Her words, on paper, are somber.
Her smile, in person, is bright, cheerful . . . hopeful.
Viane Lizza talked about her late husband, Carl, at trainer Phil Serpe’s barn on Thursday morning, a day before Carl Lizza’s easily recognizable light blue Flying Zee Stables silks, with the white double Z’s on the front, will be carried by Street Game.
Carl Lizza was an icon of New York racing until his death on July 8, after a decades-long fight with diabetes.
One of the staunchest supporters of the sport through his active breeding and racing program, Lizza will be honored by the New York Racing Association at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday with a trophy presentation to his widow for having been the leading owner at the Belmont Park spring/summer meet.
In the meantime, Flying Zee keeps flying along, a profound presence at Saratoga on a daily basis. Today, Street Game is the 8-5 morning-line favorite for the Grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
He’s the best horse in the nearly 300-strong Flying Zee operation, and, as a New York-bred taking on open company, a fitting tribute to Lizza’s legacy.
“It’s very difficult,” Viane Lizza said. “Everything around here just reminds me of him, the Reading Room, going to the races, coming to the barn . . . it’s tough.
“But we have a lot of horses running, so we may as well come up and see them run and hopefully, get some winners.”
“My focus on this meet is for these horses to run well for Carl, and his family, of course,” Serpe said. “Before, it’s like, everybody wants to win at Saratoga.
“We want to win, too, but this year, the focus seemed more on just we would really like for some of these young horses to win for him. This is still only a month old for us.”
Street Game is in a good position to add to the two winners Flying Zee already has at the meet, the Serpe-trained Pure Gossip at 37-1 on opening day, and the Carlos Martin-trained Sportswriter last Friday.
Lizza was at Belmont Park to watch Street Game win the Grade III Hill Prince on June 18.
Street Game subsequently finished fifth to Air Support in the Grade II Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs on July 16.
“That’s what makes it special with Street Game,” Serpe said. “He bred Street Game. For as difficult as it is to get out there and find a really nice young horse, it’s even more difficult to breed one, and then race that young horse. So it meant a lot to him. It’s a big undertaking, when you consider what happens with a mare and a foal, and it’s a great expense. To me, it means a little more.”
“This was the horse that he had the most high hopes for,” Viane Lizza said. “He was looking forward to it. He always wanted to win with a homebred. He said, ‘It’s easy to go to a sale and buy a horse,’ but to win with somebody you bred, that’s much better. That’s what he wanted to win with.”
At the time of his death, at 73, Carl Lizza was New York’s top owner with 31 victories, and Flying Zee led New York in 2004 and 2005.
In 1989, he purchased the property in Delanson that is now his breeding farm, Highcliff Farm.
Besides Street Game, Flying Zee has some promising 2-year-old homebreds, like The Prize Fighter, who is 3-1 on the morning line for a maiden race at Saratoga on Saturday, and Cybertron. Pure Gossip was a first-time starter.
Street Game debuted on the dirt at Saratoga last year, but has trained so well on the grass that it was only a matter of time before he switched surfaces.
He broke his maiden by over 10 lengths on a firm course at Belmont, then won two more, including the Hill Prince, on yielding courses, so it shouldn’t matter much to him if the Saratoga turf is a little on the soft side.
He likes to be at or near the front, and could find competition for that position from Big Blue Kitten, trained by Mechanicville native Chad Brown.
“If somebody’s intent on going to the lead, we’ll be sitting off them,” Serpe said. “When he won the stakes down at Belmont, nobody seemed to want the lead that day. Somebody had to take it, and we did. The fractions were easy. What are you going to do, just strangle them? If someone’s intent on getting the lead, then we’re going to give it to them and see how that unfolds when the gate opens.”
Viane Lizza declined to make a prediction.
“I’m not going to jinx myself,” she said, laughing. “I don’t know. I hate being the favorite.”
Her husband, who was the owner of the downstate-based Landmark Builders, was a favorite of anyone who cared about New York racing.
Besides stakes winners like Cosmonaut and 1981 Eclipse Award winner Wayward Lass, Flying Zee supports racing cards, top to bottom.
“If you see what Flying Zee does for racing in New York, there’s not too many days that go by that you don’t see a Flying Zee horse running,” Serpe said. “It’s extremely hard for us, because Carl Lizza loved horse racing more than anything, other than his wife. He loved it. And it’s hard, because he was really excited. He didn’t see the Virginia Derby, but he saw his race before that, and he was looking so forward to campaigning this horse this year.
“And it’s hard for everybody, because it was unexpected. It’s just hard for everybody. Carl was not just a client, it was more than that, it was personal with him. We were just grateful for everything we were able to get done because of Carl.”