Family gets a whiff of the roses

Horse racing: Trainer John Toscano Jr. and his three sons send Sinister G into the Wood Memorial with an eye on their first Kentucky Derby.

Horse Racing

April 08, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The Toscano family of New York could hardly stop celebrating after winning a big stakes race last month in Kentucky. If the Toscanos win the Wood Memorial Stakes here Saturday at Aqueduct, then the celebration might go on forever.

"I'm trying to imagine it, but I just, well, I just can't," said John Toscano III. "That would absolutely be awesome. To win this race on our home track, well, that would be an unbelievable thrill."

Fresh from an upset victory in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park, Sinister G will carry the Toscano banner into the Wood Memorial. And a big banner it will be.

John Toscano Jr., 59, trains Sinister G. One of his three sons, Paul, 31, rides him. His other two sons, John III, 37, and Rob, 36, own 50 percent of the colt after buying him for $67,000 last year at a sale of 2-year-olds in Florida.

"It's a family affair," John Jr. said. "We're having a lot of fun with it."

They'll have even more fun if Sinister G propels them into the Triple Crown series with a strong performance in the Wood. The $750,000 race is one of three major stakes Saturday that will largely determine the field for the Kentucky Derby in 24 days at Churchill Downs. The others are the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

No favorite has emerged for the Kentucky Derby, and the scramble for the 20 berths in the starting gate has been chaotic. Sinister G, whose pedigree says he should be a sprinter, added to the confusion March 20 with a gate-to-wire victory at 16-1 odds in the Lane's End Stakes.

That race in northern Kentucky was 1 1/8 miles, the same distance as the three big stakes this weekend. Of the expected entrants in the Wood, only Sinister G and the California-based Master David have won stakes at that distance. The Kentucky Derby is an eighth of a mile farther.

"He's bred top and bottom to be a stone sprinter," John Jr. said of Sinister G, whose sire Matty G and broodmare sire Two Punch, who stands in Maryland, produce horses who mainly excel at shorter distances. "But horses are individuals. Sometimes they outrun their pedigree. He'll run all day."

He'll have to prove that in the Wood, as the highly regarded Value Plus will likely test him early, and several of the closers will challenge him late. The Toscanos are hopeful that Sinister G, after providing them their biggest victory in the $500,000 Lane's End, will up the ante in the Grade I Wood.

Their most lucrative score before the Lane's End was the $150,000 Carter Handicap in 1986 with Love That Mac. But that was merely a partial family collaboration. John III and Rob claimed the horse for $50,000, and John Jr. was the stable's general manager but not the trainer. Love That Mac won 13 races, including three stakes, and earned $864,085.

"Paul was too young to ride," said John III, his older brother. "But he was in all the winner's pictures. He was a little runt back then."

The three Toscano boys were all "little runts" when they first smelled the sweet allure of the backstretch. Their father made sure of that.

John Jr. was 3 when his parents moved two blocks from Aqueduct. Neither had horses in their blood. John Jr.'s father was a chemist for a paint company, and his mother was a housewife.

But John Jr. was drawn to the drama unfolding nearby.

"Every half hour you could hear the call of the race and the roar of the crowd," he said.

He often stopped in at Aqueduct while attending St. John's University in Queens. He majored in history and was going to be a teacher. But after graduation he got a job on the backstretch walking horses.

"My father said to me, `Have you lost your mind?'" John Jr. said. "I told him, `I'm going to give it a shot in the horse business.'"

John Jr. worked four years for trainer Jimmy Picou, and then, in 1970, he began training on his own. He started with one horse. He got up to 25 in the 1980s, and now he trains a dozen.

"It's been mainly claiming, allowance horses -- you know, struggling," he said. "Then this colt came along. I told my sons, `If we're ever going to the Derby, this horse is going to take us there.'"

John III and Rob visit their father and the big horse nearly every morning. Then they go to work. John III supervises the restaurant division of the New York City off-track betting parlors. Rob is a stagehand at the Palace Theatre in Manhattan.

Paul, a jockey for 15 years, relocated to South Florida last spring and rides at Calder and Gulfstream Park. He considers his father a "spectacular horse trainer," and he remains close with his brothers.

"We're all on cloud nine," said Paul, who will fly up tomorrow for the Wood. "People wait a lifetime for an opportunity like this, and even then many never get it. And here we've got it, and it's this great family thing. That makes it extra special."

NOTE: Post positions for the Wood will be drawn today, but fields for the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby were determined yesterday. At Oaklawn Park, the undefeated Smarty Jones drew the outside in an 11-horse field. Observers gasped, but Smarty Jones' trainer, John Servis, didn't blink.

"I love the outside; it's just fine," Servis said. "Smarty will be the last to load, and there's a good, long run to the first turn. He's got the tactical speed to get a good position."

At Keeneland, Lion Heart drew Post 6 for the Blue Grass and was deemed the 5-2 morning-line favorite. The Cliff's Edge and Preachinatthebar, co-second choices at 4-1, drew the 3 and 8, respectively. Birdstone, once the leading Derby contender, will break from post 1; his morning-line odds are 8-1.

At a glance

What: Wood Memorial Stakes

Site: Aqueduct, New York

When: Saturday

Post time: 4:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN, 3:30-4:30 p.m.

Purse: $750,000

Distance: 1 1/8 miles

Grade: I

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