Don Lucarelli promised to find his new buddy Ed Stanco at Belmont Park on Saturday.
The winner’s circle, perhaps?
One is a 1970 Mont Pleasant High School graduate; the other, Linton High Class of 1967, but the Schenectady guys never met until last Oct. 5.
Lucarelli’s horse, Intense Holiday, was entered in the Grade I Champagne that day, one week after Stanco’s filly, Princess of Sylmar, won the Grade I Beldame.
The two owners will be in the middle of a multi-pronged mega-day at Belmont that holds a promise of being one of the greatest racing spectacles not named the Breeders’ Cup in a long time.
Lucarelli and Starlight Racing will be trying to thwart California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid three and a half hours after Stanco’s Princess of Sylmar will be engaged in the second-most interesting race of the day, featuring the three best older fillies in North America.
Just having a long shot in a non-stakes undercard race on a day like this can be a thrill, but Lucarelli and Stanco are in the thick of the best stuff.
Intense Holiday might’ve been Starlight’s Crown-buster, but he’s on the shelf with an injury, leaving it to General a Rod to put a crack in the Chrome.
Stanco, meanwhile, is sending the Princess up against her two nemeses from a spirited 3-year-old filly championship season in 2013 that wasn’t decided until the last race, the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She’ll face two-time champion Beholder and Close Hatches in the Ogden Phipps, one of six Grade I’s on the card.
“We feel honored to be part of this event,” Stanco said. “It’s going to be one of the greatest days of racing in decades.
“If the Phipps was on Memorial Day, there would’ve been 5,000, maybe 10,000 people and it would still be great. Now, you’re going to have probably 120,000, and that creates an electricity of its own.”
“We’d love to be the spoiler, but if any horse beats us, 110 percent we want it to be California Chrome,” Lucarelli said. “Great people, great connections. The sport needs a good story like that.”
The New York Racing Association’s new director of racing, Martin Panza, is a proponent of eye-popping ostentatious events to jolt the public with grand, sweeping displays of horseflesh.
His first act was to pump extra Grade I’s into the Belmont Stakes Day card and crank up purses to attract as many of the primary players as possible.
No matter what record-threatening handle and attendance numbers the Belmont gets on Saturday, the proof that his plan has worked already has revealed itself in the fields, particularly the Phipps.
Asked why he would ship Beholder out of her comfort zone in California cross-country to take on her two chief rivals, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella said, “A million dollars.”
Stanco became acquainted with Beholder’s owner, B. Wayne Hughes of Spendthrift Farm, at the Breeders’ Cup and Eclipse Awards.
He gave him a phone call on Wednesday to talk about their impending matchup that Stanco likens to Rocky against Apollo Creed. Not the actual climactic fight scene in front of the crowd, but the sparring session in front of no one at the end of Rocky III.
“My view is this early in the season, the top horses duck each other,” Stanco said. “That’s not happening here, and Close Hatches is not to be overlooked, either. It’s an incredible opportunity for people who enjoy racing more than the casual fan. It’s like a fine wine. Whatever happens in this race, it’ll be great.”
Beholder vs. Princess of Sylmar vs. Close Hatches would be a tremendous matchup under any circumstances of calendar, purse and race; we’ll be treated to it on the same day that a rare Triple Crown is on the line.
Stanco had to get 100 tickets for his Princess party and has a bus lined up from Morristown, N.J., to bring many of them to the track. Another fan is flying from Japan, arriving at JFK at 11 a.m. on Saturday and heading straight to the track.
Lucarelli had a different predicament, since his 8-year-old grandson Andrew has a piano recital, which means it’ll be just he and his wife Barbara traveling from Duanesburg to join Jack and Laurie Wolf and the rest of the Starlight partners.
“We’re catching heat for missing the piano recital,” Lucarelli said.
Besides California Chrome, General a Rod and Ride On Curlin are the only horses who will have run in all three legs of the Triple Crown this season.
Lucarelli said General a Rod wasn’t supposed to be in the Belmont, instead pointing toward the July 5 Belmont Derby Invitational.
The horse was acting so eager to run, though, that trainer Mike Maker believed he couldn’t wait that long.
“A week prior to his last breeze, Mike Maker was wondering what it is with this horse, rolling in the sand after a breeze,” Lucarelli said. “He had so much energy and was in good flesh. If you keep him in the barn, they were afraid he was going to hurt himself. So that was the idea, let’s work him with Rosie [Napravnik] and see if he works the way we think he will, and he did.”
Huh. Kicking down the door to get to Belmont Park on Saturday.
Lot of that going around.