When he was a boy in upstate New York, Albert Coppola would finagle his way into the stable area at Saratoga Race Track, stand by the rail and watch a few fleeting seconds of action as the horses flashed by him.
Last month he returned from his McLean home to the scene of these vivid boyhood memories, but this time he got considerably closer to the action. He found himself being ushered to the winner's circle after the track's most prestigious race, the Travers Stakes, and then being ushered upstairs to meet the press and meet the governor. Many of his old pals from his youth were there to congratulate the local boy who made good.
To fulfill such a fantasy, a man needs a little luck, and Coppola had a lot of it -- twice. Once was when he bought a yearling son of the stallion Blushing Groom for a bargain-basement price (by modern standards, at least). The other time was the Travers Stakes itself, when a multitude of favorable circumstances enabled Coppola's colt, Runaway Groom, to upset Conquistador Cielo. He is going to need a great deal more good fortune if he hopes to win the $400,000 Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park on Saturday.
Coppola came to the Washington area in 1948 to complete his education at George Washington University. When he graduated, he started what would become the Washington Business School. Today he runs two schools -- one in Rockville, one in McLean -- that offer a a one-year program of secretarial training, and they have been successful enough that Coppola had the resources to do what he had always wanted to do: buy some horses.
He made his first acquisition in 1979, but it was two autumns ago that he made the purchase that would ultimately make headlines. He went to a yearling sale in Kentucky and while he was there he made visits to most of the important stud farms. "At Gainesway Farm," he said, "I saw Blushing Groom and I was very impressed. He had some horses in the sale, but because his stud fee was $60,000 I thought the prices would be astronomical. The horse I was interested in was the last one to sell that evening, and because it was so late there was almost nobody left (to bid). I came up with him for $39,000 -- less than the stud fee. It was amazing. Maybe it was destiny."
For awhile, Coppola's purchase seemed less than amazing. Runaway Groom was smitten with a number of routine equine problems--sore shins, viruses -- that kept him away from the races until this spring. As soon as he won his first race, Coppola was thinking about the Blue Grass Stakes and the Kentucky Derby, but shin troubles sidelined the horse for two more months. When he returned and won a minor sprint race at Churchill Downs, Coppola started getting overeager again and told his trainer to send the colt to Canada for the Queen's Plate, that country's version of the Kentucky Derby, for which he was eligible because he was bred in Ontario.
This was crazy: Runaway Groom never had raced beyond seven- eighths of a mile and now he was being asked to go 1 1/4 miles. He was running dead last in the 18-horse field, but he made a whirlwind finish to be second and demonstrate that he is, indeed, a very good racehorse -- at least by Canada's standards.
After that his campaign proceeded without interruption. He came into the Travers sharp and well-conditioned, but clearly overmatched against the winners of America's three Triple Crown races -- Gato del Sol, Aloma's Ruler and the acclaimed Conquistador Cielo.
He met them, however, at a time when all three of them were on the downgrade. The Travers would be the last start of Conquistador Cielo's career, the last of the year for the other two, both of them injured. Moreover, Conquistador Cielo and Aloma's Ruler engaged in a suicidal head-and-head duel for the lead, running on the deep inside part of the track. When they were exhausted, Runaway Groom came flying down the middle of the track and scored racing's upset of the year.
Many handicappers considered this victory an utter fluke, but Runaway Groom will have ample opportunities this fall to prove them wrong. If he runs in the Marlboro Cup on Saturday, he will be tested by Perrault, the winner of the Budweiser Million, and the brilliant 3-year-old Timely Writer. Coppola is considering many other possibilities, however -- including the $500,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont and the Washington, D.C. International. He said Runaway Groom probably will finish his 3-year-old campaign by going halfway across the world in a bid to win the rich Japan Cup -- something even further removed from Coppola's boyhood dreams than winning the Travers was. But after his horse did the impossible at Saratoga, almost anything seems possible to him now.