It was with sadness that I read on the New England HBPA website that trainer Mario DeStefano died at age 78 on Saturday, January 10. From his obituary:
Mario began his teaching career at LaSalle Academy in Providence followed by over thirty years as a History teacher, coach and athletic director in the Providence School System. He projected his love of wrestling through his coaching and refereeing in the RI Wrestling Community.
Mario’s love of horses was his greatest source of enjoyment. Since the 1960s he had been involved with thoroughbred racing in the New England area. As an avid horse Owner/Trainer he was well known in RI, at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park horse communities. He was a past president of the New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.
Mario did not enjoy a reputation around the track as an easy person; I don’t think it’s speaking ill of the dead to say that he could be irascible and morose. But I knew Mario as a teacher, and as a teacher, he was generous and patient.
I met him during the 2004 Suffolk Downs meet, when I was a new racing fan and he had a chestnut gelding named Ascot Doll who I liked. I introduced myself to him in the grandstand one afternoon. “Come by the barn,” he said. I did, the next morning, and the next, and the next, and then he put me to work. The job was hotwalking and the pay was $200 for six days a week, plus lunch on race days. I thought this was a pretty good deal, because I knew almost nothing about horses and wanted to know more.
Mario started me slowly, walking the two quietest of his six horses. He spooled out responsibilities as I grew more comfortable in the barn. Working with Marco, the groom, I was taught to mix feed, feel for heat, pick feet, wrap legs. I learned how to rub a horse, and how to hold my hand against its flank so that I could feel a horse picking up its foot while I wasn’t looking, guarding against a kick. Mario was quick with corrections when necessary, and he was always clear and direct. He answered questions the same way.
He was also a careful observer of horses and humans. “Look at this,” he’d say to me, and point out a subtle sign of soreness in a horse, or a handler being rough. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Mario was that the way to be with a horse was confident and calm, that fear and anger didn’t belong.
He was soft with his horses. Call Me Mr. Vain, a kind, classy gelding and the winningest horse of 2003, was then in Mario’s barn, recovering from a tendon injury. I remember a trainer once telling Mario that he treated Mr. Vain too much like a pet. And one morning, another trainer stopped by to yell that he had to get “rid” of one, because “he’s a rat.” Mario yelled back and chased the guy off. Then he took the so-called rat — Ascot Doll, nursing a bum ankle — out of his stall for his daily walk around the backstretch. My clearest memory of that summer is of the pair of them standing near the gap watching horses train in the pinky morning light, Ascot Doll lazily flicking his ears and tail, Mario’s hands dropped low, the shank hanging loosely from his fingers.
He’ll be missed:
Strait of Dover often wore a quizzical gaze and his cocky personality won over his handlers along the backstretch. He had an unusually large head, so they called him “Potato.”
The 4-year-old 2012 Queen’s Plate winner died of colic on July 14. Robert MacLeod’s account of his final days is heartbreaking.
In a 2011 Kentucky Confidential video, Jeff Krulik and John Scheinman visited the then-oldest living Classic winner at Bonita Farm.
Deputed Testamony won his Classic without racing on Lasix, a point interesting then because patchwork raceday drug regulations were just one of the reasons the 1983 Preakness was dubbed the “Prescription Preakness,” and now, as the Lasix debate reaches another peak.
At the Eclipse Awards, January 2010.
It was announced today that owner Jess Jackson, 81, has died.
Since last summer, it had been apparent that Jackson was not well. He missed seeing Rachel Alexandra win at Monmouth in the Lady’s Secret Stakes in July, he wasn’t at Saratoga to watch her work in August. His wife, Barbara Banke, began to take a more prominent role in the stable. And deep in a Jay Hovdey column, published in DRF in January, was a discreet mention of the cancer he had previously beat into remission (via).
None of which dulled the shock on hearing of his passing.
Jackson liked to see his horses run, and he enjoyed seeing his horses tested. Bringing Curlin back as a 4-year-old in 2008 and campaigning Rachel Alexandra as he did in 2009 was sporting (even if it could be frustrating, waiting on him to say where and when one of his stars might start next). I’ll always remember the Woodward, the grandstand shaking from the force of the crowd rising and cheering for Rachel as she streaked down the stretch. Her 3-year-old HOTY campaign was bold and historic, a remarkable achievement.
“They broke the mold with this guy,” eulogizes partner George Bolton.
4/24/11 Addendum: Joe Drape is out with an appraisal of Jackson’s racing career, which concludes:
Jackson, too, set some standards, one in particular that any horseplayer or horse lover can appreciate. He let his horses run instead of retiring them to the breeding shed and life as a pampered A.T.M. He ran them in the biggest races on the brightest stages. He didn’t worry if they got beat.
That quality was appreciated.
Frances J. Karon fondly remembers the champion mare, euthanized at Lane’s End Farm on Thursday at the age of 27: “[S]ince I heard the news of her passing I’ve been wondering: are there sugar cubes in heaven?”
“She was a great, great racemare and a great broodmare,” said trainer Freddie Head, Miesque’s regular rider. “I’m glad that when I was in Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup in November, I went to Lexington and saw her.”
DRF has posted Miesque’s lifetime past performances (PDF). She won the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1987 and 1988, the first horse to win the same race two years running, and she held the European record for G1 wins until this year, when Goldikova equaled, then surpassed her 10 victories at the highest level.
Miesque also enjoyed a successful career as a broodmare; she was the dam of multiple stakes winners and the leading sire Kingmambo.
Victory Gallop and Real Quiet at the wire in the Belmont (Flickr/Budmeister)
Pity Real Quiet, dead at 15 following a paddock accident. Narrowly denied the Triple Crown by Victory Gallop in the 1998 Belmont Stakes, news of his death on Monday was overshadowed by news of Rachel Alexandra’s retirement. “As one who feels he has made it his life’s work to perfect the art of the rotten beat,” writes Mike Watchmaker, “I have always empathized with Real Quiet.” Amanda Duckworth remembers the Kentucky Derby winner, nicknamed “The Fish,” as an underdog, which was, for her, much of his appeal.
Real Quiet’s final race was the 1999 Hollywood Gold Cup. He retired a winner.
… and the only one who could lighten such dark and heavy news would have been Ziegel himself.
Nobody had a more deft touch with written words or humor than Ziegel, The News columnist and former sports editor, who spent his life making readers smile or chuckle over the one-liners he so painstakingly crafted.
I can’t remember ever reading a bad Ziegel column. He could do humor without snark, criticism without condescension. Even covering the biggest racing days, when every little detail that could be reported seemed to have been so, his words always sounded fresh, his stories always new.
“It astounded my father — a man who rode with the Cossacks; the friendlier Cossacks — that a son of his earned a living writing 24-21, 4-3, $12.60 to win,” Ziegel once wrote of his career. “The truth? It still astounds his son.”
7/27/10 Addendum: Allen Barra remembers Ziegel. “But at a particular time, hell, there were times when I think I was the best.” No question.
– Via Foolish Pleasure, I learned last week that Fleetheart, who became a Railbird favorite when she began her career with four straight eye-catching SoCal wins, was back in training after a lengthy layoff. Entered in an allowance at Indiana Downs last night, the now 6-year-old mare went to post as the 3-5 favorite in her first start since November 2008; she found the winner’s circle for the first time since 2007 by running between horses, then finishing a game 1/2 length ahead of Brean Can. It was a flash of the old Fleetheart, and nice to see after a long run of unfortunate losses.
– Via Green but Game, sad news about Papi Chullo.
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