YONKERS, NY - For the past few years, Duane Marfisi has enjoyed life in New Zealand as an assistant trainer to Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen, who operate one of the most successful stables in Australasia.
Although Marfisi was an accomplished trainer in North America before moving Down Under, working with stars like Adore Me and Lazarus alongside great horsemen showed him he still had room to improve.
“Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen are most brilliant horsemen,” Marfisi said. “Just when you think you can’t learn any more, you keep on learning. I was second trainer for them the last two-and-a-half years. I was on the road with some great horses. Adore Me and Lazarus, Smolda. The whole team.”
Training and racing standardbreds in New Zealand and Australia is markedly different than in the United States. Horses are prepped to race longer distances, contend from standing starts, and medication regulations are stricter. Dealing with these and other factors gave Marfisi a new outlook on the game.
“It rekindled my spirit for the horses. Everything was new to me: the standing starts and the distance racing,” he explained. “To be able to go the distances in the time they do - they’ll go a 2-mile run in 3:54, which is astonishing. The truth of the matter is, their medication rules are by far superior to here. It’s just basically good horsemanship.”
While he speaks fondly of his time in New Zealand, Marfisi returned to his home in Ontario, Canada just before Christmas. His wife, Janet, accepted a coveted position at the University of Guelph. “She actually didn’t think I was going to return with her to be honest. But I did, and here we are,” he joked.
Marfisi has eight horses in training now. Among them is Our Sky Major, a 7-year-old New Zealand-bred pacer who made the journey across the Pacific a few months prior to Marfisi. The former Barry Purdon pupil won five group 1 stakes in Australasia and placed in another five. The son of Art Major out of the In The Pocket mare Sky Beauty is 17-for-61 in his career and sports earnings of $658,865.
“The horse is very, very intelligent. He’s a class act. He’s a great-gaited horse, he’s very, very fast,” Marfisi said.
Despite his impressive resume, Our Sky Major’s 2016 season wasn’t up to par with prior years. The pacer earned just one victory and $25,523. A change was needed and owners Trevor Casey and John Lohman had a plan.
“The owner approached me when he heard I was coming back about shipping the horse over here because they believed he had a bleeding problem his last season in Australia,” Marfisi explained.
Our Sky Major shipped from Australia to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport via stops in China and Alaska, finally arriving Oct. 23. He spent time at Blairwood Farm in New Jersey to recover from the long journey before vanning to Canada in early November where serious training could begin.
“He had six good weeks of jogging and six good weeks of fast work training miles and he handled it very well,” Marfisi detailed. “He had a couple qualifiers, a fast work behind the gate. He had done everything I asked. I was a little dodgy about racing him and I qualified him another time because racing that hard, you have to be fit and ready.”
In his North American debut at Woodbine Racetrack Feb. 18, Our Sky Major, the whip on his tail, made a determined march to the lead past a :56.1 half in a conditioned event. Under a good hold from driver Doug McNair, Our Sky Major powered his way through a :26.3 third panel and turned into the stretch on a 1 1/2-length advantage. A single slap of the wheel disc at the eighth pole encouraged Our Sky Major to open another length-and-a-half. He stopped the clock in 1:50.2, punching a ticket to Yonkers Raceway’s George Morton Levy Pacing Series in the process.
“After his first start, he forced me to pay him into the Levy,” Marfisi said. “I was hoping he’d get up to the Preferred and then go down there, but after his first start it was pretty amazing, so we just went ahead.”
Marfisi’s confidence in Our Sky Major faced an immediate test two weeks later. Up a notch in class and sent off as the race’s odds-on favorite, Our Sky Major finished a disheartening fifth, beaten 4 lengths. The bleeding issues that crippled his 2016 season had resurfaced.
“His second start, I was very, very disappointed. I went in there very confident. I thought he was better than he was in his first start,” Marfisi lamented. “He did bleed his last start for me. His wind was shut off a bit which caused him to bleed. It just bummed me a bit because I expected him to win.”
When Our Sky Major starts in Saturday night’s $50,000 first division of the Levy Series first leg, he’ll race on lasix for the first time. After drawing post position seven, he’s a 20-1 outsider on the morning line and will be in the hands of Mark MacDonald for the first time. Still, Marfisi looks for his horse to earn valuable points in the series. If he gets enough to make even the Levy Consolation slated for April 22, Marfisi will be happy.
“I would have liked to have drawn good, but you never know. It’s tough over at Yonkers. You’re usually trying to get some cover. It’s hard to explain to drivers over here that for horses from Australasia, a good trip is usually first-up. They’re used to racing like that just on the outside. I would really be happy that he paces home and passes some horses to grab a slice. That would make me thrilled to death.”
While the outside post position is a concern, the track configuration isn’t. Unlike some horses who race at Yonkers for the first time, Our Sky Major has experience on small tracks.
“There’s a lot of tracks in Australasia that are very interesting. They have sort of triangle turns,” Marfisi said. “I would say Yonkers will be a good surface for him. He can really fly when you ask him to go. When he won the (Harness Jewel 4-Year-Old Emerald), he went the last quarter in 24-and-change. You don’t see many horses who can do that kind of last quarter.”
Regardless of the outcome, Marfisi is happy to have a horse capable of racing in the Levy and other top events this season. He’s optimistic about what the future holds.
“I was excited that the owner wanted to send him. We paid him up into a lot of the big dances and we’re hoping for the best. I don’ t know if he’s that type yet; he has to prove it. The open horses here are extraordinary. You have to have a lot of talent.”
Our Sky Major will face seven rivals in his division of the Levy Series first leg, including Caviart Luca, who’s 5-for-7 at Yonkers this season for trainer Ron Burke, and Rich Banca’s Blood Brother, who’s consistently hit the board in Preferred and Open company at Yonkers.
Three other Levy divisions Saturday night feature full fields, including Santa Fe Beachboy and McWicked in division two and Mach It So and Provocativeprincen in division three. Defending champion Bit Of A Legend faces Somewhere In L A and Wakizaschi Hanover in division four. First post time is 7:10 p.m.
by Brandon Valvo for the SOA of NY