2 boys from Baltimore hope `Boy' puts them in Preakness

Cherokee's Boy carries owners' dream into Tesio

April 19, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

After winning $4,000 in a handicapping tournament, Foard Wilgis and Dave Picarello decided they should do something fun with the cash. If they didn't, they figured, they'd probably just lose it betting on horses.

"We figured as much as we lost betting, we could buy a horse," Wilgis said. "So we bought one. We got into this business strictly for the fun of it."

That was 11 years ago. About 25 horses later, Wilgis and Picarello are on the verge of living a dream unimaginable for two Teamsters from Baltimore a decade ago: running a horse in the Preakness.

Cherokee's Boy, their 3-year-old colt and son of their very first horse, could earn a spot in the $1 million Preakness with a convincing victory today in the $150,000 Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico.

The bay colt is the 3-2 morning-line favorite in a field of six undistinguished 3-year-olds. Although Cherokee's Boy has won five of 11 races - four of the wins were in stakes - he has not captured a stakes in which the field was open to all horses. He has won stakes for which he qualified as a Maryland-bred.

The Tesio is open to all horses. For Cherokee's Boy to merit a place in the Preakness, one of the nation's most glamorous races, he would have to win the Tesio.

"He's run against some nice horses, but he hasn't beaten them yet," said Gary Capuano, his trainer. "He still hasn't proved to me that the Preakness is up his alley."

The other morning at the Bowie Training Center, the sun rising and Cherokee's Boy being prepared for his morning gallop, Wilgis and Picarello listened to Capuano, but it's difficult to know what they heard. Their fun venture into the horse business has become so deliriously fun - with one tragic exception - that they may already see visions of Cherokee's Boy dancing in the Preakness winner's circle, his sweaty coat draped in a blanket of black-eyed Susans.

Both are Baltimore natives - Wilgis from Remington, Picarello from Parkville. And both started betting on horses long before they were old enough do it legally.

When they bought their first horse in 1992, they worked for Homicide, the Baltimore-based TV show. Wilgis was in charge of transportation - everything from trucks carrying sets and lights to vans carrying actors - and Picarello drove one of the vans transporting actors.

They had recruited 15 others on the set of Homicide, and the group often pooled its money and bet the races. After winning $4,000 for their second-place finish in a handicapping contest at Delaware Park, Wilgis and Picarello decided to ask everyone in the group to pitch in $2,000, and they would buy a racehorse.

When it came time to collect, only one coworker, Kenny Ziegler, came up with the two grand. So, carrying a shoebox filled with cash, Wilgis and Picarello went to a horse sale at Timonium.

Relying on their knowledge of pedigrees from their betting experience, they bought a filly yearling for $5,500. One more opposing bid, driving the price to $6,000, and they would have lost her.

But now what? As Picarello recalled: "We didn't have a way to get her out of there. We didn't have a place to take her even if we could get her out of there."

They called on friends, came up with a van, found a farm and hired a trainer in South Carolina to teach the filly to be ridden and a trainer in Maryland, Capuano, to teach her to race.

They named her Cherokee Wonder (her sire was Cherokee Colony), and the wonder of it was she raced 51 times and earned $284,010. By the time she retired at 6, she had won eight races, including two stakes, and registered 12 seconds and six thirds.

They could have sold her, but decided to extend their run in the business into breeding. The first season, she was mated to Chimes Band, and the second, to Citidancer. The Chimes Band mating produced Runnin Wonder, a filly who won three of 13 races, and earned $79,100. They mated her two weeks ago to Hennessy.

The Citidancer mating produced Cherokee's Boy, who has earned $324,929, won a Maryland Million race and was named last year's champion Maryland-bred 2-year-old.

Shortly after buying their first horse, Wilgis bought out the third partner, Ziegler. But Wilgis and Picarello kept their racing name: ZWP Stable.

Two years ago, Picarello quit transporting actors and bought a GNC store in Canton. Wilgis is still a Teamster in charge of transportation for The Wire, the Baltimore-based drama on HBO.

Despite their racing successes, they nearly crashed last spring when Cherokee Wonder, due with her third foal, died of colic. The two owners tried everything to save the foal, but after 12 days he died. The medical bill was $25,000. That drained their account.

"So we had no baby, we had no mother, and we had no money," Wilgis said. "Then Cherokee's Boy started picking up the pace, and we've been doing pretty well ever since. Now we're having more fun than ever."

That's because of Cherokee's Boy, who started racing last July and has run in stakes in Texas, Louisiana, West Virginia and Illinois. Hopes were high the colt might perform well enough this spring to race in the Kentucky Derby. But he finished a disappointing fifth two weeks ago in the Illinois Derby.

"We'd rather win the Preakness than the Derby anyway," Picarello said.

"I can't even imagine two local guys winning the Preakness," said Wilgis in his Baltimore accent. "Wouldn't that be something? They'd tear the roof off the place."

NOTE: The Federico Tesio Stakes and Lexington Stakes from Keeneland will be shown on tape today on ESPN2 in a half-hour broadcast beginning at 6 p.m.

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