Stanco Won More Than He Lost

Ed Stanco most likely will not have an Eclipse statue on his mantle, or wherever he is displaying his collection of Princess of Sylmar trophies. But that is the only thing he won’t have. What he does have is the respect of everyone in the industry, most notably the fans, Santa Anita, and the Breeders’ Cup.

Stanco, along with trainer Todd Pletcher, stated a while back that Princess of Sylmar would make her last start of the year in the Beldame, and even that was pushing it one step farther than what was originally intended.

We can understand Pletcher wanting to push it one more time. When you’re assembling the Greek army to go to war, you want to make sure you have Achilles leading the charge. Pletcher’s army, as strong as it might have been without the Princess, was infinitely more imposing with her.

But in Stanco’s case, he had no army to back up his Princess. It was all or nothing. She could sit out the battle as originally planned and let history dictate her rightful place among the greats or she could risk her invincibility by traveling 3,000 miles at the end of a year-long campaign and challenge Beholder on the battlefield on which her only rival to the 3-year-old throne had proven unbeatable. And, of course, there was the Queen of the older mares, Royal Delta, who the Princess had already beaten into submission in the Beldame.

Stanco knew the risks that went along with his decision. But he also knew that a victory by the Princess would catapult her reputation into a stratosphere only a handful have been able to reach. And he knew that racing would benefit from her presence at Santa Anita. He knew the fans would benefit. He knew the Breeders’ Cup and Santa Anita would benefit. He knew her presence would turn an already attractive Friday card into one with historic implications and bring thousands more to the track.

This was horse racing the way the traditionalists remember it, in its purest form. This was the foundation on which the Sport of Kings was built – my horse against your horse, winner take all. There would be no prisoners, just two exceptional fillies on the threshold of greatness fighting for their place in history.

As we all know, it was too much to ask of the Princess. She wasn’t herself before or during the race and had absolutely nothing to give at any point. It was not a case of Beholder beating her. It was a case of her beating herself.

But this column is not about the Princess’ performance and why she ran so poorly. It is about something you rarely see in this sport anymore – sportsmanship. Sure, Stanco thought the Princess could walk on water. He had every right to. This is not the stage on which she was envisioned performing when running around the fields of Pennsylvania as a yearling or competing in her first two starts at Penn National. Winning a grade I stakes at his beloved Saratoga had been a lifelong dream for Stanco, and the Princess wound up winning two of them.

Each step since her early days at frigid Aqueduct back in the dark days of winter had taken her closer to the gates of the pantheon. And now that she was there, Stanco could not bring her back down, wrap her in Styrofoam, and watch the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on TV, wondering ‘What if?’ When you’re on cloud nine and are the toast of Saratoga, having heard the cheers of thousands of appreciative and admiring fans, it’s difficult to come back down to earth.

A guy like Ed Stanco, who has spent most of his racing life with his head buried in past performances and standing in mutuel lines, isn't used to signing autographs and having people come up to him to shake his hand and congratulate him and praise his horse. Right or wrong, he just couldn’t back off now with so much history at stake, and with the Breeders’ Cup and TV analysts and writers all urging him to run for the good of the sport.

With the way Beholder ran over her home track, Stanco’s decision may or may not have cost the Princess an Eclipse Award. But Eclipse winners come and go, some of whom are remembered and some of whom are not. It is important to remember that in the equine categories, these are the only awards in America where the winners would prefer a carrot over the award.

Immediately after the Distaff, Stanco still was upbeat with his head held high and would not second-guess his decision. Later that month at Aqueduct there still was not the slightest sign of remorse.

The place on Stanco’s mantle reserved for an apparent Eclipse Award likely will have to remain vacant...for now. But there will always be the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama Stakes, and Beldame Stakes trophies to occupy his attention. And that vacant spot can always be filled with all the special memories the Princess provided all year, as well as the respect Stanco earned from everyone in the industry and their gratitude. That in many ways is worth more than a statue.

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