Horses worthy of competing in the $6 millionn Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic typically have bloodlines that point to greatness, and the prices they fetched at yearling and 2-year-old sales reflected that. But the enduring beauty of the game is that top horses with unpromising pedigrees that showed little early in their career can develop into top performers that surpass what anyone could have dreamed.
John Fanelli, 49, executive manager at a Nissan dealership in Turnersville, N.J., is living such a dream. He claimed Math Wizard for $25,000 on Jan. 31 at Gulfstream Park, never imagining that the 3-year-old that had gone winless through his first four starts before breaking his maiden would emerge as the 31.10-1 upset winner of the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 21 at Parx Racing.
Math Wizard will compete against racing’s elite in the season-culminating Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita Park. Fanelli agreed to share his insights with followers of America’s Best Racing. Here is the first installment of a two-part diary written with Tom Pedulla:
I grew up in South Philadelphia and developed a love of racing by going with my father, Daniel, to what used to be known as Keystone Racetrack. It became Philadelphia Park and is now known as Parx Racing.
Those were special times with my father, and they made me think about wanting to own horses one day. When my father died in 2001, I began to think more about it. After a few years, I decided it was time. I was a professional poker player for part of my life, so I am definitely someone willing to take shots. Risk doesn’t scare me if I can see the reward.
I have been playing at the lowest levels as an owner, claiming horses for as little as $5,000 and hoping there were ways to make a few dollars by winning races and having them step up a notch or two so I can make some money on the claiming price when they go to a new owner.
Full Makeover and Hail the Thief were the first two horses I bought. It just so happened they had their first races for me on the same card. I had maybe 20 family members and friends with me, and it was a day I will never forget. There is nothing quite like seeing your horse run, especially when it runs well. Full Makeover won, Hail the Thief also picked up a nice check and was claimed away for more than I paid.
I made about $25,000 that afternoon and was feeling very good about myself. You start to think the game is easy. And then reality set in.
I went a long time between wins. I realized how much there was to learn – breeding, the strengths and weaknesses of certain trainers and jockeys, different scenarios that can help horses to improve such as changes in surface or distance.
I made about all the mistakes you can make for a couple of years, but I stayed with it. I promised myself that I would learn from every mistake I made, and I kept to that.
The claiming game is always going to have risk to it, but you start to recognize opportunities. I thought I recognized an opportunity when I saw that Math Wizard was priced at $25,000 in a claiming race at Gulfstream at the end of January.
He fit a lot of what I was looking for. I like to claim younger horses. He was 3 years old. He was sired by Algorithms, and I love Algorithms. I always take a closer look at any horse he produces. Math Wizard’s dam was a Grade 3 winner.
Math Wizard had been running short and they were finally stretching him out to a mile. I was pretty sure he wanted distance. And he had run a 68 Beyer Speed Figure in his last race. If he was eventually transferred to Parx, my home track, that might make him the favorite in a starter allowance, if that figure held up.
I called Saffie Joseph, Jr., my trainer at Gulfstream, to run Math Wizard past him. He saw the same things I saw. He was on board right away.
There was one problem. I did not have enough money in my horseman’s account at Gulfstream to cover the claim. My bank would have to wire the money as quickly as possible. For whatever reason, there was a delay.
Saffie called to say the money had not arrived. He had another owner who was interested in Math Wizard and was prepared to claim the horse for him.
I emphasized how badly I wanted the horse and called my bank again to explain the urgency of the situation. Finally, the money arrived. I knew Saffie would put in a claim and I figured we would not be alone. When that happens, there is a shake and luck of the draw determines who gets the horse.
I watched the race on TVG and Math Wizard far exceeded my expectations. I thought he would win, but he destroyed the field. He pulled away by 18 ½ lengths. Then I anxiously awaited the call from Saffie. Did we get the horse?
After a few minutes, Saffie called. There had been a six-way shake. We did have the horse.
The race was so impressive that calls began coming in from people who wanted to buy Math Wizard outright for a lot more than $25,000. I had always decided that, if I was lucky enough to get a good horse, I would look to sell part of the horse to ensure that it was a good investment while keeping a majority interest. That is what I’ve done with Math Wizard, taking on Khalid Mishref, Cash is King, LC Racing, Collarmele Vitelli Stables, Ioannis Zoumas and Bassett Stables as partners.
We lost some time with Math Wizard due to a bout of colic. Once he recovered, Saffie knew we had a good horse on our hands. The only question was how good. After he ran second in a starter allowance at Gulfstream, we took a shot at the Wood Memorial in April, one of the last major prep races before the Kentucky Derby, and he showed he belonged in graded stakes company. He closed on a day when horses were not closing. He finished fourth despite getting clobbered at the start.
I knew then that my $25,000 claimer had the potential to be a big-time horse. And our ride was just beginning.