There are big expectations for video lottery terminals at Aqueduct, but racetrack casinos aren’t a novelty in New York. Harness tracks wasted no time jumping in almost 10 years ago, and some folks with Thoroughbred ties are taking advantage of the opportunities.
A stop at Vernon Downs Racing & Casino in central upstate New York the evening of Aug. 11 produced the unexpected for me: The first two races on the all-stakes card were won by owners with plenty of experience in the Thoroughbred game. It’s nothing new, but such investments are easier to make when the purse money makes ownership worthwhile.
The first race, a New York State Fair stakes for 2-year-old male trotters, went to Purple Haze Stables’ Credicity, a $95,000 yearling purchase. The second race, also a NYSF stakes for 2-year-old trotters, was won by Corgaggioso, who was bred and is owned by Joe Spadaro, formerly of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, and Tom Durkin, the announcer at the New York Racing Association tracks.
Purple Haze is owned by Wanda Polisseni, who has about 80 horses—40 Thoroughbred and 40 Standardbred. Polisseni, who lives near Rochester, N.Y., and has a large string at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack, is a relative newcomer, having purchased her first racehorse in 2004 after the death of her husband.
“You can’t live your life around your children or their children,” Polisseni said when asked why she invested in all those horses. “I lost my husband and wanted something to do. But I found out you can’t have just one horse. It’s all about numbers—but you have to be careful about it.”
Polisseni, who spends about three hours a night on her computer to keep up with business, has become a student of the game. “You have to be aware of the competition, and which sires are producing,” she said.
Polisseni has her favorites. Trond Smedshammer, a top trainer of trotters and an underrated driver, has Credicity in his barn. Chris Englehart handles Purple Haze’s New York-based horses, and Teresa Pompay has some as well.
She hasn’t won a race at the current Saratoga meet yet but noted one of her runners was claimed for $50,000 a few days ago.
Spadaro is a former Standardbred trainer who switched to the Thoroughbred business when Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island closed in the late 1980s. When he retired in 2006, he decided to get back into the harness business.
“Without a doubt, (VLTs) have revived this business,” Spadaro said. “The open trot at Saratoga used to be $5,000, now it goes for $18,000. The purses at Yonkers are astronomical, and we didn’t have Tioga Downs.
“The horsemen in New York worked long and hard to get this. They were at the forefront. I hope they don’t eventually get shortchanged (through legislative changes).”
As for Durkin, Spadaro said the co-owner watched Coraggioso’s race on television and gets a kick out of a horse ownership.
“He names all our horses with Italian names,” Spadaro said. “He’s an Italian wannabe.”