It's no surprise `Zippy' is chippy

Horse racing: With an 0-100 record at the races, the old gelding can be excused for his bad temper.

Horse Racing

September 13, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. - With the speed of a snake, Zippy Chippy struck at Felix Monserrate. Teeth bared, the 13-year-old gelding stabbed his head outside his stall and nearly nailed Monserrate, who ducked away with the efficiency of someone used to such moves.

"This horse is mean," said Monserrate, his owner and trainer. "He's been mean all his life."

Zippy Chippy, mean? Here's a horse who has never won a thoroughbred race, a horse you would think would be as docile as a lamb. Yet he bites, kicks and pins his ears at the slightest annoyance.

And Monserrate, a 61-year-old trainer from a minor-league track in upstate New York, tolerates it, and, if truth be told, seems to relish it.

After all, this isn't just any horse trying to get a piece of Monserrate. This is Zippy Chippy, the so-called lovable loser, and Monserrate, like an ever-forgiving father, continues to trot the old boy out for yet another chance, though a long one, at victory.

Three days ago at the Northampton Fair in Massachusetts, Zippy Chippy raced for the 100th time. On the way to 99 straight losses, he attained celebrity status in the racing world.

His catchy name began appearing in trade publications in 1998 as he approached loss No. 86, then believed to be the record for futility by a thoroughbred in North America. But further research two years later revealed that the record was 105, established in the 1950s by another gelding, this one named Thrust.

By then, Zippy Chippy had garnered a following. He regularly received fan mail at his home base, the Finger Lakes track in Farmington, N.Y., Monserrate said. And he received offers for promotional appearances, for which Monserrate was paid a small fee, he acknowledged.

In 2000, 2001 and 2002, Zippy Chippy raced a minor-league baseball player at a home game of the Rochester Red Wings, then the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate. He lost to Jose Herrera in 2000 but beat Darnell McDonald and Larry Bigbie in 2001 and 2002.

And in 2001 at Freehold Raceway and last year at Batavia Downs, harness tracks in New Jersey and New York, respectively, Zippy Chippy raced a standardbred pulling a cart and driver. Zippy Chippy won both times.

But against thoroughbreds he has lost - every time. After his 70th defeat at Finger Lakes, he was banned from racing there. After three straight races in which he failed to break with the pack, the stewards decided they'd seen enough.

Richard Hanson, one of the three stewards, said Zippy Chippy was banned not only because he "dwelt" at the break and was non-competitive but because people kept betting on him. In his last race at Finger Lakes on Sept. 8, 1998, Zippy Chippy went off as one of the favorites at 5-2 odds. He finished last, 37 lengths behind the winner.

"We were trying to protect the public," Hanson said.

Monserrate, a native Puerto Rican who immigrated to the United States when he was about 20, obtained Zippy Chippy in 1995 - when he was 0-20. Monserrate traded an old Ford van for the horse.

Zippy Chippy had begun his career as a 3-year-old at Belmont Park. He couldn't win there, or at Aqueduct or at Suffolk Downs. After losing several times for Monserrate at Finger Lakes, the trainer considered getting rid of him.

Eventually, Zippy Chippy would have probably ended up at a slaughterhouse. He not only couldn't win but also wanted to kill anyone who came into his stall.

Then one morning at the barn, Monserrate lost sight of his 7-year-old daughter, Marisa. He found her in Zippy Chippy's stall. The nasty horse had assumed the personality of an old dog, and Marisa had discovered a lifelong friend.

Now 15, she takes care of the horse at Finger Lakes. He's begun treating her like everybody else now that she's bigger, she said. But she acknowledged that he's remained in her father's barn mainly because of her insistence that he's part of the family.

"I liked him. He wasn't going anywhere," said Marisa, who works with her father's 19 horses in the mornings before school and then again in the afternoons. "I like the horses nobody else does."

Her father eventually adopted the same outlook.

"If you have three kids, and one's a lawyer and one's a doctor and one can manage only to get a job in a little store, what are you going to do?" Monserrate said. "Throw the one out of the house just because he can't make enough money? That's the one you've got to help.

"If this horse was in somebody else's hands, he'd be dead now. He's happy. He's healthy. He will be my pet for the rest of his life."

Monserrate has never trained top horses. In his 40 years of training, 27 of them at Finger Lakes, he's won one minor stakes, he said. Bill Berry Jr., a fellow trainer at Finger Lakes, said Zippy Chippy is Monserrate's claim to fame.

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