Tails from the Turnpike with Chris Tully

12:28 PM 06 May 2014 NZST
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A quick thunder storms moves in on the Meadowlands
Photo by Chris Tully
Rachel Ryan (left) and Kathie Estes (right) pose with Derby Day t-shirts for the fans
Photo by Chris Tully
Amazing transformation of the M1 Back Yard
Photo by Chris Tully
Horse of the Year, Bee A Magician, at the start of her first qualifier of the season
Photo by Chris Tully
Freehold Raceway GM Howard Bruno presents Dexter Cup trophy to trainer Tom Fanning and driver Brian Sears
Photo by Chris Tully
Familiar faces at the Meadowlands qualifiers
Photo by Chris Tully
Michael Lisa, Jim Lisa and Paul Capozzi at the Meadowlands
Photo by Chris Tully
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DERBY DAY – On the first Saturday in May, the entire country cares about horse racing.

No matter who you are or where you live, it is difficult to escape the anticipation and excitement leading up to the Run for the Roses.

Traffic was already backed up to the railroad overpass on Racetrack Road by 10 a.m., waiting to get into the New Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment.  By the time I arrived in the paddock for the morning qualifiers, the first and second races had already been contested, as an earlier start was planned to accommodate the anticipated crowd.

My first stop was to see the older trotters in race 7.  Shelly Grieco, caretaker for Market Share was less anxious this week as Team Toscano had less than half of the eleven horses they had in-to-go last week.  Markie was his protective self, pinning his ears if I got too close to Shelly.  Otherwise, he was content to nibble on his dog chain, which is hooked with a carabiner and dangling from the left cross chain snap.

Two stalls down was Dan Patch Horse of the Year, Bee A Magician, who was making her 2014 debut sans the trotting hopples.  She looked as alert and ready as could be, and her caretaker Stephanie Petherick, was happy to pose for the obligatory photo.  I thought that if this was not a qualifier the paparazzi would be everywhere!

As I dashed over to the track apron, fans and players were milling around.  They picked their spots while watching live early races from Churchill Downs on the infield teletron.  Richard Gutnick, co-owner of Market Share was taking in all the action from his usual Saturday morning perch in the grandstand.  At that stage, plans for the Elitloppet had not been finalized, citing several pros and cons.  Rumor has it that a decision will be made on Tuesday.

The USTA’s Ken Weingartner and DRF’s Derick Giwner were in their respective positions, ready to capture all the highlights.  M1 CEO Jason Settlemoir stopped by to say hello with Marianne Rotella the assistant general manager.  Marianne has been at The Meadowlands as long as I can remember, most recently running Guest Services.  She is a great lady who is right at home managing big events.

The main attraction was the 4-year-old and older trot, which was all Market Share.  Not only did he draw off by over eight lengths, winning in 1:52.4, he trotted his last half all alone in :54.4.  For the “Queen Bee” this appeared more like an official Derby Day workout.  Bee settled in fourth and was allowed to trot home at will, timed in 1:56.  She looked great and went clean and comfortable without the hopples.

Following that race I went up to the Super Box to see Nick Salvi.  I was impressed by the “super” view of the races from that vantage point.  We discussed several social media initiatives while keeping an eye on the last few races.  Hanover’s Murray Brown brought a bag of NY bagels over from Manhattan while several top owners discussed the sights and sounds of the day.

When the races were over, security shuffled us out to make room for a Derby party.  Myron Bell invited me to lunch after qualifiers.  I had to respectfully decline as I had already made plans.  Nick reminded me that they ‘do lunch’ every Saturday so I was could catch them next time.  I most certainly will!

Back on the apron, I could not help but notice what an AMAZING TRANSFORMATION occurred in the “Back Yard,” the New Meadowlands equivalent to the old Paddock Park.  Although not complete yet, it had come a long way from the disassembled and dusty construction site it looked like last week.

On my self-guided tour children were playing on the freshly rolled sod, and workers were inflating kid-friendly bounce houses.  While peeking inside the new Back Yard Teller stand I ran into John “Red” Fazekas.  He is also a “lifer” at the Meadowlands, starting as a labor foreman in 1977 under John Chevalier.  Now he is the Supervisor of Properties and knows every inch of the front side and the backstretch like the back of his hand.  During the Garden State Sales era, Red could always be counted on to come through in a pinch.  Bitten by the racehorse bug, he even owned and trained a few horses along the way.

One of the hardest working people around that facility is Rachel Ryan, Director of Marketing.  She and the incredibly talented graphic artist Kathie Estes were handing out M1 T-shirts that read “Keep Calm and Derby On.”  I have witnessed Rachel do everything from shoot T-shirts from a cannon to carry 6 foot tables over her shoulder.  She always smiles and forges ahead.  Team Gural is indeed fortunate to have Rachel’s enthusiasm and dedication at their facility.

During my tour I also ran into Administrative Assistant Jenn Bongiorno.  I told her that I was going to Freehold next, and she said one word, “Sumatra.”  I should listen to her more often!

By this time Ken Weingartner was finished uploading all of his shots from the day, so we headed over to Tick Tock, the relatively famous NJ diner on Route 3 in Clifton.  After we ordered the waitress noticed pictures of horses on my iPhone and on my shirt. 

The waitress inquired, “Is the Derby over at the Meadowlands today?” 

Doing my very best to maintain my composure I explained that the Derby was being held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky but the Meadowlands was having a public Derby Day party—hence all the traffic.  There was also a Bar Mitzvah at MetLife Stadium, but that’s another story.

“Oh, right, KENTUCKY Derby” she said.  She was very pleasant and took good care of Ken and I after that.  We broke bread and shared a few laughs, and discussed the best alternate route to Freehold.  With all the NJ Turnpike construction around exit 8A, I was advised to exit early and take the back road down to Route 33.

Just as were about to leave the Tick Tock, a middle-aged couple approached our table and stated, “We could not help but overhearing, but what is happening with the Derby today?”

Ken and I did our best to be good ambassadors of horse racing and gave them as much information as they could handle.  I guess anyone affiliated with horse racing is a celebrity on Derby Day!  If nothing else, a good source of insight.

Out and Southbound, Mr. Weingartner was correct--traffic was backed up at exit 8A.  But tie-ups are not uncommon on the NJ Turnpike, just ask anyone who ships from Showplace or Gaitway!  When I finally arrived at Freehold, the parking lot and the grandstand were jammed packed.

The Dexter Cup at the Afternoon Delight is the first stop on the road to the $1.2 million Hambletonian.  The event drew several representatives of the Hambletonian Society, as well as Rob Key, who was rooting for his dad’s horse Sarcastic Man.  Members of the Takter family were also on the partly sunny but breezy apron.

Brian Sears driving Sumatra from the rail was the prohibitive betting favorite at 30 cents on the dollar.  Not one to disappoint, the White Knight led gate to wire for an elated Tom Fanning, the Hambo hopeful’s trainer.  The early-season powerhouse Ray Schnittker stable picked up the 2, 3 & 4 spots, with elim. winner Sarcastic Man (post 8) grabbing the final check.

It was rumored that “The Manager” president of the Yonkers-based Brian Sears fan club, was going to make a surprise appearance at Freehold for the Dexter, however, that never materialized—leaving this scribe with nothing to do but head back North to the Meadowlands to catch the Derby.

Upon my ascent to the 4th floor Victory Terrace, amidst the handicappers and the humongous hats, it was clear that the Derby Day event was a success. 8,000 T-shirts had been given out before 3 pm, and it was standing room only on the track level.  The press box was the perfect place to spread out my laptop, camera and program to watch the NBC telecast.  Nick Salvi shared some of his home-made pulled pork, and the party began.

Peter Koch joined us with about 20 minutes to post, and we bantered about chalk vs. long-shots.  As horse people, we always enjoy the stories associated with the Derby.  As a former horse auction company executive, the fact that California Chrome was the product of an $8,000 mare and $2,000 stud fee was especially satisfying.

I am sure that my father, who often reminded would-be sellers that ‘money does not go lame in the bank,’ would have been aghast over these cowboys turning down $6m for half the horse.  But, hey, I guess he is worth more now that he won the Derby...and is eyeing a shot at the Triple Crown.

All eyes will be upon Pimlico in Baltimore on May 17 for the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown.  Fans of harness racing will want to be at The Meadowlands that day as they host the Roosevelt Raceway Legacy Night, with a dozen stars from that iconic era on hand to sign autographs.  Roosevelt memorabilia will also be on display courtesy of the Harness Racing Museum & Hall of Fame.

Following his T’bred TVG duties, Director of Racing Darin Zoccali joined us in the press box.  He was very pleased with the M1 on-track Churchill handle, which exceeded $1.6m.  In addition, about 12,000 people came to the facility.  All-in-all, it was a good day for horse racing, harness or otherwise.

The crowd lingered on the Victory Terrace for some time after the Derby, until a brief thunder storm sent them running for cover.  The rain came and went and the crowd returned to the apron for a great night of harness racing.  The brief thunder-boomer did not slow things down, as five races went faster than 1:50.

3 Brothers Stable’s JK Endofanera won the Simpson and Rockin Amadeaus outlasted Frankies Dragon in the B1/A2 Handicap.  The increasingly powerful Alagna Racing had three wins on the Saturday night card, following 12 in the qualifiers.  With an impressive new webpage and dynamic social media feed, Tony gets it.  He is leading by example in a digital environment that helps inform owners and fans of his stable’s progress, as well as promoting the sport.

It would be difficult to think of a big race at The Meadowlands where long-time track photographer Michael Lisa has not captured an iconic image.  For fun, I took his picture along with his brother and fellow photographer Jim, and Paul Capozzi the master of ceremonies for winners circle presentations.  These guys work hard behind the lens and behind the scenes to make sure that the winning connections have everlasting memories of their special night.

To cap off the evening, David Miller, who will be inducted into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in July, captured career win 11,000.  It truly was a great day for horse racing!

By Chris Tully, for Harnesslink.com

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