Faith in Xchanger runs high

From owner's first glance to Preakness chance, colt generates smiles

Preakness Stakes

May 14, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

It's early morning, and Domenico Zannino is hanging on the first-turn rail at Timonium racetrack, clocking horses in preparation for next Monday's Fasig-Tipton sale.

"It's a wonderful place to be," said the Highlandtown native, who is the majority owner of Xchanger, the 3-year-old who will run in the Preakness on Saturday. "The sun comes lifting up and the horses come galloping down the frontstretch. It's good stuff."

Last year, Zannino was here doing the same thing, and that's when he spied horse No. 501.

"I was looking for the conformation, the movement and the ability," he said. "I watched how he galloped out. Some horses can't make it past the quarter-mile pole; some can't make it to the quarter-mile pole. I also listen for their breathing.

"You can watch tapes of their workouts, but you won't hear if they're chugging in their air passages."

When he watched No. 501, Zannino was impressed. The horse had extremely long strides, and distance did not seem a problem. He put stars all around his notes on the horse.

Zannino's trainer, Mark Shuman, missed the horse's timed workout, but watched the video -- 10 times -- and then went to look at him in the barn four times before the sale.

Separately, the two came to the same conclusion. They wanted the horse.

They decided not to bid on any other until after they took their shot at the then-2-year-old son of Exchange Rate.

"He was my first 2-year-old purchase," said Zannino, who was able to buy the horse at the Fasig-Tipton sale for $40,000. "We had a budget, and ... we just waited for that horse."

Since being purchased by Zannino's Circle Z Stables, Xchanger has won three of eight races, earned $291,990 and qualified for the Kentucky Derby.

Though Zannino, who has the controlling 50 percent interest in the horse, decided, with partners Shuman and Joe Masone, not to run in the Derby, he will send the horse from his training location at Fair Hill to Pimlico Race Course to compete in the Preakness.

"We're confident," Zannino said. "We know Street Sense and Hard Spun are great horses and that Curlin is a great horse that got lost in the Derby shuffle, but we're four weeks fresh and they're racing two weeks after the hardest race of their lives."

Shuman was of like mind, saying: "My horse is acting like he's going to run a big race, and I think those Derby horses ran their eyeballs out. We're hoping they're on a bounce and we're on a forward pace."

The trainer said Zannino is an incredibly dedicated owner and as such has made his job easier.

"What he's learned in the last year, well, people in the game 30 years don't know what he's learned in the last year," Shuman said. "He has chosen to be involved in his business."

Zannino, 37, was heavily into real estate until recognizing the market was approaching its peak. At that time, he kept some of his real estate, but stopped aggressively investing and decided to go into thoroughbreds.

He estimates he spends 10 to 16 hours a day studying pedigrees, looking at charts, viewing video, reading books on racing, going to morning workouts and races.

"I'm sure in years to come, I won't need as much time," he said. "But, right now, I'm learning crosses [stallions and mares and bloodlines] that work and don't work. I'm learning what hot sires are out there today and watching the babies of new sires train to see if I like them."

He met Shuman at Delaware Park through Masone, their mutual friend. He now has 12 horses in training with Shuman, a group of 17 2-year-olds in Florida and South Carolina, and one yearling he recently purchased in Kentucky.

Zannino, who went to Calvert Hall and was an amateur boxer until 2000, when he was beaten as a heavyweight in the quarterfinals of the Eastern Regional Olympic trials, grew up with seven older brothers and sisters living over the family-operated funeral home on Conkling Street.

"My dad also had a small farm, and he had a friend, Harry Parr, who had a seven-acre parcel that he'd gotten from Mr. [Alfred G.] Vanderbilt, right off Tufton Avenue on Worthington," Zannino said.

"I'll never forget all the rides we took to get out there, passing Sagamore Farm, and Mr. Parr had a picture of himself sitting on Native Dancer and the horse's ears were pricked. I'll never forget that.

"And when I was a kid, Sagamore was my dream house. And when I was little, I loved the animals as athletes. I always knew I'd have a farm with horses on it."

Now, Zannino and his family -- daughter, Isabella; and wife, Kerri, who is expecting their second child in August -- live on Worthington Avenue, across the street from Sagamore, the famed former Vanderbilt estate.

Though Zannino does not yet have his horse farm, he does have a fine view of one and also can see the Maryland Stallion Station from his front porch.

Notes -- Trainer Michael Matz said his Chelokee likely won't run in the Preakness. "Right now, I think that we're leaning toward going in the Barbaro Stakes," Matz said. The Barbaro Stakes, run on Preakness Day, formerly was the Sir Barton Stakes, renamed to honor Matz's late thoroughbred, last year's Derby winner. ... Trainer Todd Pletcher said his King of the Roxy, runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby, is possible for the Preakness.sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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