Ken Avanzino, a longtime Thoroughbred owner, breeder, and articulate advocate for the sport, passed away far too soon on Nov. 20 at age 71 after a tough battle with cancer. He leaves so many wonderful memories for friends that shared afternoons racing over the years at Saratoga, Belmont Park, Gulfstream Park, Hialeah, and other tracks across the country.
A native of Boston, Ken was introduced to racing at an early age as a fan by his father. Success in business allowed him to extend his participation in the sport to owner and later breeder as well. It began modestly in the late 1970s with longtime business partner Mort Epstein, forming Ken-Mort Stable.
Most of the Ken-Mort horses and others that Avanzino raced on his own account over the years were trained by Tom Skiffington. Easily the best was Maxzene, an exquisite gray/roan homebred mare by Cozzene. She campaigned during the late 1990s and ranked among the leaders of the filly and mare turf division nationally, twice runner-up in Eclipse Award voting while winning more than $1 million.
Skiffington recently recalled first meeting Ken in 1980.
“Actually, P.G. Johnson was going to train for Ken and Mort, but P.G. had all the business he could handle at the time and they had a 38-horse stall limit per trainer in New York in those days. I was looking after his horses in New York during the winter when P.G. would go to Ocala. I was actually his assistant, but because of the rules at the time then, they ran in my name until he got back in the spring.
“Mr. Johnson was kind enough to recommend me when he was unable to take on any more clients. I was afraid we were going to get off to a bad start when P.G. called me up to his box to be introduced to Ken. I was changing barns and moving horses that day wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and then they asked for my barn phone number.
“Actually, I didn’t have one yet, but I didn’t want to admit it, so I told Ken I couldn’t remember it. I’m not sure I could afford one at the time. So Ken says kidding, ‘Great, I’m going to have a trainer that can’t remember his own phone number.’ I told my wife that night I might not last a week on the job, but we ended up together for 25 years.”
In addition to Maxzene, Avanzino’s most accomplished runners included Bucksplasher, Palace Panther, Palashall, Identity, and Stallan.
However, his contributions to racing went far beyond his own horses. He wanted to see the sport run properly and fairly from the backstretch to the front side, and he had the connections to have his constructive suggestions and criticisms heard by those in power.
Ken did things quietly behind the scenes, as he was never interested in personal recognition. He was a savvy handicapper and loved to bet modestly while entertaining friends during the winter season at Gulfstream in the finish-line box he shared with Skiffington.
The area became a center for horsemen, friends, and some regular horseplayers to congregate and exchange information, a group that often included exercise riders, jockey agents, a bookie or two perhaps, and even a colorful tout if he were polite and creative in his presentation.
Ken would have celebrated his 72nd birthday Jan. 27 and would almost certainly have done so at Gulfstream Park. Although a “dark” day on the schedule this season, family and friends will gather the next afternoon and celebrate his life with a race named in his honor. You can bet the photographers will need the wide lens to include everyone in the picture.
Ken cut an imposing figure at 6-3, 220 or so, with a heart to match, a kind and gentle man, always there for family and friends.
Longtime racing writer Jack Will lives in Southern California.