Harry Payne Whitney: Like Father, Like Son
Call it the chomp seen ’round the world.
When Firenze Fire strained his neck to repeatedly savage Yaupon in the final stages of their stretch duel in the Aug. 28 Forego Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, photos and footage of the unusual episode were widely circulated. They captured the attention of a massive audience, ranging from racing fans to casual observers.
No matter their level of knowledge, they all asked the same question. Why would Firenze Fire, who nonetheless looms as a prime contender for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint Nov. 6 at Del Mar, do such a thing?
“I wish I could tell you what he was feeling,” trainer Kelly Breen said. “He does have an attitude, but he’s never done anything malicious to anyone around the barn. He does let them know that he’s an alpha dog.”
Perhaps owner and breeder Ron Lombardi could provide some insight?
“There are all different theories,” Lombardi said. “Is it competitiveness? Is it playfulness? What is it? But he’s world-renowned.”
Interestingly, Firenze Fire was savaged by Whereshetoldmetogo in the final 100 yards of the Gallant Bob Stakes at Parx Racing in September 2018. He held on to win by a neck in the Gallant Bob, just as Yaupon withstood the attack on him to edge his unruly foe and startled jockey Jose Ortiz by a head in the Forego.
Lombardi does not think the two incidents can be compared. “When he was savaged, it was like one little peck,” he noted. “Here, for four strides he just kept going. It’s amazing he kept up with Yaupon while savaging him.”
The chart of the seven-furlong Forego is well worth a read. It details that Firenze Fire “began to savage [Yaupon] badly coming to the sixteenth pole, continued to savage that opponent while the rider attempted to reach up and pull him off using the right rein, lost momentum in the process, had the jockey’s hand slip off the rein multiple times while trying to gather it up, was finally able to grab the rein about 40 yards from the wire while bumping at that juncture and just missed.”
Lombardi could not believe his eyes as it all unfolded. “I wish I had a picture of my face when it happened because it was right in front of me. I was right at the rail,” he said. “You saw it happen and it was ‘Did I just see that? Oh, my God!’ But life goes on.”
Lombardi, 64, entered racing in 2008 and competes under the banner of Mr. Amore Stables. At this stage, he cannot be all that disappointed by anything Firenze Fire does. The 6-year-old Florida-bred has been way too good to him for that in winning 14 of 36 lifetime starts with six runner-up efforts and three third-place finishes for earnings in excess of $2.6 million. Half of the horse’s victories have occurred at Belmont Park but he also has reached the winner’s circle at Monmouth Park, Saratoga, Aqueduct, Parx Racing, Penn National, and Laurel Park.
He is almost the horse that wasn’t. His dam (mother), My Every Wish, was an inexpensive claim whose bad knees never allowed her to race for Lombardi. Those he consulted thought he would be wasting his time by putting her into service as a broodmare because she lacked pedigree and had never distinguished herself on the track. He decided to send her to Florida stallion Poseidon’s Warrior anyway, thinking the $6,000 stud fee was worth the gamble.
“I was just starting into the breeding aspect of things,” Lombardi said, “and it worked out.”
Lombardi developed a passion for racing while his family spent summers at Monmouth Park. They would enjoy dining at a restaurant if the wagering went well. Otherwise, it was home cooking. He said of his experience with racing when he was a boy, “A lot of it was standing at a fence outside of Monmouth just watching them go by.”
He is very much an insider now. He has done well as an owner of physical therapy centers in Florida, New Jersey, and New York. His investment in racing includes approximately 30 runners, 23 broodmares, 12 yearlings, and 12 weanlings.
He can only hope one of the babies grows up to be like Firenze Fire – without misbehaving.
“He’s a horse that shows up every race. He always gives it his all,” Lombardi said. “The one thing he doesn’t like is thick slop. Other than that, he puts out. He’s just been a joy.”
Firenze Fire is on course to make his record-tying fifth appearance in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. He ran seventh in the Sentient Jet Juvenile at Del Mar in 2017, fourth in the Dirt Mile the next year at Churchill Downs, fifth in the 2019 Sprint at Santa Anita, and third in last year’s Sprint at Keeneland.
Breen is excited about shipping from the East Coast to Del Mar for the season-culminating championships on Nov. 5-6. “Running in California, I have to think we are going to have as fast a track as there can be and not even having to think about having rain or an off-track,” he said.
Breen thinks the savaging episode was a “one-time deal.” At least he must hope so.