After encountering a down-on-his-luck handicapper in a Saratoga supermarket checkout line, the True.Ink editors leave for Florida to watch a sick horse’s next race (p.s. This stuff really is contagious).
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Just before dawn, when racehorses and trainers start their day, we drove to meet the Wiz and Joey Russo at Gulfstream Park, the racing track between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Opened in 1939, just months after Seabiscuit became a legend, the Gulfstream grandstand filled with snowbirds flocking to South Florida, along with gangsters like Meyer Lansky and crooners like Frank Sinatra.
Now the glamor is mostly gone, the track an appendage of a massive casino and shopping complex that’s always under construction. A cartoonish statue of Pegasus loomed over us, the enormous bronze beast straddling acres of dirt and ramshackle fencing.
A few weeks had passed since Ven Holiday’s triumphant, come-from-behind finish (read to the end of Part One if you haven’t yet). We’d come down to Florida to meet the sick horse and his recovering trainer, eager to watch Ven’s next race. Post time was later that day.
We drove to the end of the lot, past the security gate and into the backstretch, a kind of village with its own pecking order that exists behind every track. Hot walkers brought horses back from their daily exercise to the grooms, who rushed from stall to stall tending to every need, rustling the fresh leg wraps they’d just hung out to dry. The animals are prized and worshipped above all else. Their handlers surely drive off in cars dirtier than the subjects they clean every day.
We found Joey Russo in Barn 8. He hadn’t been there long, and the walls of his office were bare. Raised in Bensonhurst, Russo speaks with a South Brooklyn accent. With his thick legs and neck, he’s built like a linebacker. He gave us a tour of the barn, peeping into the stalls.
“People think horses are stupid, but they’re very smart,” he told us. “You actually become part of them. You’re part of their lives.”
Like most trainers, Russo has looked after horses since he was a boy. His father became enamored with them at the track, and he moved the family out of the city to raise some on a farm in New Jersey.
“The horses make you feel like they need you,” he said. “Like they’re your babies. You’re like their father. They learn to trust you.”
In the barn, grooms sprayed horses down with water and scrubbed them with soapy sponges. Elsewhere, the legs of horses off the training track were wrapped just so for their recovery in the stall.
We landed on Stall 37, the home of Ven Holiday.
“I knew he was good as soon as he came back to the barn,” Russo said. “He’s a racehorse who does everything right.”
Slowly, a nose emerged from the stall. A nose with a patch of white, a sign of his father Harlan’s Holiday.
“This horse has the will to win,” Russo went on. “It happens all the time in racing. Cheap horses become champions. John Henry, Seattle Slew. Miracles happen here all the time.”
Ven licked our palms and thrust his nose into our chests.
“He’s like Jack Nicholson,” Russo said. “He’s just a happy horse. That’s what you look for.”
As we were talking, the afternoon’s jockey, Miguel Vasquez, arrived with his agent Isaac Jimenez. The Wiz popped out of a nearby chair to meet them.
“Does he speak English?” he asked Jimenez about Vasquez.
“No,” Jimenez said. “He came here in November, from Panama. Twenty years old, won twenty races. Nobody knows who he is.”
Vasquez had smooth cheeks, a shy demeanor. He looked like a child.
“He’s kind of slow from the gate,” Kipness said to Jimenez, who translated bits and pieces. We later learned that he’d had a successful Florida jockeying career himself.
Vasquez nodded along.
“All you’ve got to do is relax him,” Kipness went on.
Vasquez gazed down at the barn dirt.
“Don’t worry!” Jimenez said, brushing Kipness off. “Go to the Winner’s Circle.”
Soon both were gone and Ven Holiday reached out of his stall nose first, licking our hands and neck. Russo told us he was always searching for peppermints—his favorite snack.
“The only thing I worry about—he’s going to have to go back on the medication,” Russo said. “Maybe he might feel something before some race. I try not to even think about that.”
The race itself was held at Calder, a nearby track now known as Gulfstream West. This one was fading even faster. We drove over and admired the old building’s grand circular drive-up entrance, picturing the Miami sports cars gliding through, the bustle of valets and bookies and cocktail servers.
It was all empty now, a yellowed facade ready for more of the wrecking ball. Already, over 1,400 stalls had been demolished, and next up were the grandstand and the seven-story clubhouse once heralded for its plate-glass architecture. Now temporary betting tents hosted a meager crowd. We’d come a long way from Saratoga. No fancy hats or seersucker suits here.
Ven Holiday was slated in the second race. Kipness was nervous, pacing amid the hot-dog vendors, waiting for the horse to make the trip from backstretch to paddock for the pre-race walkabout.
Russo was waiting too. He’d confided in us earlier that today was his wife’s birthday, but nobody could tell the Wiz. He was already on edge enough.
We weren’t quite spectators anymore. Not strangers, either. Hushed and gathered around, we felt almost like relatives before a recital.
And then came the horses, strutting down the path from the backstretch and parading into the paddock, the colors of their starting-position flags flashing in the sun. On the saddle, the jockeys’ bodies were limp, absorbing each strut.
We followed Kipness to the paddock stall. Russo was already at work, tightening the saddle so Vasquez could hop on again. Russo then handed him the reins, and we all hustled down a narrow path to the finish line. Russo posted up a few rows back with his stable team, ready to jump up on his lucky bench to get a better view of Vasquez’s maneuvering on the backstretch.
Wiz stood with us, looking up at the video feed of the load-in. The adrenaline was overwhelming. Any second, the gates would swing open, fate in the balance. Ven Holiday could break an ankle, the organism could return. Or something completely unexpected. Then the starter’s pistol rang out.
The trademark yellow and red silks of the Wiz’s stable were hard to see moving up the backstretch and into the first turn, the announcer calling out the names and action.
“iPhone Addiction broke outwardly,” he said, as the horses clustered into a pack.
“From the inside, Cantinflas and PowerLine begin nicely, and moving up in the center is As I Know It to challenge for the lead as they run out of the turf chute.”
Staring into the video feed, the Wiz was silent behind his glasses, lasering in on every element of one race among dozens across the country that day. Yet this one, a cheap claimer at a lower-tier track, could determine the fate of his stable, his friendships, and his post-handicapping career. Russo was behind him, standing up, watching the field and pace quicken. We strained our eyes and felt the motion as they made the first turn.
“From the outside is Kir Royale,” the announcer called. “iPhone Addiction is third-last. Ven Holiday is second to last…”
This was the plan—to hold back—but for how long? Too long? We were a couple of horse-racing rookies who’d started to care, maybe too fast and maybe too much.
“Ven Holiday circles on the outside, and iPhone Addiction between horses with an eighth of a mile to go. It’s Cantinflas on top, and Ven Holiday begins to surge on the outside. And here’s Ven Holiday on the outside of Cantinflas…”
The hoof beats rumbled into the home stretch and we couldn’t hold back any longer, whispers growing to shouts as we yelled at Vasquez to c’mon, push it, bring the horse home. In the end, the race wasn’t even close. Ven Holiday closed again like Harlan’s Holiday, his father.
“And Ven Holiday and Miguel Vasquez win it by two and a half…”
Wiz whirled around, grin wide and eyes wild. We had our hands on his shoulders, mussing hair, pounding fists.
“Winner’s Circle, now!” he boomed, and we charged to the end of the track. Officials got the first-place paraphernalia ready in the little hedge enclosure that all owners yearn to enter. As Vasquez circled Ven back down the home stretch in triumph, Wiz waved at us to get in the shot too. We all threw our arms around each other. Russo’s stablehand shoulders finally relaxed. Ven Holiday had done this, had united us somehow.
“Now, it’s not big-time racing,” Kipness had mused earlier. “Our horse is not the so-called pedigree, and you’re paying all this big money. The love is multi-million-dollar love. It’s real and raw. It’s what love should be. And that transcends—the horse feels it.”
Whatever it was, Ven Holiday had blossomed into a real closer, and after standing in the Winner’s Circle with him after his win, we didn’t want to leave. We didn’t want the ride to end. We were sure we’d found something special, something we couldn’t let go. Would our pre-Saratoga selves have understood any of this? Hell, no. But we had come this far, this fast, and drawn close to the unfamiliar dream. The only thing left to do was reach out for it.
We decided we had to talk to the Wizard about getting into Ven Holiday’s corner for good. Maybe he’d cut us in, give us our own small piece of the horse. Some real skin in the game.
Read Part Three here and the whole True Stables saga here.
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