This was a little different homecoming, back to my harness racing roots but requiring a visit to the farm country of western New York, my first ever trip to Vernon Downs.
I came to cheer on a 3-year-old trotter owned by a couple of friends and associates, Joe Spadaro and Tom Durkin, who only recently have gone back to their futures as well.
You might not have heard of Spadaro, although if you’re a devout racing fan of either breed you probably should have. Back in the day, Spadaro bred a champion trotter, Jodevin, named for his three sons; Joseph, Dean and Vincent.
The other guy--in his own inimitable words--is someone you might have heard of. It’s what happens when you are, now and then, “The Voice of…” New York racing, the Breeders’ Cup, and the Triple Crown, too.
Back in his day, when hardly anyone heard the name Durkin, he was the harness voice of Quad City Downs in East Moline and Maywood Park, both located in the Land of Lincoln.
Durkin parlayed those early harness days into a South Florida gig where we met on a sultry afternoon at Hialeah Park. But when the spanking new Meadowlands called, Durkin moved his tack to East Rutherford, in the Land of The Boss, and was back calling the trotters and pacers at the world’s premier harness facility.
However, it wasn’t long before he crossed the Hudson and landed his dream job, calling Thoroughbred races at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga.
Spadaro, like a turf writer I could name, made his way into the game from the streets of Queens, New York; in Spadaro’s case, Astoria, where betting on horses was a way of life and “there was a bookmaker on every corner.”
When his family moved to Hicksville, Long Island, Spadaro gravitated to Roosevelt Raceway where he got his start rubbing horses for Eugene Mattucci, a member of the Roosevelt Raceway Hall of Fame who learned his craft from the legendary Joe O’Brien.
As an aside, O’Brien won the first “Triple Crown of Trotting” in 1955 with Scott Frost. The eventual Harness Horse of the Year, groomed by Mattucci, swept the Kentucky Futurity, Yonkers Trot and Hambletonian, winning the Hambo only five days after taking a three-heat Vernon Downs stakes that ended at midnight.
Spadaro trained harness horses off and on for 12 years. The horse he co-bred, Jodevin, was the 2-Year-Old Trotter of the Year, 1976. Jodevin was known as the “Cinderella Trotter,” having sold originally for $5,700 but eventually re-sold for $900 after he didn’t vet out.
“He wasn’t very correct,” Spadaro said drolly, “but he won 19 of 20 starts for the man who bought him, Kermit Hinshaw. He drove him at the fairs and beat all the Grand Circuit horses.” Now it looks like Spadaro, with his partner, bred another good one.
After Roosevelt was shuttered, Spadaro found himself out of work and made ends meet by tending bar at a successful catering hall and Astoria landmark. Riccardo’s was owned by the Corbisiero family whose son, Richard, was the Chairman of the State Racing & Wagering Board.
Recognizing talent, Corbisiero got Spadaro a job as a field inspector. Eventually he rose through the ranks until he retired a few years ago after reaching the level of Deputy Executive Director.
During his tenure, the state-bred program began to prosper. Shortly before Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby, Spadaro, now working the New York-bred docket, created the successful “Get With The Program” media campaign, with an assist from owner-breeder-entertainer David Cassidy and “Sopranos” pitchmen Michael Imperioli, Tony Sirico and Steven Van Zandt.
Working closely on the project with Tom Durkin, the two became the best of friends and when Jose Santos blurted out “get with the program” on national television on his way to the Churchill Downs winners’ circle, the New York-bred program no longer was the red-headed stepchild of the breeding industry.
Now it seems Spadaro has done it again on the trotting side. After making some modest purchases he became prescient when he bought a package that included the mare Electra Hanover who was in foal to SJs Caviar and a yearling colt, also by SJs Caviar, subsequently named Eggipus Complex.
The gelded son of SJ’s Caviar-Electra Hanover was named Eggipus Complex by Durkin, who names all the partnership’s horses. Given the sire SJs Caviar, the egg reference follows. But who knew that an Electra Complex is the female equivalent of an Oedipus Complex? Well, Durkin did.
After winning three qualifiers this season, Coraggioso won two straight going into Friday’s Empire Breeders Classic Elimination. His last at Tioga had been a remarkable effort. He was blocked into the stretch, forced to await room, then needed to sprint home between rivals, not easy for a trotting horse.
Since that time, all partnership horses have been given Italian names in alphabetical order every year. After Eggipus Complex followed a filly Bravissima [meaning brave] and then the colt I trailed to Vernon Downs on Friday night, Coragiosso [courage].
In the pipeline are Coraggioso’s juvenile half-brother, the yearling Determinato [determined], and the 2012 foal, Electrizante [electrifying]. Electra Hanover is currently in foal to Donato Hanover, Hambletonian winner and 3-Year-Old Champion Trotter of 2007.
Coraggioso is by Conway Hall, the 2-Year-Old Champion of 1997. Last year, Coraggioso compiled a (9) 4-2-1 slate and was one of the favorites to win the Night of Champions Trot at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway but spiked a fever and had to be withdrawn.
After winning three qualifiers this season, Coraggioso won two straight going into Friday’s Empire Breeders Classic Elimination. It was a remarkable effort in which he was blocked into the stretch, was forced to await room, then sprint home between rivals, not easy for a trotting horse.
But burst through Coraggioso did, and he was sitting on a big effort when he drew into the tougher elimination race Friday night.
Coraggioso moved quickly to contention from the start and was sitting third off a fast pace on what has been a speed biased surface—at least it was this weekend. The colt moved powerfully on the far turn, swallowed the leader up, and was in full flight when a rival charged up outside in a final bid. At that point, Coraggioso was finishing faster than he ever had been and went off stride.
“Young trotters have to get used to going that fast. If they’re not, they’ll roll into a break,” Spadaro said. “We never asked him to go all out before.”
It was fortunate that this occurred a week before the $250,000 Empire Breeders Classic Final. With Fluet pulling up the colt as the team passed the wire, he finished second by a length but eventually placed third for running, easily qualifying for the final, http://replays.robertsstream.com/racereplays/cust/nyss.php?play=MjAxMjA2MDEyMTQ2VlJOMTA= .
The winner stopped the timer in 1:53 4/5, establishing a new track record for 3-year-old trotters held by the 2008 Hambletonian winner and champion, Deweycheatumnhowe, who finished up with a career mark of (25) 22-1-2.
Spadaro will motor back to Vernon from Saratoga for Friday’s final. Meanwhile, his partner will be studying for his day job in Elmont the following afternoon, when the Belmont Stakes will be renewed for a 144th time, this year with a chance to crown a 12th Triple Crown champion.
History, as the race-caller once said, in the waiting.