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Breeders' Cup Classic: Game On Dude's success continues to bring friends together
ARCADIA, Calif. – Terry Lanni died a little more than two years ago, but every time Game On Dude runs, he’s still there. Lanni was one of the co-owners of Game On Dude, part of a four-member partnership that was put together by his longtime friend, Bernie Schiappa.
Schiappa and his wife, Sonya, and Lanni and his wife, Debbie, were on vacation in Italy in 2010. A photo was taken of Lanni with Schiappa, one of the last, it turned out, of the two men together. Schiappa keeps it in his coat pocket when Game On Dude runs, as both a good-luck charm and a reminder of the man he calls his best friend.
“He’s been with us all the while,” Schiappa said.
On Saturday here at Santa Anita, Game On Dude will try to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and secure titles as champion older male and Horse of the Year. It undoubtedly would be the high point in racing for his owners, who also include Ernie Moody and baseball legend Joe Torre, all of whom bought into Game On Dude after Schiappa engineered his private purchase in the spring of 2010, when the horse was 3, and turned him over to trainer Bob Baffert.
“I bought the horse and decided who I wanted to have as partners,” Schiappa said.
Schiappa is probably the best known in racing circles of the foursome, in large part because he spends so much time at the track, frequently at Baffert’s side. Their friendship has blossomed in the last few years and was never more evident than in Dubai in the spring of 2012, when Schiappa was at Baffert’s side as he recovered from a heart attack.
Friendship and loyalty are important to Schiappa. In a recent interview with his wife at a restaurant in Del Mar, not far from their home, he used the word “friend” frequently to describe his relationships with the Lannis, Moody, and Torre. To him, that’s as important as his desire to see Game On Dude succeed Saturday.
“Bernie is great. He’s the best partner,” Debbie Lanni said. “He calls me all the time, says he wants to run things by me, always makes sure I’m included – the exact same things he did with Terry.”
Though Schiappa now lives in Southern California, he was a longtime resident of Las Vegas, where he worked for the largest Mercedes-Benz ownership group in the country. It was in Las Vegas in the early 1980s that he first met Terry Lanni, at the time an executive at Caesars Palace.
“I met him in an awkward way – I was asked not to bet horses at Caesars,” Schiappa said.
Several years later, Lanni’s longtime assistant, Dolores Owens, who handled all the VIP clients, bought a Mercedes off Schiappa. She later brought in Lanni to buy a car for himself. Lanni and Schiappa hit it off, and not long after, started owning horses together. Over the years, they won major races with horses like Ladies Din, Sinister Minister, and Silic, who won the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Their relationship grew beyond horses. “We became really close friends,” Schiappa said. Along with their spouses, they would take vacations together. Lanni, who became chief executive of the casino company MGM Mirage, would charter a yacht that would cruise the Amalfi Coast.
“He’d never take anything,” Schiappa said. “He wrote the book on generosity. He would do things no one knew about. After 9/11, a lot of his employees were called up because they were in the Reserves. He made sure 100 percent of their benefits went to their spouses. He’d put up their families at the hotel.”
After Lanni’s death, there was no question that Debbie Lanni would stay in racing. “I love it. Terry loved it,” she said. In addition to Game On Dude, Lanni owns the speedy mare Reneesgotzip, who runs Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.
Like Schiappa, Moody is a longtime resident of Las Vegas – he made a fortune with video poker machines – but he and Schiappa never met until about 13 years ago at a birthday party for Moody thrown near Del Mar by Madeleine Paulson, whose racing partnerships with Moody over the years included the top racehorse and stallion Rock Hard Ten.
Schiappa and Moody bonded over their love of racehorses.
“That’s how we became friends,” Schiappa said.
Their friendship has bloomed into much more. Moody eventually bought the farm that Paulson owned in Bonsall, Calif., about 25 miles from Del Mar, and now Schiappa helps him run that, in addition to managing the dozens of racehorses who compete for Moody’s Mercedes Stable, named for Moody’s longtime girlfriend, Mercedes Vila. Their best current runner is the improving 3-year-old Tiz the Truth, who is pointing to the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita.
Schiappa met Torre a little more than a decade ago at a golf tournament sponsored by Mercedes-Benz in Hawaii. They were placed in a foursome, and the talk quickly turned to a shared passion, racehorses – specifically, betting on them.
“He asked me for a couple horses to bet for him and Don Zimmer. Both happened to win,” Schiappa said.
Torre has gone out of his way with kind gestures toward Schiappa. When Schiappa had his going-away party when retiring from full-time work for Mercedes-Benz in Las Vegas, “Joe put together a DVD that had all the Dodgers wishing me good luck on my retirement,” Schiappa said.
Torre has been in a few partnerships on horses in the past decade, the most successful, at least financially, being Vineyard Haven, who provided an eight-figure private-sale windfall to the partnership after he became a Grade 1 winner for trainer Bobby Frankel. In the spring of 2010, Torre jumped right in when Schiappa called regarding Game On Dude.
Because of his commitments with Major League Baseball, for which he is now an executive, Torre has not seen all of Game On Dude’s races, but he did make it to both the Charles Town Classic in April and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August.
“I can’t tell you how exciting that was,” Torre said after the Pacific Classic. “The stretch run gave me goose bumps.”
With the World Series ending Wednesday night, Torre will be able to comfortably make the Breeders’ Cup. “The only way he was going to miss it is if there were four rainouts,” Schiappa said.
They’ll all be there. The Schiappas, Debbie Lanni, Moody, Vila, and Torre. So too Terry Lanni, in that photo Bernie Schiappa carries in his pocket, close to his heart.
$3,000 double... I guess all that dust was not chalk. Cali racin' is back!
What a great story!