(Originally published in the May 26, 2012 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
by Esther Marr
In the early 1970s, about 10 years after Carlo Vaccarezza had immigrated to the United States from his native Genoa, Italy, he found himself walking hots and serving as a groom at Aqueduct during the New York racetrack’s frigid winter meet.
“I always had love for the horse…I didn’t know a lot about racing back then, but I loved the animal,” said Vaccarezza, who never dreamed how far that love would someday carry him.
More than three decades later Vaccarezza’s horse racing fantasies became a reality when his 5-year-old homebred gelding Little Mike captured the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic Stakes (gr. IT) before a crowd of more than 165,000 on Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) day at Churchill Downs.
“I pinched myself (when he won),” said Vaccarezza of the gelding, who is the second stakes winner produced by Vaccarezza’s only mare, Hay Jude (by Wavering Monarch). “(The Woodford Reserve) was one of the best fields and one of the toughest races to handicap on the entire card. He just took the lead and you never saw him again.
“When you win a grade I in front of 165,000 people at Churchill and millions of other people watching the race on TV, it’s a huge accomplishment,” he added. “And then to do it in the race before the Derby, that’s huge.”
Vaccarezza, a veteran restaurateur who co-owns the Italian eatery Frank and Dino’s in Deerfield Beach, Fla., has raced a handful of successful horses over the years, including stakes winners Little Nick (Little Mike’s half brother) and the filly My Due Process.
But none have come close to the thrill of campaigning Little Mike, who is named after Vaccarezza’s son. The gelding’s ability to overcome humble beginnings and considerable adversity in his four years on the racetrack made his most recent feat even more remarkable.
One of Vaccarezza’s philosophies is to practice frugality when purchasing horses and choosing matings. It cost him just $5,000 to cross Hay Jude with little-known stallion Spanish Steps, which resulted in the Woodford Reserve winner.
“If there was a GQ Magazine for horses, Spanish Steps would be on the front page,” said Vaccarezza. “He’s one of the better-looking horses I ever saw in my life, and he’s a full brother to Unbridled’s Song, so he caught my attention.”
Trained by Dale Romans and campaigned in the name of Vaccarezza’s wife, Priscilla, Little Mike pulled off an impressive feat when he won the 2011 Ft. Lauderdale, Canadian Turf, and Emirates Airline Appleton stakes (all gr. IIIT) in the same meet at Gulfstream Park.
In the midst of training for that year’s Woodford Reserve, however, it was discovered Little Mike had sustained a condylar fracture to his shin.
But it didn’t take long for the gelding to return to his old form. To Vaccarezza’s amazement, Little Mike won his first start back after surgery and an eight-month layoff— an allowance/optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park against a deep field in his typical wire-to-wire fashion.
Leading up to the Woodford Reserve, Little Mike also captured the Jan. 28 Florida Sunshine Millions Turf Stakes and ran fourth, beaten just 11⁄2 lengths in the March 3 Canadian Turf.
“Little Mike has both speed and endurance,” said Romans. “If anybody runs with him, they can’t out-finish him, and if they let him go, they can’t catch him. So he’s a rare horse.”
While staying active in the racing scene, Vaccarezza also previously operated Break of Dawn Farm near Ocala, which in the mid 1990s was one of the only training centers in the area with a swimming pool. Vaccarezza, whose major customers included the late George Steinbrenner, has since sold the facility.
Vaccarezza’s other former restaurant establishments included Rusty’s (co-owned with baseball great Rusty Staub) in New York City and Mickey’s (co-owned with actor Mickey Rourke) in Miami.
In spite of Vaccarezza’s recent success with Little Mike’s dam Hay Jude, who was bred to Paddy O’Prado for 2013, the food enthusiast is not interested in delving deeper into the breeding industry.
Instead, Vaccarezza will continue developing his nine-horse racing stable, all of which are in Romans’ care, and occasionally sell runners that are no longer profitable.
Lucky for Little Mike, whose long-term goals this year include a trip to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, he doesn’t fall into that category.
“It’s a blue-collar story,” said Vaccarezza. “It shows that everybody can be in the game.”
Added Romans, who has been training for Vaccarezza for longer than he can remember: “I don’t know what (Vaccarezza’s) secret is, but it’s working.
“He’s a knowledgeable horseman, he knows what he’s talking about, and he comes up with good horses. We never argue about anything; we discuss issues, set a game plan, and put it to work.”