“If Tin Cup Chalice can sweep these races, a lot of people will take notice that a good, New York-bred horse from Finger Lakes, who has already won at Belmont Park, can also win at Saratoga. That can only help our breeding business in this state.”
LeCesse, 48, is not just lost in a pipe dream. He has first-hand experience of what it means to win a big race at the Spa.
As a child, he began following his father, Raymond, to the track. Raymond had previously been involved in harness racing. In fact, his star was Polaris, who in 1966, was second in two heats of the of the Hambletonian to Kerry Way, who set a world record for two heats by a trotting filly with the miles going in 1:58 4/5 and 1:59 3/5.
“I owned Polaris with my brothers,” Raymond said, “but I veered away from the harness horses to the Thoroughbreds. I was in construction in those days, and I bought a farm. I didn’t know anything about owning horses and I never trained horses. I just liked them. Plus, harness racing was at night and I had just bought a bowling alley. I wanted something to do during the day, and then the bowling at night.”
Michael would follow his father to the barns in the morning, then to the bowling alley and back to the track. He took time to get a business degree from a local college, but never got too far from his father’shorses.
The one that sealed the deal fro Michael was Fio Rito, who pulled off a huge upset to win the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in 1981. It was the first major Grade 1 victory for a New York-bred and it attracted the first bit of attention to the state’s breeding industry.
How Raymond LeCesse came to own Fio Rito is an appropriate racetrack tale.
“I had bought a farm out here and I was asked if they could hold a sale there,” said Raymond, who is now 85. “I let them do it, and the sale was going pretty slowly.
“Then, along came this mare, Seagret, who was in foal. I don’t know what I was thinking -- I just decided to bid and got it up to $2,500 when the hammer fell. I was offered $3,500 later on, but I turned it down for whatever reason and sent the horse to a friend, Tony Brown. I told him that, if the foal turned out to be a gray, to keep sending me the bills. Otherwise, he could sell it. Sure enough, the foal was gray.”
The colt was named for bandleader Ted Fio Rito, whose biggest hits were “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii” and “I’ll String Along with You.” Raymond had met Fio Rito at the race track years before and the two became friends.
And Fio Rito became a star.
Under the care of trainer Michael Ferraro Sr., Fio Rito won 28 of 50 starts and earned more than $600,000. He was Finger Lakes’ Horse of the Year from 1979-’81; set Finger Lakes track records in 1981 for six furlongs (1:09 4/5) and a mile and 70 yards (1:40 1/5), and was New York State Horse of the Year in 1980-‘81.
But his greatest moment came when he won the Whitney under jockey Leslie Hulet. Fio Rito led at every call to win the nine-furlong event in 1:48, and along with Bolingbroke (1943), the filly Gallorette (1948) and Round View (1949) are the only 6-year-olds to have won the Whitney. Kelso, an 8-year-old in 1963, remains the oldest Whitney winner.
Although Fio Rito won the Whitney carrying 113 pounds, it cannot be denied that he could carry weight. In 1980, he won the Wadsworth Memorial Handicap carrying 138 pounds.
Fio Rito was injured in the 1981 Woodward at Belmont Park to end his racing career, but lived until the age of 21, when he died in 1996. He is the only horse buried on the infield at Finger Lakes.
“I knew nothing about broodmares, breeding, anything,” Raymond LeCesse said. “But I had a chance to own a racehorse that turned out to be a good one. Now, this program with the way it is now gives little guys a better chance to come up with a good horse. Guys like my son.
“We’re having a lot of fun. I had my good horse, and now I am living vicariously through my son. He’s got a good horse, too.”
The field for Wednesday’s $150,000 Albany:
PP. HORSE TRAINER JOCKEY WGT.
1. Overextended Mark Hennig Alan Garcia 117
2. Writingonthewall Carlos Martin Kent Desormeaux 117
3. Almighty Silver Charlton Baker John Velazquez 119
4. That’srightofficer Richard Schosberg Edgar Prado 119
5. Icabad Crane H. Graham Motion Ramon Dominguez 121
6. Tin Cup Chalice Michael LeCesse P Rodriguez 124
7. Big Truck Barclay Tagg Eibar Coa 121