Pimlico is just about ready for her closeup.
The 141st Preakness is Saturday, so the infield is crammed with concert stages and corporate tents serving the likes of Under Armor, Jagermeister and Longines.
And there’s Triple Crown buzz, again. Fans and media lined the apron to watch Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist gallop at 8:30 on a gray Thursday morning that soon was washed with sunlight.
My head was wandering north, though, to a muddy but well maintained little pen on Route 29 a few miles west of Saratoga Race Course. That’s where an old retired thoroughbred named Stopbluffing, whose winnings from 65 career starts — $358,838 — were a few grand short of what owner Paul Reddam paid for Nyquist at auction last year.
My head was wandering to a few weeks ago, when I had the privilege to visit Stopbluffing with our dear friend Joe Cacciolfi — “Big Bro” to those who knew him well. After a few years pocked with health problems, serious and otherwise, Joe, one of Stopbluffing’s owners, died on Wednesday at the age of 64.
The greatness of racing will be on full display in front of the NBC cameras on Saturday, when Nyquist attempts to beat 10 rivals and set himself up for a shot at what would be a Triple Crown in back-to-back years.
But racing is just as assuredly about the Joe Cacciolfis of the world, too. So let me tell you about him.
Joe was a Schenectady guy, a Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High School graduate who followed the same road north to Saratoga that countless other Capital Region sports fans have.
He was built like a barrel, with a beard and one of those gravelly Wolfman Jack voices that cuts through the noise. When Joe, an astute handicapper, offered an opinion, you and your wallet listened.
In the 1990s, Jennie Rees of The Louisville Courier-Journal wrote a man-on-the-street feature on Joe and some pals in conjunction with the Derby. Joe is quoted saying that if Sword Dancer hadn’t won the 1959 Travers, 7-year-old Joe might have become a doctor instead of a horseplayer.
As sharp as he was as a handicapper, Joe threw himself into all aspects of the sport with vigor and enthusiasm, as an owner, breeder, historian . . . and fan.
He became a managing partner in Our Eyes Wide Open Stable, a collection of local guys who didn’t have Reddam-like resources, but supported the sport with what dollars they could spare, purchasing a horse here and there who could maybe (with a capital “M”) someday win a race at Saratoga.
None ever did, until the end of last season, when the filly Saratoga Smoke, named by Joe to honor Saratoga founder John “Old Smoke” Morrissey, won a turf race at odds of 17-1.
Joe hadn’t been feeling well, so just getting to the track was a chore, but he said, “I don’t think I walked to the winner’s circle as much as I floated. And if you know me, floating ain’t easy.”
Former Gazette sportswriter Mike Kane is a partner in this filly, and on Thursday he remembered having told Joe, “I’m happy to win this race, but I’m happier that you’re here.”
A few years ago, I introduced myself to jockey Mike Luzzi, who regularly rode Stopbluffing, to mention that I was Joe’s friend. “I wish every owner was like those guys,” Luzzi said.
Joe’s incredible breadth of knowledge of racing was such that Kane and I frequently leaned on him for background and insight for stories. If he didn’t know something off the top of his head, he had a book in which he would find it. His house is a veritable racing museum/library, packed with memorabilia and literature. He had been in the process of putting much of it up for auction on eBay and lelands.com.
Until his health began to fail, Joe went to the Triple Crown races and had attended every Breeders’ Cup since its inception in 1984. It was with deep regret that I had to bring back a Belmont Stakes program for him when American Pharoah won last year. Ever the handicapper, Joe wouldn’t bet on himself that he could make the trip without something awful happening because of his health.
The fact that his racing partnerships were small potatoes compared to those of gazillionaires like Reddam? Joe wore that like a badge of honor.
He cared about his horses, wanted to make sure they were OK after they retired and kept track of their whereabouts and welfare. They weren’t discarded commodities with expired financial utility to him.
On his recommendation, I picked up some baby carrots for Stopbluffing, the old boy rakishly scruffy and dirty in his little kingdom. Joe brought the peppermints.
It seemed about a minute before I was left with an empty bag and a palmful of horse slobber.
I can’t wait to go back.