SARATOGA SPRINGS — As the dad joke goes, a pony walks into a bar, and coughs.
The bartender asks him “Are you OK?”, to which the pony replies, ‘Yeah, fine, I’m just a little horse.”
Coughing is no laughing matter these days, and somebody who has been talking about that and related topics non-stop since, oh, February or so reached the point where he needed surgery on a vocal cord on Thursday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has been a little hoarse.
A 79-year-old rock star in the media as the voice of public messaging on the COVID-19 pandemic, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases inspired some racehorse owners who had an unnamed 2-year-old colt this spring. The immunologist may be on the shelf post-surgery, but the promising horse named Fauci was in action at Saratoga Race Course on Friday, finishing a solid second to stablemate Golden Pal in the $85,000 Skidmore Stakes.
Trainer Wesley Ward told Lindy Farms and Ice Wine Stable they had a nice horse, after having seen him train early on, so the owners picked this horse to carry the name of someone they admired. It’s not unusual for racehorses to be named after famous people, but Fauci the horse also brings a current events element every time he shows up in the race program.
“It was about March-time when Wesley started telling us that we have a pretty good horse here,” said Philip Antonacci of Lindy Farms. “We’re an Italian-American family, originally from Brooklyn, so there were kind of a lot of connections to Dr. Fauci’s background, and it just seemed poignant at the time, not just because of this disease, but all the diseases that he’s dedicated his life to combating and saving lives.
“It felt appropriate to honor him by naming the horse Fauci.”
The Connecticut-based owners bought the colt to be named Fauci for $175,000 at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale in Lexington, Kentucky.
The pandemic has had profound effect on the racing schedule in 2020, with many tracks closed for months.
Fauci happened to make his career debut at Belmont Park on June 3, the first day back for live racing in New York after it had been shut down in March.
So on the same day that a horse named Fauci ran for the first time, the jockeys riding at Belmont — no fans in attendance — stood for a moment of silence to pay respects to COVID victims and as tribute to medical personnel. Then they took a knee in the paddock prior to the first race to recognize those protesting the death of George Floyd.
Fauci finished second to a horse named Prisoner, then was switched to turf for his next start, at Keeneland on July 9, a victory that set him up for a shot at the Skidmore at Saratoga.
“He’s had some really nice breezes on the dirt, so we went with it the first time, because the start of the 2-year-olds, all the races are mandated to the dirt, until June or so when they start to open up the grass for the 2-year-olds,” Ward said by phone from Kentucky. “I was very confident going into his first race based on, mentally and physically, how he was doing in the morning in workouts. And we were soundly beaten, no excuses, it was just a better colt that day.
“So a little disappointed, but I knew he would vindicate himself once we switched him over to the grass, which he did.”
“We were lucky to buy him at that price,” Antonacci said. “So, yeah, it was a little bit of a swing, but it’s turned out pretty well so far. Wesley gave us the feeling all along that he could do both, and he still maintains that opinion, that he could go on the turf and the dirt.
“But with the Keeneland spring meet being canceled this year, that’s typically where Wesley will start them off. And he likes that dirt track. A lot of his turf horses get over it good. That wasn’t an option this year, so we had to kind of alternate to go to Belmont, and he caught a bad dirt track that day.”
Antonacci is a third-generation horseman. His grandfather Sonny Antonacci opened a harness stable in the 1960s on Long Island and moved Lindy Farms to Connecticut.
Philip Antonacci works in sales and as a bloodstock executive for Preferred Equine, whose president is Ice Wine Stable managing partner David Reid.
Despite the second-place finish to the rising star Golden Pal on Friday, they still have Breeders’ Cup aspirations for Fauci. Most racehorses named after humans are crossing over from the sports world — Stan the Man won the featured stakes at Saratoga on Thursday.
Then again, there are at least two 2-year-olds registered with The Jockey Club whose names are pandemic-related: Self Isolation and Herd Immunity. In another nod to current events, Covfefe was a cheeky jab at Donald Trump when she was named by owner Jaime Roth. All Covfefe did last year was win the Grade I Test at Saratoga on her way to a victory at the Breeders’ Cup and two Eclipse Awards.
As a high-profile member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Fauci continues to do what he can to battle the pandemic, even if he is a little, um, hoarse lately. And despite death threats to himself and his family.
“I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that people who object to things that are pure public health principles are so set against it, and don’t like what you and I say, namely in the word of science, that they actually threaten you. I mean, that to me is just strange,” he said during an online forum earlier this month.
“It’s one of those things where, unfortunately, as more things go on, especially during an election year and things start to get politicized … listen, he’s obviously doing great work for science and great work for the country, so I’ll stay out of the politics,” Antonacci said, breaking into a chuckle.
“It’s one of those things where any good publicity is good for horse racing at this point. It’s one of those things that can touch the mainstream media and can bring good attention to the sport, rather than, unfortunately, bad attention. All the questions about the horse and the name are good for the industry.”
“Plus, he’s an extremely talented colt,” Ward said. “But with what’s going on now, there just isn’t a lot of people that are coming around because of the COVID virus. There probably would be a lot more [support] if they let the fans in on a normal racing day, because of his name.”
There are other ways to show support, of course.
Antonacci theorized that Fauci was bet hard by the wagering public in his first two starts in part just because of his name.
A name will only carry you so far, it seems.
On paper, Golden Pal looked much the best in the Skidmore, and the betting reflected that, as he was 1-2 when the gates opened, and Fauci was almost 7-2.
“Believe me, nobody wants to lose money on just a name,” Ward said with a laugh.
“Especially New Yorkers, right?”