Viva L'Amour, a 10-year-old thoroughbred stallion, is getting only half his usual rations of sweet feed and crimped oats these days at the Maryland horse farm operated by the A.A. Vizzi family. Dandelion Love, the Vizzis' most prized filly, is eating borrowed hay. And their riding horse, Princely Dancer, who has a history of knee problems, will have to wait for his next medical treatment until the Vizzis find a way to pay the veterinarian.
The problem, according to the Howard County family, is that its money is tied up in Community Savings & Loan Association, where deposits have been frozen.
"This thing has me so devastated -- I feel like someone hit me over the head with a hammer," said Helen Vizzi, 60, a widow who manages the 11-acre farm with the help of her son, Tully, 36. He takes care of the outside, which includes the barns, the paddocks and the 16 horses. She tends the inside, which means keeping the books and running the brick ranch-style house.
"We are middle class," said Helen Vizzi. "We're not poor enough for welfare and we're not rich enough to ride this out -- so where are we left?"
The Vizzis, who have been unsuccessful in their effort to persuade state officials to allow them to get to enough of their money to feed their horses and pay their bills, say they feel like they have been left hanging.
This month, the Vizzis tried to sell one of their horses to raise money for expenses. "But the horse didn't sell, and now we have a $300 advertising bill that we can't pay," Tully Vizzi said.
Last week, with a limited amount of feed remaining and no relief in sight, the Vizzis took out a second mortgage on their house. They hope that the mortgage money, when they get it next week, will be enough to cover their home and farm expenses while they wait for the crisis at Community to be resolved. But they are worried that it may be months -- possibly years -- before they can get to their funds.
The Vizzis said they have two certificates of deposit at Community. The interest from the CDs flows into two checking accounts, which they said they have been using to pay their home and farm expenses. The freeze at Community prevents them from getting any money from their checking accounts or from the certificates, which will mature in January.
Helen Vizzi and her late husband Andrew moved to the Maryland horse country 15 years ago. "We lived in New Jersey and we loved going to the races," Vizzi said. "We thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a little place and raise racehorses?' "
Andrew Vizzi, a nuclear engineer, went to work at Bechtel in Gaithersburg. The family, which includes four children, now all grown, found the farm of their dreams set on a rolling hillside off Jennings Chapel Road, near the boundary separating Montgomery and Howard counties.
"We bought a little filly, Cherie Amour, at auction, and she turned into a major stakes winner," Helen Vizzi said. "She won the Coaching Club American Oaks in 1971 -- that is like the Kentucky Derby for fillies."
The Vizzis began building their racehorse business, using Cherie Amour as a broodmare. Andrew Vizzi looked forward to the day when he could retire from Bechtel and devote all of his time to the farm, but he died of cancer in 1982, just months before he was to retire.
Helen Vizzi, with Tully Vizzi's help, has been operating the farm since then. "Until this, I felt like I was doing okay -- nothing big, but paying the bills," she said.
Two years ago, she moved her $200,000 retirement nest egg from Chevy Chase Savings and Loan Association to Community to get its higher interest rates. "I did what everybody said to do -- put your money where it will earn the highest rate of interest, just make sure the funds are insured," Helen Vizzi said. "Well, Community had the highest rate and it was insured by the MSSIC" (Maryland Savings-Share Insurance Corp.).
The $1,000-a-month withdrawal limit imposed on each Community account in May made life difficult for the Vizzis, but not impossible. When the 20-day freeze was imposed on the thrift in mid-August, they were concerned but thought they would be able to squeeze by. But a week ago, when the freeze was extended for 45 days, their concern escalated and they began seeking relief.
The hot line set up by the state to assist victims of the thrift crisis was no help at all, Tully Vizzi said. Neither were the several state officials he called, he said. And the Maryland horse group that provides assistance to jockeys and other race track figures down on their luck cannot help horse farm operators whose assets have been frozen, he said.
Helen Vizzi does not cry when she talks about her troubles. She said the sorrow is buried too deeply for tears. Then she remembers the time when she was a child, growing up during the Great Depression, and how she laughed at her grandmother for hiding money under a mattress because "she didn't trust banks or anybody."
Now, Vizzi said, "I understand why she did it."