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Saratoga: Flying Zee carries on after Lizza's death
On the afternoon of July 1, Carl Lizza sat in the virtually empty Belmont room on the second floor at Belmont Park, where he watched his 2-year-old colt, The Prize Fighter, finish a credible second in a New York-bred maiden race.
Lizza talked about the pedigree of the horse – he is by Pure Prize out of the mare Miss Winning Sweep, who won first time out before bucking her shins and had produced four winners.
“Soundness has always been a little bit of a problem; other than that, she gets fast horses, very good horses,” Lizza said. “This horse will be okay.”
The enthusiasm with which Lizza spoke about The Prize Fighter, several others in his 2-year-old crop of 2011, and the prospect of winning owners’ titles at Belmont Park and Saratoga was indicative of the passion he had for the game of Thoroughbred racing. Lizza was very much looking forward to Friday’s opening of the Saratoga meet, a meet at which he won the owner’s title in 2005. He thought he had a chance to contend for the title again this year.
“I think everybody likes to have a good meet at Saratoga,” Lizza said in that July 1 interview. “I think this year we’re going into it probably the best from a 2-year-old point of view. We have eight or 10 really nice 2-year-olds that we’re going to run up there, so that looks very good and then we have the older horses.”
Unfortunately, Lizza won’t get the opportunity to witness the progress of the 2-year-olds or get his picture taken in the famed Saratoga winner’s circle with any of his older horses. On July 8, Lizza died in his sleep at his home in Rockaway, N.J. He was 73 and had battled diabetes for more than 30 years. A few days before his death, he had undergone hernia surgery.
Lizza’s death will have a profound impact on many people and the sport of Thoroughbred racing in New York. Lizza’s Flying Zee Stable had more starters (237) than any owner on the New York Racing Association circuit in 2010 and through Sunday was the leading owner in terms of wins (34) and starters (151) this year. Flying Zee, which was the leading owner with 16 wins at the recently concluded Belmont Park spring/summer meet, was the leading owner in terms of wins and starters in New York in 2004 and 2005.
“The bottom line is Carl Lizza was an icon in New York racing and the New York breeding program,” said Phil Serpe, one of nine trainers that the stable employs. “He had an undying love of this sport, and the greatest thing he provided was opportunity for people.”
Flying Zee will continue to race under the direction of Lizza’s wife, Viane, who was married to Carl for five years but who had been with him for 24 years.
“We’re still going to keep the stable going,” Viane said recently. “We’ll consolidate it a little bit, but we’ll still race under Flying Zee.”
According to Serpe, Flying Zee has approximately 285 horses, which includes foals born this year. The broodmare band, which at one time numbered more than 100, has been pared to 64, still a bit on the high side.
“To tell you the truth, I was always reducing Carl’s [stable] and then he would go out and buy more horses,” Serpe, 52, said. “The number was always 40 [mares], and we never got close.”
Lizza’s death came seven years after he had his left leg amputated due to the diabetes. During the time he spent in the hospital in late 2004, Lizza summoned Serpe to discuss the future of his stable. Serpe figured Lizza was planning to disperse.
Instead, Lizza told Serpe he wanted to improve his breeding program. That involved weeding out some of the lesser producing mares as well as sending the better ones to Kentucky-based stallions. However, those mares would return to New York to foal as Lizza was a big proponent of the New York-bred program.
“Instead of ‘I’m going to get rid of my horses’ he goes ‘I want to have better horses,’ ” Serpe said.
Lizza’s goal was to get another horse along the lines of Noble Nashua or Wayward Lass. In 1981, Noble Nashua won the Swaps, Marlboro Cup, Dwyer, and Jerome. That same year, Wayward Lass won the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks and was voted champion 3-year-old filly.
“Back in those days, I was buying horses,” Carl Lizza said in that July 1 interview. “Then we got into the breeding program because the Japanese came in and other people came in and the prices to buy went way up. I figure I’d better start breeding them. It’s much harder to get a good breeding program together because you need the mares.”
Lizza also needed a farm. So in 1987, he and business partner Joseph Bartone purchased High Cliff Farm, an 800-acre property in upstate New York that boards his mares and a handful of stallions.
Thunder Achiever was one of the better mares Lizza owned. She won 7 of 27 starts, including the Grade 2 First Flight. Her sixth foal is a 3-year-old named Street Game, who is by the Kentucky-based stallion Street Cry. Street Game won the Grade 3 Hill Prince at Belmont in June, before running fifth in the $600,000 Virginia Derby last Saturday at Colonial Downs. He could make his next start in either the Hall of Fame Stakes on Aug. 12 or the Grade 3 Saranac on Sept. 3.
While Street Game is currently the best horse in the stable, there are a plethora of 2-year-olds that Flying Zee hopes to unveil at this meeting. On Friday’s opening-day card, Serpe will send out the 2-year-old New York-bred filly Pure Gossip, by Pure Prize and a half-sister to Lady Vi, who finished second in her debut last summer at Saratoga before winning the Lady Finger Stakes at Finger Lakes as a maiden.
On Saturday, Serpe will send out Cybertron, a New York-bred son of Whywhywhy whom Serpe thinks can run.
Trainer Carlos Martin, whose father Jose trained for Flying Zee for decades before his death, has several promising 2-year-olds for Lizza, including an unnamed Giant’s Causeway colt out of the Grade 1-winning mare Salty You, whom Lizza purchased for $150,000 at last September’s Keeneland sale. Spring Breeze, a 2-year-old Florida-bred daughter by Congrats who brought $72,000 at Saratoga last summer, is one that Martin is quite high on. Rough Draft and Stock Fund are New York-bred 2-year-old fillies that Martin hopes to run at this meet.
Martin, 42, said Lizza used to come by his Saratoga barn every morning about 6 a.m. with coffee and donuts or bagels and used to tell stories until training hours ended at 10. He said Lizza was as much an influence on him as his father Jose.
“I learned a lot of valuable lessons from both of them as far as being dedicated and trying to stay focused on what you’re trying to accomplish and to treat people well,” Martin said. “They were both tough in some respects, but they were always there for their friends and their employees, and I think that makes a big difference.”
Both Martin and Serpe described Lizza as a generous man. One example of Lizza’s generosity pertains to Chico Dumois, who has shined shoes at NYRA tracks for 23 years. When Dumois needed financial assistance to move up to Saratoga, Lizza was there. Lizza also bought Dumois a car.
“He was the best man in the world, he helped everybody,” Dumois said. “He’s been there for me every year. I still love him.”