SARATOGA SPRINGS – The 2-year-old Thoroughbred – a baby, really, a rookie – won the first start of his career on Aug. 19 at Saratoga Race Course, and a member of the media asked the owner about the colt’s name.
The owner smiled a familiar smile, and there was also a telltale gruff needling to his voice, the kind of tone that would put an NFL rookie – or a reporter, for that matter – in his place back in the day. And quick. You’ve heard it before.
“I’ve been a Giants fan for 70 years.”
Then the owner walked out of the winner’s circle and signed autographs for a bunch of happy people who had been New York Giants fans for considerably less time.
Let’s Go Big Blue.
Around noon pretty much any day at Saratoga, there’s a good chance you’ll see Bill Parcells – suit jacket, slacks, dress shirt, no tie – ambling by himself past the jockeys’ room and administrative buildings, or taking the escalator up to the second floor of the clubhouse on his way to the box seats.
On the occasional day when one of his horses, including the 2-year-old colt named Let’s Go Big Blue, is running under Parcells’ August Dawn Farm stable name at this meet, there has been a pretty good chance the horse will win.
As did a 2-year-old filly named Maple Leaf Mel on Friday, which afforded me a chance to ask if training racehorses for Parcells is different in any way from doing the same for owners who weren’t NFL coaches for 19 seasons in high-pressure markets like New York, New England and Dallas.
Jeremiah Englehart, an affable trainer from western New York who has been licensed for 19 years, got to answer it:
“I tell anyone, you haven’t been yelled at until you’ve been yelled at by a two-time Super Bowl-winning Hall of Fame football coach,” Englehart said with a laugh.
Englehart trains Maple Leaf Mel, and he’s gotten her to the winner’s circle twice at the meet, after she broke her maiden first time out on Aug. 10, then followed it up with a nice stakes win last Friday, in the Seeking the Ante.
After Let’s Go Big Blue won on Aug. 19, Parcells said he had missed Maple Leaf Mel’s first victory because he had tested positive for COVID-19.
He wasn’t the only one to miss it. More on that later.
Maple Leaf Mel is named for Englehart’s assistant, Melanie Giddings, a cancer survivor who is a native Canadian.
Englehart, George Weaver, who also trains some of Parcells’ horses, and bloodstock agent Robby Medina made up the scout team that picked Maple Leaf Mel out of an auction of 2-year-olds in-training in Maryland in May, sort of an NFL draft for racehorses at which Parcells paid $150,000 for the filly.
Englehart liked her so much that he came up with a sneaky way to make sure Parcells would send the filly to his barn instead of someone else’s.
“You kind of want to have those horses that, when they come out of the stall and they show them to you, you want to get stars in your eyes,” Englehart said. “Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but she did. She was just one of those horses that when she walked out of her stall and they showed her, she gave you that good feeling.
“Before she got home I probably said, ‘We should name this horse after Mel,’ because that would help get the horse in my barn, too, if we named the horse after my assistant.”
Parcells has been a Thoroughbred owner for over a decade now and is a big supporter of the New York-bred program when he buys horses.
He won a stakes race at Saratoga in 2015 with Saratoga Snacks in the Evan Shipman and another in 2016 with Hit It Once More in the Albany as part of New York Showcase Day. Maple Leaf Mel’s Seeking the Ante win last Friday was part of that annual day-before-Travers card, too.
Parcells has also dabbled in graded stakes company, finishing off the board with Three Technique in the Grade I Allen Jerkens on the 2020 Travers card and in the Grade I Alfred G. Vanderbilt last year.
Like Three Technique and Let’s Go Big Blue, many of his horse’s names make a general football reference or a specific Giants one. Bavaro, Throw the Fade, Triple Option, Play Action Pass and Once a Giant all have carried the August Dawn Farm’s green-and-yellow silks.
As Englehart can attest, Parcells can have his demanding moments, but Coach, as he’s referred to, mostly enjoys hanging around the barns on the Oklahoma Training Track in the morning and watching the races in the afternoon. Parcells has had a house near Saratoga Lake for years.
“I’m a better person for knowing him and being able to work with him,” Englehart said. “In the last four years of our friendship, the life lessons I’ve gotten from him, it’s like having another dad.”
“It’s nice to be my age and have something to get you as excited as this does,” Parcells said after Maple Leaf Mel’s win on Friday.
Parcells’ age these days is 81, after he celebrated a birthday last Monday.
He’s not just in this as a relaxing diversion during retirement.
And his winning percentage at the meet and overall in 2022 perhaps reflects that fierce old competitive fire.
Parcells’ horses have won three of five starts at the Spa, and since the meet began on July 14, he also had a victory with Play Action Pass at another track, Ellis Park in Kentucky.
In 2022, his horses have a 6-1-4 record from 19 starts, a sparkling 31.6% to win and 57.9% in the money.
COVID kept Parcells from attending Maple Leaf Mel’s win on Aug. 10. Englehart had a much different excuse for not being there, and he heard about it.
“This is his locker room,” Englehart said. “When I missed her run the first time, I was watching a Mets game with my kids, and I knew I had to dip my toes in the water and test the temperature of the water and see how he was going to handle that.
“And he goes, ‘Yeah, I can see myself telling Mr. [Wellington] Mara, you know, I’m not going to be able to make the NFC Championship Game this week, because I’ve got to take my kids to a Mets game.’
“But you know what, he’s always respected me as a father and having five kids, and I think that’s one thing that we share a lot in common, with the kids. And he knows how important it is, so it wasn’t that big a deal.
“And it sure wasn’t that big a deal when she won, so that was good.”