Monday, February 02, 2009

Winning at Gulfstream Becoming a Regular Experience for Frank Calabrese

His eyes fixated on the race playing out on the flat screen before him, and his right thumb flipping through a program, Frank Calabrese is barely moved by the question.

He shrugs off the thought of his life story being depicted in Hollywood with a slight grin, but if any producers or directors have any ideas, Calabrese has a suggestion for the leading man – and only one.

“Hey, you know Joe Pesci used to come through (Gulfstream Park) all the time,” says the 80-year-old horse owner and “career” horseplayer.

“He wouldn’t walk by one time without saying, ‘Frank, if anybody is going to play you in a movie, it’s going to be me’ and then would walk away laughing.”

Pesci might want to keep his phone handy.

“My father would always tell me, ‘Don’t let anybody beat you to the finish line,’” says Calabrese, who led the owners’ standings at Gulfstream Park last year with 23 winners from 72 starts. He’s perennially among the leading owners here, as well as throughout the U.S., and has been atop the Arlington Park standings, in his native Chicago, nine straight years.

His winnings aren’t limited to the horses, either: He recently won two $50,000 jackpots in the same day playing Gulfstream Park’s slot machines.

“Oh, it feels good but nothing beats the horses,” says Calabrese.

A lifelong horseplayer who fell in love with all the activity around the track six decades ago, after scoring a $36 payoff with a 50-cent investment, Calabrese is still playing by his own rules and looking for winners – and just winners - after all these years.

Rather than toss the ball around with pals in the “Little Italy” sector of Chicago, he decided to give his parents a helping hand by hanging unseasoned paper for 50 cents an hour as an 11-year-old.

“We were a poor family, didn’t have much,” says Calabrese, about growing up the son of a butcher and a housewife. “All I wanted to do back then was take care of my folks, you know.”

Calabrese has developed quite a resume since joining the horse owners’ fraternity a quarter century ago. Just last year, the vocal and authoritative Calabrese earned over $2.5 million while his horses won a third of their starts.

His Dreaming of Anna went wire-to-wire to win the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies en route to the Eclipse Award. She went on to win three in both 2007 and 2008 before entering retirement.

Calabrese’s favorite horse, Silver Maiden, won all five of her career starts at age 2 in 1997, including the Arlington-Washington Lassie (G3) and the Frizette (G1).

He bought Silver Maiden privately from Florida horseman Red Curtin before she made her first career start. “A beauty, just everything she did around the barn,” says Calabrese. “This was a special horse.”

While known for his enthusiasm around the paddock, the stern Calabrese has also stirred the pot quite a few times. Despite sharing in his successes – especially at Arlington Park – with longtime trainer Wayne Catalano, Calabrese isn’t always content.

Calabrese recently fired Catalano. But associate Sid Spitz, who has been by Calabrese’s side for practically every day for the last 20 years, sees another side of the tough but fair “character”.

“Frank may look like he’s not approachable or what-not, but he’s going to help you if he trusts you, that’s all,” says Spitz, 65, who was hired by Calabrese after doing some work at his Chicago home in the early ‘80s.

Spitz also points to Calabrese’s generous ways. He’s a regular donor to St. Jude Hospital and recently wrote a $200,000 check for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund.

“I don’t look for any attention. I just like to help those who need it,” says Calabrese. “I was poor one time.”

A daily fixture near Mickey’s Bar in Gulfsream Park’s Silks room, Calabrese admits to loving all the action around him. Aside from a “little dinner,” some tennis or an occasional movie, Calabrese is usually front and center at Gulfstream Park.

And he’s still searching for winners after all these years.

“I love the action and everything that goes with it,” says Calabrese. “Nothing beats picking a winner on your own. It’s a great feeling every time.”

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