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by Mike MacAdam

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Runaway Groom shocks the 1982 Travers

Story appeared in Aug. 25, 2007 Gazette:

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- It was so crowded in the dining area of the clubhouse at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 20, 1982, that Albert Coppola couldn't tell if the gray horse flashing by was the Kentucky Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, or his horse.

He stood up, he got on a chair, and when that wasn't good enough, he got right up on the table.

"Now, I'm standing on the food," he said. "I didn't care."

Despite a five-horse field, the 1982 Travers Stakes was juicy with storylines, not the least of which was the matchup of the Derby winner, Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler and Conquistador Cielo, who had romped in the Belmont Stakes six days after beating older horses in the Metropolitan Handicap. His breeding rights were syndicated for $36.4 million the day before the Travers, and he was the 2-5 favorite.

The Schenectady native Coppola shocked them all, though, when the Canadian-bred long shot he owned, Runaway Groom, roared down the middle of the track and caught Aloma's Ruler by a half-length.

Today's Mid-Summer Derby marks the 25th anniversary of that race, which remains the only time in American racing history that the three classic winners from any given year have been beaten in the same race.

"Jimmy the Greek was wondering why I was even in the race," Coppola said. "He got a lot of phone calls after that. I saw him the next year and said, 'Remember me?' He said, 'How could I forget you?' "

Runaway Groom , a Blushing Groom colt out of Yonnie Girl, was 13-1 in the Travers after running second and first in the Queen's Plate and Prince of Wales, respectively, the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown.

Trained by John DiMario and ridden by the Canadian jockey Jeffrey Fell, Runaway Groom took advantage of a speed duel between Aloma's Ruler outside of Conquistador Cielo, who was racing with front bandages for the first time.

Eddie Maple rode the Belmont winner for trainer Woody Stephens by virtue of a court injunction delaying a seven-day suspension for careless riding that was scheduled to start on Travers Day. Angel Cordero Jr., riding Aloma's Ruler, was judge and jury on the track, though, as he locked up Conquistador Cielo on a dead rail through fractions of :23 2/5 for the quarter-mile and :46 2/5 for the half.

They were still glued together down the stretch, and Runaway Groom was able to pick up the pieces just in time and won going away.

"I was chasing Conquistador Cielo. I thought he was the horse to beat," Cordero said. "I had my eyes on him, and that other horse came from nowhere and got us. I was more concentrated, I wanted to keep Conquistador Cielo inside of me all the way. I kept him in there all the way on the backside. My horse stayed with him, and this horse came by and it was too late."

"Runaway Groom was running in Canada, so he was not much of a known commodity," said Coppola's son, Albert Jr. "I personally was hoping to get in the top three, but my father was always confident. Gato Del Sol was a come-from-behind horse, too, and everybody thought he would benefit from the speed duel, but he didn't fire, and we did."

After the trophy presentation by New York governor Hugh Carey, Albert Coppola Sr. was supposed to meet the governor in the trustees room, but got sidetracked by a reporter from Schenectady and missed him. He sat next to Stephens, though, once he got there, and the Hall of Fame trainer congratulated him and said, "You beat me fair and square."

"That remark never made sense until the next day, when it came out that his horse had bad legs," Coppola said. "Woody Stephens knew it was going to happen. That took some class to say that."

Coppola, 83, grew up in the Bellevue neighborhood and used to hitchhike to Saratoga with friends to watch the races from the backstretch. He still gets together with old friends for reunions in Schenectady every year.

After serving in the Army in World War II, he spent a year at Siena College and a year at George Washington University before opening several secretarial schools in the Washington, D.C. area.

He was in a guidance counselor's office recruiting students one day when he saw some racehorse pictures on the walls.

"I thought, 'I know I make more money than he does,'" Coppola said.

He bought a horse at a low-level sale and raced it at Charles Town. "He was crooked as hell, but he did good," Coppola said. "Conformationally, I wouldn't touch him with what I know now."

Coppola, who owns a summer home in Lake George, and his wife, Kathrine, eventually bought Drumlanrig Farm in Uppersville, Va., where they keep about 30 horses, mostly mares, babies and retirees.

They have about six horses racing, including Crown Point, a grandson of Runaway Groom on the dam's side who was fourth in the Sword Dancer on Aug. 11.

He bought Runaway Groom as a yearling at the Kentucky Fasig-Tipton sale for $39,000. Runaway Groom was the last horse in the catalogue, and most of the buyers had left the auction by the time he was up for sale, so it became a duel in $1,000 increments once the price reached $30,000.

"It was me and one other guy in the back somewhere," Coppola said. "To this day, I don't know if I would have gone to 40. It was a good horse, not conformationally perfect, but I liked the breeding."

Runaway Groom didn't race as a 2-year-old, and after his 3-year-old season, he was sent to California and trainer Charlie Whittingham for a few more races at 4 before being retired with a record of 6-5-1 from 18 starts and $347,537 in earnings.

Among his offspring are Cherokee Run, the 1994 champion who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint; Wekiva Springs, winner of the Grade I Suburban and Gulfstream Park handicaps; and Callmetony, who raced at Saratoga last for owner Roddy Valente of Loudonville.

Runaway Groom also sired Joint Effort, a filly out of a Conquistador Cielo mare who won the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Distaff in January but was euthanized four weeks ago after breaking her pelvis during a workout at Churchill Downs.

The old gray himself, who had stood at The Vinery in Lexington, Ky., was put down at the age of 28 on June 8 shortly after being pensioned. His old Travers rival, Gato Del Sol, was euthanized on Aug. 7.

"I know he knew me, because whenever I was around, he was a playful son of a gun," Coppola said. "He'd try to bite you, but if you stroked him under his chin, he'd stand there as long as you like. I'd give him candy, then he'd try to bite me, then I'd stroke him under his chin, he'd curl up his lip and bite it, and the guy holding the shank said, 'I've never seen that before.' They said it was like losing one of the family.

"We all loved him. You never saw such excitement, being there."

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