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Most Thoroughbred owners consider themselves lucky to catch lightning in a bottle once. Lucas Stritsman, from Troy, N.Y., has done it twice since he entered the game in 2011.
Stritsman’s Corms Racing Stable was part of the ownership group that claimed Divine Miss Grey for $16,000 on March 15, 2017 at Gulfstream Park. She was recently retired with $934,372 in earnings.
Stritsman also is among the owners of Tax after claiming him for $50,000 last Oct. 21 at Keeneland Race Course. The gelding ran fourth in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and won the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, stamping him as one of the top contenders for the Grade 1 $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
Stritsman, 43, is co-owner with his brother, Evan, of Best Fire Hearth & Patio in Albany, N.Y. Their father, Wayne, started the business in the family’s garage more than four decades ago.
Stritsman is taking followers of America’s Best Racing along on his magical ride to the 150th Travers in a diary written for America’s Best Racing with Tom Pedulla. Here is the first of two installments:
I will be the first to say that I am a hands-on owner who pays a lot of attention to detail. I also will be the first to say that luck has played a huge role in the success I am enjoying.
I turned out to be in the right place at the right time when I entered a Tiki bar at Gulfstream Park in March, 2014. I met someone there who introduced me to Danny Gargan, a trainer looking to grow what was then a small operation and show what he could do in New York.
I was immediately impressed by Danny. The more we communicated, the more I became convinced that he was someone with a sharp eye for a horse. He was eager to find talent in the claiming ranks – the level I could afford – and make his mark by improving those horses. We just clicked and we’ve gotten closer since then.
We got our start together when we claimed Rap d’Oro for $17,500 at Aqueduct in November 2014. He produced a win for us in three starts before he was claimed away. Our next two horses also won, putting us on a bit of a roll.
The second of those, a New York-bred named Goodtolook, gave me my first victory at my home track, Saratoga, at 34.25-1. We knew Goodtolook would be dangerous if he shook loose on the lead and that is exactly what happened. I almost could not believe my eyes as he went wire to wire.
That was a special moment for me, bringing back boyhood memories of picnics in Saratoga’s backyard with my parents, aunts and uncles and anywhere from 15-20 cousins. Those were great times, when I fell in love with racing.
Danny and I went into 2017 looking to claim a young horse that he thought he could improve. Danny has a great eye for opportunities and he called me in March about Divine Miss Grey, a 3-year-old available for a claiming price of $16,000 at Gulfstream Park.
We may never know why she was so inexpensive, but she was. Danny saw a couple of things to like. She had sold for $100,000 at auction. And she had been running without Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication thought to help many horses, and we thought it might help her.
I got lucky again when we won a four-way shake at the claiming box. As always, Danny knew exactly what he was talking about. After we got Divine Miss Grey to Belmont Park, she won three straight races for us.
“She’s something special,” Danny said after the third straight win.
Divine Miss Grey went on to be a Grade 2 winner and was Grade 1-placed as a runner-up in last year’s Beldame Stakes. She won six stakes races in all, including consecutive victories in the Heavenly Prize Invitational at Aqueduct. You don’t expect a horse you claim for $16,000 to earn almost $1 million, but it happened. She will always hold a special place in my heart.
We were again shopping for a young horse with potential for improvement when we claimed Tax last Oct. 21 at Keeneland. Although he was a gelding, he was a son of Arch that was bred by Claiborne Farm, so he had the pedigree to be successful.
We again got lucky in a four- or five-way shake to claim Tax off a winning effort. Danny wanted to run him on the grass and still would like to try it down the road. But he was training so well on the dirt that we never got that far.
He was looking so good one morning at Aqueduct that Danny said to Kiaran McLaughlin, another trainer who is a friend of his, “What am I going to do with this horse?”
Kiaran suggested he supplement him to the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes.
When Danny told me that, I could not believe my ears. “Yeah, he’s been training like a beast,” Danny said.
After we ran third in the Remsen, we were on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. It was a path I knew well because I had followed so many horses on their way there when I was younger. Other kids collected baseball cards. My cousin, John Sickles, and I tracked horses.
After Tax won the Withers Stakes, I knew for sure we were on the Road to the Derby and we debated what the next step should be. I have great partners, R.A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Hugh Lynch. We settled on the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets, knowing we would have to win that race or finish second to have enough points to qualify for the Derby’s 20-horse field. No owners were ever happier with a second-place finish than we were after the Wood. We were going to the Derby!
I had been to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships with a great friend, Matt Canfield. I had never been to the Derby. When I arrived at Churchill Downs several days before the race and saw all of the media, it really sank in. Oh, my God, we have a horse in the Kentucky Derby!
It really didn’t bother me when Tax ran 14th. It was a totally awesome day, an experience I will never forget. I hope my wife, Erika, and our children, Klara and Evan, will never forget it, either.
Tax has gotten much better since then. He ran fourth in the Belmont Stakes and his victory in the Jim Dandy has us right where we want to be for the Travers, the “Mid-Summer Derby.” If you live in upstate New York as we do, that is the Derby that matters most to us.