Among the members of the racing and breeding aristocracy who congregate here, horses red in New York state are something of a standing joke.
Despite the enormous amount of money that the state has pumped into its breeding program, the thoroughbreds produced here are still mostly rock-bottom creatures who couldn't win cheap claiming races at other tracks. Uttering the phrase "New York-bred" in racing cirlces usually elicited the sort of response that comics could get with the word "Cleveland" in a nightclub.
At least, that was the case until today, when Fio Rito, a humble New York-bred based at humble Finger Lakes Race Track, whipped all his elegantly pedigreed rivals in the prestigious $175,500 Whitney Stakes handicap at Saratoga.
Fio Rito led all the way and held on to score by a neck over Winter's Tale, who last season had been considered the best horse in New York. Ring of Light was another length behind in third place.
Even the pedigree experts would be confounded by Fio Rito's family tree. He is a son of the obscure stallion Dreaming Native, out of an equally undistinguished female family, but that didn't matter as long as he was running against other New York-breds. He had won 26 races before today, earning $381,506. This year, at the age of 6, he had been running so well that trainer Mike Ferraro decided to give him a shot in open company.
"I don't think he'll be disgraced," Ferraro said before the race.
In fact, Fio Rito seemed to be living in a state of grace today. The Saratoga racing strip has been giving a distinct edge to front-runners, and that is Fio Rito's game. This morning, the fastest and best horse in the field, Amber Pass, came down with an intestinal ailment and had to be scratched. Earlier in the week an even faster horse, Fappiano, had been taken out of the race by an injury.
But Fio Rito's big stroke of luck came moments before the start of the Whitney. He lunged through the starting gate, as if he were about to run off with jockey Leslie Hulet, but an intrepid assistant starter held onto his reins. He let Fio Rito drag him several yaards until he got him under control and took him back to the gate.
Fio Rito took care of everything by himself after that. He broke sharply, raced inside longshot Blue Ensign and kissed him off on the backstretch. As he reached the finalt urn, jockey Ruben Herandex on Winter's Tale launched a strong move outside him, but Fio Rito fought him off. (When Herandez was asked for a comment after the race, he said, "Please don't talk to me. I don't believe it.")
Then Ring of Light, the 3-to-2 favorite, launched his challenge in the stretch. And he couldn't get by the New York-bred either.
Fio Rito covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:48 and paid $22.40, $6.20 and $3.80. Winter's Tale returned $4 and $2.80 and Ring of Light paid $4.20 to show.
"This is unreal!" Ferraro exclaimed. "It's just a Cinderella story. He's a great, generous animal. And he beat real horses today, not New York-breds."