. Prior to her win on Sunday, she had run five times for us, with three seconds, a third and a fourth. One of those seconds should have been a win but she stumbled at the start as badly as horses do without falling completely and ran second to a mega-dropdown.
Even so, five starts; five checks. No horse owner could ask for more.
It took all of her heart, all of her trainer’s skills, and all of her jockey’s talent to get her home first on Sunday.
Ramon Dominguez, riding for a hat track at that point in the day, won the race in the first eighth of a mile. After breaking her sharply, her coaxed her into stride gradually, angled her inside, and got her to follow speedy, live cover.
After allowing “Dubi” to catch her breath, he tipped her outside to challenge the longshot leader on the turn, opened a clear lead soon after straightening away, and drove her home first under the wire. Typically smooth and strong Dominguez handling.
Even though she was a 9-5 early line favorite off a good placing at the $10,000 level in her most recent start, she wasn’t supposed to win. The winner was supposed to be another dropdown, Sneaky Girl, the 2-1 second choice.
She was doing so good, in fact, that John’s good friend, Bruce Levine, came over to John and asked whether he would allow Ramon out of his commitment so that he could ride Sneaky Girl.
Parisella reminded Levine that he really needed to win a race with this mare. “You know whose horse this is, right?” “Oh, yeah, right, never mind,” Said Levine. And that was that.
Unbeknownst to Levine, Steve Rushing, Dominguez’s agent, called to ask John whether he was running Dubai’s Connection for $7,500 or the same $10,000 as last time, that he had a chance to ride Levine’s horse who he thought couldn’t lose at that level.
“Steve, I need to win a race with this horse, I own a piece of this horse with one of my best friends and…” Before he could finish, Rushing said, “forget it, you’ve got Ramon.”
Interesting place, the racetrack. Everyone’s competing for the same prize, and it’s a tough, often cutthroat business. But if you spend a lifetime on the racetrack building relationships and loyalty, events play themselves out and good karma pays off.
And so Ramon rode our filly. Maybe she might have won under another jockey but my guess is not likely. He gave her a good warm-up from the paddock right to the gate, this after having thrown a shoe requiring her to be reshod in the paddock.
Ask any lifelong horseplayer: those horses never win; well, very seldom, anyway.
As Dubai’s Connection takes the lead, John, Toni and Jennifer Pricci, along with Jen’s boyfriend Ryan, began rooting, so loudly that Jen’s Yorkie Mandie ducked for cover beneath the couch.
I looked at my partner Toni as Dubai’s Connection reached the finish line, tired but in front. At first she was slack-jawed, then came a look of excitement unlike any I’ve seen and we will have been married 43 years tomorrow. It was priceless; damndest thing you ever saw.
Tomorrow is January 12, which is, of course, the anniversary of Super Bowl III, when a brash, young New York quarterback made good on a guarantee. But that’s a story for another day.