The Empire State Strikes Back

They used to be scoffed at. There was a time when you heard the name New York-bred, you thought of second-class citizens not even remotely classy enough to compete with the big-name Kentucky-breds and Florida-breds or even worthy of being mentioned in the same breath. New York-bred races were looked upon as nothing more than claiming races without the tag. The times were slow, the horses were slow, and New York-breds had to be content with competing against themselves, for they wouldn’t dare venture into open company.

Now it’s as if they have lost their identity, melding into society to such a degree that you tend to forget that horses like Diversify and Mind Your Biscuits are New York-breds. Many breeders now plan their strategy regarding where a horse is foaled to make sure they have a horse classified as a New York-bred in order to cash in on the lucrative incentives.

Did you hear anyone on TV this past Saturday comment that Diversify and Mind Your Biscuits, the one-two finishers of the Whitney Stakes, and top two betting choices, were New York-breds? These are two horses ranked in the Top 10 on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s (NTRA) weekly poll, something that would have been unthinkable in years past.

It was inconceivable several decades ago to think that there would one day be seven New York-breds who have earned over $2 million.

It actually was the Whitney that in many ways launched the modern day New York-bred. It happened 37 years ago when an obscurely bred New York-bred named Fio Rito shocked the racing world by winning Saratoga’s premier event for older horses.

It was a jolt to racing purists. The word spread across the globe. Even the Wabia tribesmen of New Guinea were shocked to learn that a New York-bred had won the grade 1 Whitney.

What made this event so important to the New York breeding industry is that it was the first major impact by a New York-bred since the 1973 advent of graded stakes and the creation of the New York State Breeding and Development Fund, which placed New York-breds under a single umbrella and began the state-bred program and purse incentives. Eight years had passed since then and New York-breds were still considered pretty much a joke.

By 1981, there still had not been a New York-bred grade I winner, and success in open company still was a rarity. That is until Aug. 1 of that year when the 6-year-old horse Fio Rito stepped into the gate for the Whitney Handicap. The gray son of the obscure stallion Dreaming Native was trained by Finger Lakes-based Michael Ferraro, ridden by local rider Les Hulet, and owned by bowling alley owner Raymond LeCesse, who had purchased Fio Rito’s dam, Seagret, for $2,300 as a favor to the mare’s owner, who had put her up for auction at a small venue near Rochester, New York.

He was hardly the kind of horse one would to expect to knock off blue bloods like Rokeby Stable’s Winter’s Tale, winner of the 1980 Marlboro Cup, Brooklyn Handicap, and Suburban Handicap (all grade I) who was rounding back into form or Ogden Phipps’ The Liberal Member, coming off a second in the Brooklyn Handicap or the classy 3-year-old Noble Nashua, who had scored recent victories in the grade I Swaps Stakes and grade II Dwyer Stakes, and who would go on to defeat older horses in the Marlboro Cup in September. Also in the field was Viola Sommer’s Ring of Light, winner of the Excelsior Handicap and Massachusetts Handicap in 1980, the Roseben Handicap in 1981, and who had placed in several major stakes, including the Brooklyn and Suburban Handicaps.

Fio Rito certainly did not look like a horse who would one day make history, winning only one of his nine starts at 2. But he matured into a major force on the New York-bred circuit, mainly at Finger Lakes, where he won 19 of his 27 starts, including a victory in the 1980 Wadsworth Memorial Cup under a staggering 138 pounds. Following victories in the General Sullivan Stakes at Finger Lakes and the Evan Shipman at Belmont, it was decided to step way out of the box and take on leading older horses in the Whitney.

When Fio Rito was shipped to Saratoga, he did everything possible to eliminate himself from Whitney consideration. Known for his ornery disposition, he became too excited when a filly was placed in the stall next to him. When they moved him to another stall, he became so agitated he threw a tantrum and wound up bruising his foot. Initially, there was doubt that he would be able to make the race, but after receiving clearance from a veterinarian it was decided to go ahead and run.

Carrying only 113 pounds, the 6-year-old Fio Rito was sent off at 10-1, as he attempted to become the oldest horse or gelding to win the Whitney since Kelso captured the race at age 8 in 1965 and the oldest complete horse to win the race since Round View in 1949.

Any chance of this Cinderella horse upsetting the Whitney seemed lost when Fio Rito broke through the gate before the start, actually dragging the assistant starter, who was flat on his belly holding on for dear life. No one can measure the gratitude the horse’s connections should have had for the assistant starter, as he refused to let go of the horse. When he finally got Fio Rito to come to a halt and jumped to his feet, still clinging to the horse, he received an ovation from the crowd.

Track announcer Marshall Cassidy commented, “Masterfully handled by the assistant starter, who managed to keep this New York-bred in good custody.”

He then led the horse back around the gate, and Fio Rito, decked out in his orange and purple silks and red blinkers, was still on his toes as he headed back in.

It appeared to be another ignominious moment for New York-breds, especially one who was being counted on to boost the state breeding program.

When the gates opened, Fio Rito shot to the lead and was pressed for the first five furlongs by 50-1 longshot Blue Ensign, who dogged him every step of the way. Around the far turn, Ring of Light made a bold move on the outside and pulled to within a half-length of Fio Rito, who had rattled off testing fractions of :46 3/5 and 1:10 flat. Winter’s Take was under a drive along the inside and found a huge opening on the rail as he turned for home. The Liberal Member also was on the move, and it looked as if Fio Rito was about to be inhaled from both sides, as five horses bore down on him.

But the fans were in for a shock. Fio Rito, under a barrage of right-handed whips from Hulet, dug in and refused to be passed. Winter’s Tale made one final run at him nearing the wire, but Fio Rito would not be denied, winning by a neck, with Ring of Light a length back in third, a head in front of The Liberal Member. Even after the wire, Fio Rito would not let Winter’s Tale pass him. The final time of 1:48 flat for the 1 1/8 miles was a second off the track record.

Not only had a New York-bred won the Whitney, and at age 6, he had run faster than past Whitney winners Dr. Fager, Kelso. Gun Bow, Carry Back, Key to the Mint, and Ancient Title, and had run more than a full second faster than Onion when he upset Secretariat eight years earlier.

Following the race, legendary TV commentator Jack Whittaker said, “This New York crowd ecstatic here, as this New York homebred goes wire to wire after a false start and a great save by the assistant starter.” As he watched the replay of the incident at the gate, all Whitaker could say was, “Oh my, oh my.”

Fellow commentator and trainer Frank Wright added, “Usually breaking through the gate is the kiss of death. That victory should be shared by the assistant starter. But this horse was game as can be and he would not surrender.”

Ferraro had been skeptical that Fio Rito could defeat horses of this caliber, but he said in the New York Times, “When I saw him staying on the lead, and knowing how tough he is, I began to get excited.”

LeCesse added, “I can't believe how dry my mouth is. Let’s get some champagne.”

Fio Rito died in 1996 at age 21 and was buried in the infield at Finger Lakes.

Well before there was a New York breeding program and New York-bred races with lucrative purses, New York-breds were extremely uncommon. The one rare gem was another Cinderella horse named Mr. Right.

Prior to the mid 1960s, New York-breds were looked upon by racing’s elite as oddities, confined to their own little world made up of inferior horses competing mainly in cheap races. In 1966, however, a horse came along who broke all the rules and made the bluebloods shudder in disbelief. Mr. Right, not only ventured into the world inhabited by major stakes winners and champions, he actually had the audacity to beat them, and on a regular basis.

When this genetic anomaly (by Auditing, out of La Grecque, by Tehran) retired in 1969, he had won nine major stakes races and placed in 10 others, earning a then whopping $667,193. Along the way, he captured such prestigious hundred-granders as the Santa Anita Handicap, Woodward Stakes, Suburban Handicap, and a host of $75,000 and $50,000 stakes, equivalent to grade II and grade III stakes today.

Among his victims were Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Damascus, Kentucky Derby winner Proud Clarion, Belmont Stakes winner Amberoid, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Quicken Tree, Wood Memorial and Gotham winner and Kentucky Derby third Dike, 2-year-old champion Successor, Widener Handicap winner Ring Twice, Suburban Handicap winner Buffle, Hollywood Derby winner Tumble Wind, and Charles H. Strub Stakes winner Most Host.

La Grecque’s dam, Gay Grecque, had been purchased by New York hotel businessman George Zauderer for $5,000, and she went on to win the Test Stakes and place in several other stakes, including the Alabama. After Zauderer purchased the English stallion Tehran he sent Gay Grecque to England to be bred to him and the resulting foal was La Grecque, who never made it to the races and eventually was sent to Westchester County in New York to be trained in dressage with the intention of competing in horse shows.

But when it was discovered that La Grecque did not have the temperament for such regimented training, Zauderer decided to breed her to Auditing, a stakes-winning son of Count Fleet, who stood at Mr. and Mrs. Tom Waller’s Tanrackin Farm in Bedford Hills, New York. Her second foal was an “independent little cuss from the start, standing out there paying no attention to his mother,” according to Zauderer, who considered him his favorite.

In 1964, Zauderer’s daughter Cheray, a Manhattan socialite, married the New York City born Peter Duchin, who was a popular pianist and band leader. As a wedding present, Zauderer gave his daughter and son-in-law his favorite yearling colt, who was a late foal, being born on May 21. That yearling later was named Mr. Right and he would grow up to be a star; a David who slew many a Goliath.

At the time, the New York Racing Association had been paying 10 percent of the winner’s share to the breeders of winning horses foaled and registered in New York. This was the first move to improve the quality of state-breds and it seemed to be working, as the sums paid out began to increase steadily. But it wasn’t until Mr. Right captured the Dwyer, defeating top-class horses such as Buffle and Amberoid, that NYRA had to pay out a substantial sum of money, which amounted to $5,352 and 75 cents.

Ironically, the Duchins never were present to see any of Mr. Right’s wins, believing their presence would jinx him.

Even more ironic was Mr. Right shocking Damascus in the Woodward Stakes and having the trophy presented by Mrs. William Woodward, whose daughter Edith Woodward Bancroft owned and bred Damascus. It was George Zauderer and his wife who accepted the trophy, as the Duchins remained in their Manhattan apartment.

Following the Woodward Stakes, Mr. Right was sold by the Duchins for $400,000 to a group headed by Daniel Schwartz, who brought in his attorney Martin Rudin and his neighbor Frank Sinatra as partners.

After spending six months at Flag Is Up Farms in California, Mr. Right returned as a 6-year-old, winning the Suburban Handicap in a gutsy performance, defeating Claiborne Farm’s multiple stakes winner Dike and 1968 Travers winner Chompion in a three-horse photo and then added his third Trenton Handicap later in the year.

The Suburban victory moved Mr. Right up to 44th on the list of all-time leading money earners. He eventually would move up to 34th following his Trenton victory.

That November, Mr. Right was retired sound, but instead of going to Flag Is Up Farms, he was sent to Tartan Farm in Ocala under the management of John Nerud to join Dr. Fager, the horse he helped nail down Horse of the Year honors by defeating his arch rival Damascus.

Years later, he was moved to Kerr Stock Farm in Moreno, Calif. and finally to the Schoenborn Brothers Farm in Climax, N.Y. Hs only stakes winner was Right Mind, who captured the Stymie and Aqueduct Handicaps. He died at age 16, but no date of his death was ever listed or a cause of death.

For all Fio Rito and Mr. Right did for the New York breeding industry, there isn’t even a stakes named after them. But these tough, courageous horses who dethroned champions and grade 1 winners will forever be regarded as the founding fathers of all the successful New York-breds that followed.

And those include Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Funny Cide, earner of $3.5 million; Mind Your Biscuits, the leading money-winning New York-bred of all time with earnings of over $4.1 million; the $3 million earners Effinex and the Japanese-trained A Shin Forward; $2 million earners Dayatthespa, Say Florida Sandy, and two-time Whitney winner Commentator; and Diversify, an earner of $1.9 million and winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Whitney, and Suburban Handicap. In addition there was the popular Gander and Win, Travers winner Thunder Rumble, and the brothers Fourstardave, who won at least one race at Saratoga for eight consecutive years, and Fourstars Allstar, the first U.S.-trained horse to win a European classic when he captured the Irish Two Thousand Guineas.

To demonstrate how far New York-breds have come, in 2017, a total of 55 stakes races restricted to registered New York-breds worth more than $7.6 million in purse money were scheduled at the three New York Racing Association racetracks and Finger Lakes. In addition, there are over 800 other races written each year at these tracks covering a wide range of conditions for registered New York-breds.

As for breeders’ awards, breeders of New York-breds sired by registered New York stallions receive 30 percent of first-place purse money earned and 15 percent for second and third. For breeders of New York-breds by non New York registered stallions, the awards are 15 percent for win and 7.5 percent for second and third.

For anyone who remembers the days of Mr. Right and Fio Rito and all those dark days for New York-breds in between, it had to be a special moment to see New York-breds finish first and second in the Whitney, just as it was seeing Funny Cide become the first New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby in 2003.

What was even more special about the Whitney was that no one batted an eye at New York-breds finishing one-two. That it went unnoticed by so many is high praise indeed and demonstrated just how far these one-time harlequins of the Turf have come.

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