Lisa Zabielski could be just a 'Hopskipanajump' away from winning Saturday's $60,850 Rags to Riches Final. The 25-year-old harness racing trainer from upstate New York is understandably excited about sending out one of the major contenders in the biggest race of her young career under the Meadowlands Racetrack spotlight.
Hopskipanajump drew post three in the field of the top ten money winners from three preliminary legs of the series. The Rags to Riches Final is carded as the sixth race on a 13-race program.
The unique series which gives pacers in the $10,000 claiming range a chance to go for a substantial purse, is also tied to a promotion where fans have become "owners" of each finalist and are eligible to win five percent of their horse's purse earnings.
Zabielski has been involved with horses as long she can remember, and now assists her father, trainer Paul Zabielski, with the operation of a training center, which is also a learning facility.
"I'm originally from Saratoga Springs, NY, and my father, Paul , has been a trainer since he was 18," she explained. "So, I kind of grew up in the business. I've been in it every day since I was old enough to clean a stall. My father is a first generation horseman. He took a horse care class that was offered when he was in high school. He would go to the barn every day and learn hands on. It's a two-year program, and the second year you learn the racing part of the business.
"Now, he's not only a trainer, but he also teaches the class on our farm," she noted. "It's specifically for standardbreds, and it's part of the Warren County-Saratoga Springs VO Tech school system. There are about 15 different schools within a 50-mile radius. They're eleventh and twelfth graders who go to the regular school for half a day, then come to the barn and work on the horses for the other half of the day. It's the only school that offers horse care in New York State. Right now, we have 15 kids that come in the morning and about 25 in the afternoon. So, it's an all day affair for us and it's a lot fun. Many of them have no experience with horses. Several of the trainers in the area have gone through the program.
"We have about 70 acres, and we're in the process of making it into a new training facility. It's under construction and should be done shortly. We'll offer 200 stalls. We have a half-mile training track. We're installing a pool this Summer and an Equicizer. My father has raced mostly at Saratoga Harness, and I do the traveling to other tracks. It works out because I enjoy being on the road."
The improbable odyssey of how a horse that gets claimed for $12,000 at Kawartha Downs by a Western New York horseman and ends up in the Meadowlands winner's circle [twice] began with perceptive research, and then a snow storm.
"The owner [Michael Calimeri] had seen this horse race and was kind of keeping an eye on him," said Zabielski. "He also noticed the horse was in the Rags to Riches Series. There was a really big snow storm where he is in the Buffalo area at the time, he debated on it, and decided to drive up to Kawartha Downs [in Fraserville, Ontario] and get the horse himself. We certainly weren't going to say no to a guy who really wanted this horse that much. I had a horse named Most Fun Yet in a division of this series last year, and we didn't get a check, so I knew what kind of horse you needed. I'm expecting Mr. Calimeri to show up to watch him race this week.
"We met Mr. Calimeri through Jim McNeight, a trainer and driver in the Buffalo area. They sent the horse here because it's closer to ship him from here to the Meadowlands. I had been looking for a horse to race, and I think being from a bigger barn, now he's responded to having more close attention. We haven't really changed much on him and he's really a low maintenance horse. The students get to handle him on a daily basis as well."
Hopskipanajump scored fresh off the claim with a gutsy mile in the first leg of the series, equaling his lifetime mark of 1:52.4. The five-year-old son ofcame back to win again in the second leg in 1:53.3, then finished second in round three.
"Hopskipanajump really surprised me when he won his first start," admitted Zabielski. "I'm not familiar with Kawartha Downs, and the night he was claimed he paced in 2:00.4 in the slop there. So, I wondered if we were going to get a check with him here, but he's been good ever since we got him. I looked at his lines and it looked like his best races were at Pocono Downs, so I'm thinking he'd much rather prefer a bigger track. He's actually a tiny horse and one of the smallest we have here. It sure helps to have one of the best drivers in Dave Miller. I'm not sure at this point, but Dave might take Tamayo, so we'll go with Mark MacDonald.
"Racing for $60,000 is great and it's definitely the biggest race I've ever been in. My first win at the Meadowlands was a division of theSeries last year with Psyched, and he finished fifth in that final. I still have him and he's pretty much my house pet now. We currently have ten horses and we're looking to claim a few more. We're looking for another Meadowlands type horse."