08/12/2011 2:07PM

Fort Erie: Canzoneri came to the track and never looked back


FORT ERIE, Ontario – He had 15 official fights as a young man, winning all of them, then put away his boxing gloves to work with horses.

Groom, hot walker, and general handyman, Joe Canzoneri, 55, has been fulfilling all three roles since his gloves came off many years ago and he continues to work where his heart is, on the backstretch of the racetrack.

Currently working for trainer Carla Cristoffersen, Canzoneri recently was reminiscing of days gone by with former jockey Tommy Grech.

“I go back to the early ‘70s when I began hotwalking for the likes of Andy Smithers, Carl Chapman and Hall of Fame trainers Duke Campbell and Roy Johnson, just to name a few,” said Canzoneri.

“The backstretch is my home. The rough and tumble tack-room-living days are a thing of the past, but I still arrive before dawn, work hard, and never shirk a request. It’s my life.”

Canzoneri has the look of a pugilist about him, yet only on a very few occasions has he found the need to revert to his old profession.

“Heck,” said Canzoneri, “not too many people know that I once was a fighter. I’ve never considered it to be a big deal and seldom, if ever, mention it.”

He recalls only the odd moment when a balled-up fist was needed.

“It is certainly not my way of settling things,” said Canzoneri, “but sometimes you are left with no option.”

His coffee partner, Grech, all 95 lbs of him at 4-foot-10, is at age 65, a different matter.

Feisty as ever, the former jockey would love to have the latent talent of his friend. “I won’t take any nonsense”, said Grech, while displaying a fist the size of a small plum.

Grech comes from the same era as his buddy.

“I knew all the trainers he mentioned,” said Grech, who hung up his tack following a serious accident at Cleveland’s Thistledown.

“Joe is certainly right about one thing – horses are what life is all about.”

After his accident, Grech turned to training.

“I was up before 4 a.m.,” said the rider-turned-trainer. “I fed early and wasted no time getting my horses out. I sure miss it.

“Once Thoroughbreds get into your blood it is impossible to forget them. Right now, I am retired with my cat, Tiffany. But, but believe me, I still dream of having one more horse to train.”

For serious boxing fans, the Canzoneri name may ring a bell. Joe is related to Tony Canzoneri, now in boxing’s Hall of Fame. He held several world titles during the late 1920s through mid 1930s and was informally regarded to be the best pound-for-pound fighter to ever enter the ring.

“I am very proud of my boxing family,” said Canzoneri. “My father was also a professional fighter, but my ring time, 15 fights and 15 wins, came as an amateur.”

◗ Krista Carignan, last year’s leading rider at the Fort, has been on a tear of late and now leads the jockey standings with 39 wins.

Carignan enters Sunday’s card four wins ahead of Chris Griffith, who had led the field since the meet began.

◗ Longshot Fiji Boy ($43.10), under a heady ride by Garry Cruise, rallied wide to win the $30,000 Andy Passero Memorial Cup last Tuesday over a sloppy surface.

“We were hoping for rain and we got it,” said trainer Mel Widenmaier.