There will be a decidedly local feel to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) this year, especially when considering the owners of the contestants who will vie for the carnations that will be draped around the winning horse Saturday.
Although the field only numbers seven, four of the owners hail from the metropolitan New York area, giving them a local majority in the Empire State's premier race.
Joseph LaCombe, who owns and bred Slew's Tizzy, is best known for racing 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick. But the Brooklyn-born native, who was here a year ago with Deputy Glitters, has a player in the son of Tiznow, who is riding a two-race winning streak after victories in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) and the Lone Star Derby (gr. III).
LaCombe started in horses with Standardbreds that he raced at Roosevelt and Yonkers Raceways, two area harness tracks. He switched to Thoroughbreds after forging a successful career as an accountant for major department stores around the country. He is a longtime race fan who was hitting the New York tracks as a young man, and there is extra incentive for him to try to win the Belmont in his backyard.
But he is going to have to go up against New York City native Jerry Moss, who owns Tiago with his wife, Ann. Moss, who is famous for founding A&M Records with trumpeter Herb Alpert, started out in the record business at the legendary Brill Building in Manhattan, the headquarters for the great songwriters of the 1960s and '70s. "I remember the day I began work--November 8, 1958," Moss said on the Belmont backstretch Friday morning. "I was immediately sent to Philadelphia to try and promote a record called 'Sixteen Candles,' by The Crests." The record turned out to be a hit, and Moss was on his way. "It was an eye-opening experience, those first couple of years in New York. I learned a lot, and then went to California."
Now he is back for his second Belmont Stakes in the last three years. Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Giacomo, another Moss homebred like Tiago, could not repeat his Louisville performance in New York, but Moss has high hopes for his half-brother Tiago, who ran on well from behind to finish seventh in the Derby.
"He had a tough time getting through in the Derby," said Moss, "and then, when he got clear, he began looking around at the police and the National Guardsmen and all the pretty uniforms. He ran green, but it was only his fifth race, so we're hoping he's progressed from that."
Tiago galloped out very strongly past the wire at Churchill Downs, giving Moss and trainer John Shirreffs confidence that he will relish the 12-furlong Belmont. "As much as I appreciate the New York hospitality, we didn't come all this way (from California) just for that. I think we're going to win this one."
Yonkers native Robert LaPenta might have a say in that. His C P West, fourth in the Preakness (gr. I), is named after the location of one of LaPenta's residences, on Central Park West. LaPenta also has a residence in neighboring Connecticut. LaPenta has another New Yorker, Nick Zito training for him and buying yearlings. They have raced such recent stakes winners as Pies Prospect, Andromeda's Hero, and The Cliff's Edge.
LaPenta is hoping C P West moves forward after a promising run in the Preakness, in which he challenged Hard Spun coming off the final turn before giving way.
Then we come to a pair of New Yorkers who co-own Imawildandcrazyguy, Michael Eigner and Lewis Pell. Pell is a childhood friend of trainer Bill Kaplan from Brooklyn. Kaplan talked him into buying a few horses a few years ago, and now has one good enough to have run fourth in the Kentucky Derby and contest the Belmont. His late, sustained run in the Derby gives them hope that the longer Belmont will be up his alley. Pell's partner in Imawildandcrazyguy, Eigner, was born in Israel, but has lived in the New York area much of his life. Today, he calls Westchester, a suburban county just north of the city, home. Eigner, now retired, used to manage WPIX, channel 11 in New York, which was famous for televising New York Yankees baseball for several decades. He has also headed stations in Los Angeles, notably KTLA, which was then owned by the late Gene Autry of cowboy film fame.
Eigner said he spent many an afternoon taking a break from his duties at the television station by going to the races. He is almost bewildered at the possibility of winning the Belmont Stakes, considering his roots and the fact he only has a piece of a few horses.
Somebody's dream of becoming a Hometown Hero could very well be realized on the streets of New York comes Saturday evening, when the Belmont winner's circle becomes one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the Big Apple.