Bought for song, FLY SO FREE sweet music to owner

JOHN EISENBERG

May 03, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The long, white limousine turns through the gate at Churchill Downs and stops in front of the barn on the backside. Out steps a small, elderly man wearing a Florida tan, a brown windbreaker and an easy smile. He starts singing. Yes! His voice cuts through the clear, cool morning: "Fly meeeee to the mooooooon. . . ."

And then, look, the grooms and hotwalkers are shuffling their feet in time and chiming in with the chorus, and the horse, yes, the horse right here is singing along too, showing all those big, beautiful teeth on this sunny blue morning, all of it building to a terrific crescendo, the horses in a kick line now. . . .

Whew.

Sorry about that.

I guess I've been hanging around Fly So Free's barn too long. It's just that I keep expecting something like that to happen.

I should explain. The horse's owner is a guy named Tommy Valando, a show business guy, a guy whose life has been music and Broadway and Frank Sinatra, Frankie baby, and Perry Como and Stephen Sondheim and, well, it just makes sense to me that if I keep hanging around the barn long enough the tunes will break out.

I got the horse right here,

His name is Paul Revere,

And there's a guy who says

if the weather's clear. . . .

It probably isn't going to happen, of course. Valando, 69, has never been on the singing and songwriting end of the business anyway. He publishes music, buys the rights essentially, and for years picked out songs for others, particularly Como. He doesn't do the singing himself, hasn't from that first day in 1938 when he started working at a music production company.

Still, I find myself waiting for the tunes to break out because those of show business stock are rare in racing, surprisingly rare considering that in both worlds, particularly among those of Valando's generation, men are "guys" in snap-brim hats and women are "dames" and "dolls" and rooms smell of cigars and perfume and expensive scotch -- the stuff of Dick Francis novels and "All About Eve."

Valando is not of that fabled ilk, though, not one bit. He is sweet and gentle and shy and, truth be told, as unlikely as his horse to break into song on a sunny morning at the Kentucky Derby. He's just a small man with a soft voice, wearing wire-frame glasses, avoiding the spotlight, utterly inconspicuous among the barns. Except for that long, white limo.

He started out as an errand boy at the Santly-Joy music production company in New York, this before World War II, and demonstrated a knack for recognizing talent. He worked with Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, but his breakthrough came when a friend introduced him to Como at a deli one day and they became friends and Valando suggested Como sing "Til the End of Time," which became his first hit.

When the popularity of such music began to fade in the early '60s, Valando switched to publishing Broadway music, and has been connected with such hit shows as "Fiddler on the Roof," "Sweeney Todd," "Cabaret," "Zorba" and "Godspell." Valando gets a check every time someone sings a song from those shows. The money is not bad.

Matchmaker, matchmaker,

Make me a match. . . .

He was a racing fan not unlike millions of others, just enjoyed the thrill and the play, and decided one day at Belmont about a decade ago that getting involved might be a kick. He mentioned it to his friend Joe Hirsch, the Racing Form writer, and Hirsch got him involved with the Dogwood Stable partnerships of Cot Campbell.

He bought his first horse outright two years ago, and bingo, hit thejackpot immediately: Fly So Free, a chestnut colt, was the best 2-year-old in the country a year ago, and dominated Florida over the winter, winning the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. He comes to the Derby off a loss in the Blue Grass Stakes, but probably will leave the gate tomorrow as the betting favorite.

"It's been a great, great time," Valando said. "It's much more exciting that Broadway. To hear your horse's name called and see him flying down the stretch in the lead, it's hard to put into words, but there's no feeling like it. Of course, I've had nothing

but ups [in racing] so far."

Winning the Derby is the grandest "up" of all, but large is the legion of racing insiders who expect Fly So Free, despite his chalk rating, to lose tomorrow. The word is that he has peaked, that he is not a strong finisher, that he will get outrun in the stretch. Valando knows nothing about it. He just smiles and shrugs.

"I know nothing about times or anything like that," he said. "Scotty [Schulhofer, trainer] tells me he ran this and did this, and I say, 'Great, is that good?' and he says, 'It's fantastic,' and I say, "Oh, wonderful.' All I do is watch the races and cheer."

Of course, if his horse were to cross the finish line first tomorrow and Valando were to find himself up in the winner's circle with Jim McKay and a national television audience watching, maybe that would be the time, maybe, that finally the tunes would break out and everyone would start the do-wah-diddy, which is the only appropriate ending for this story, curtain please, sound fading slowly. . . .

You're the top,

You're the tower of Pisa.

You're the top,

You're the Mona Lisa. . . .

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