Day At The Track

Emotional first driving win for Zack Gray

07:50 AM 18 May 2019 NZST
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Zack Gray,Harness racing
It was a crowded winner’s circle after Zack Gray posted his first win as a driver.
Melissa Simser-Iovino

Trenton, NJ — It is safe to say emotions have run the gamut for 18-year-old Zack Gray over the past year.

On June 10, 2018, his dad, popular trainer/driver Bobby Gray, passed away at age 56 — shortly before Father’s Day. Flash forward to this past Saturday (May 11) at Saratoga Casino Hotel, the night before Mother’s Day. As sad as things were 11 months earlier, they were that joyous for the family when Zack earned his first harness racing driving win in his 36th start.

Making it more special is that he won driving Cool Jack, a pacer that his his mom, Sheryl, co-owns with Joe Facin Jr. and David Faile.

“It was pretty good because I figured that’s what (my dad) wanted me to do,” Gray said. “It felt good, but it was a little sad too. I know my mom was pretty happy.”

That’s an understatement.

“It was the best Mother’s Day present,” Sheryl said. “But it was exciting because it has been Zack’s dream since he was a little boy. Friday was a rough day for us as it was (exactly) 11 months since my husband’s passing. Zack’s Nana Gray and uncle had just drove from Florida and were there for the weekend. Zack is very well-liked and everyone was cheering for him at the home stretch.”

Zack nearly got his first win last November with Cool Jack, missing by a neck in a third-place finish. On Saturday, the tandem had to come from behind, with Zack coolly taking advantage of fast early fractions as the leaders reached the opening quarter-mile in :27.1 and the half in :55.1.

“I was sitting last at the quarter pole,” Gray said. “I saw the fractions and I thought, this is going to work out good because my horse absolutely flies home. I took the lead around the last turn and I won by three (and a half lengths). I was pretty happy. It was pretty good.”

As he crossed the finish line in 1:54.3, Zack looked up and pointed his whip skyward in a salute to his dad who, like his son, was also well-liked and respected.

“It took my dad a long time to win his first race and I think he’d be proud of me to accomplish it earlier than he did,” Zack said. “I knew mine would come at some point. You’ve just got to be patient.”

Bobby Gray was licensed in 1982 and was a career amateur driver. He competed in the C.K.G. Billings Series and in amateur races predominantly in Maine. He also ran a small stable and amassed 189 wins, 183 seconds and 169 thirds in 1,412 lifetime starts. Those finishes pocketed $564,166 in purses.

Perhaps his biggest legacy was doing all he could to care for his horses, and always being there to help his colleagues at the track. He apparently passed that trait on to family members, who were his number-one priority.

“He was also well liked in the harness world,” Sheryl said. “Zack sure follows his footsteps in that aspect.”

Bobby took his son under his wing and Zack remembers jogging his first horse at age 5.

“I loved it right away,” he said.

The family sold its stable in 2012 and soon moved from Maine to Saratoga. Bobby went to work for Jimmy Nickerson and Zack tagged along.

“I didn’t really start working for somebody until two years ago,” he said. “I always helped my dad. I started working for Dave Spagnola and I worked there for a while.”

Bobby became a huge supporter when Zack started driving, and early on some more emotions churned up.

“He was always there when I started qualifying,” Gray said. “When I qualified a week after he died, it was kind of different. But I know that’s where he wanted me to be.”


Zack Gray earned his first driving win in his 36th start on May 11 with Cool Jack. Melissa Simser-Iovino photo.

Zack has driven Cool Jack in all but two of his starts since last November. He is trained by Amanda Facin, Joe’s daughter.

“He’s been a good little horse for me; he’s a cool little horse,” Gray said. “And the people who help me out in the barn are just wonderful people. The Facin family helped me out with buying the horse and they’ve been there ever since.”

Gray does not do any catch driving, and as far as helping out in stables he said, “I just kind of freelance,” mostly at Saratoga.

He is trying to make his way in the business and has full support from Sheryl and sisters Dawn and Mikayla.

“My mom is always there to root me on,” Gray said. “Good or bad, she says ‘You did a great job.’ And my two sisters are excellent, they cheer me on and give me support.”

As far as driving goes, Zack will continue to do it for now, but has other plans.

“If I can get some more wins now driving, I’ll do it,” he said. “But I like training too. I think I could go a little ways as a driver, but I’d like to be a trainer and drive my own stable.”

Whatever he decides, his family will be right behind him with support, as will Bobby from up above.

 

by Rich Fisher

USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent

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