05/12/2005 11:00PM

Setbacks fail to deter Bigliardi


There are people who persevere in the roller-coaster world of Thoroughbred racing, and then there is George Bigliardi.

A popular Toronto restaurateur, Bigliardi has slugged it out in the racing business for almost a quarter of a century and has seen more heartbreak than riches.

That is, until May 7 when his first stakes entrant, his homebred gelding Verne's Baby, won the $166,000 Queenston Stakes at Woodbine.

"It was unbelievable," said Bigliardi. "Twenty-five years in the business and I've never won a stakes race. I was so proud."

Unfortunately, Bigliardi's joy was short-lived. Verne's Baby emerged from the race with a chip in a knee that required surgery, costing him a trip to the June 26 Queen's Plate.

Bigliardi's long journey started in 1982 with a Tentam filly named Cafe Viennese, who was up for auction by Windfields Farm.

Joe Thomas, the longtime Windfields manager, told Bigliardi that Cafe Viennese would make an ideal racing and broodmare prospect, but when the bidding zoomed up to $50,000 Bigliardi bowed out.

Fate intervened three years later when Cafe Viennese was entered in an $8,000 claiming race and Bigliardi jumped in. She was immediately retired and Bigliardi chose Fighting Fit for her first mate.

When a late-night call came the following spring that Cafe Viennese was ready to foal, Bigliardi jumped out of bed.

"I was so excited, I remember I drove like a nut to the farm," he recalled.

But what Bigliardi saw when he arrived was a crooked-legged filly who was so badly conformed he was told she should be euthanized. Bigliardi wouldn't hear of it and instead christened her Spared to Win and sent her to Guelph University, where she spent nine months undergoing surgeries and treatment.

Incredibly, under the care of trainer Lou Cavalaris, Spared to Win made it to the races as a 3-year-old, an event that attracted media attention across the city.

"I reserved the whole dining room at Greenwood," Bigliardi said. "I had all my friends and family there. There were even television cameras."

Spared to Win showed a burst of speed from the gate and the crowd roared, but her wobbly legs couldn't continue to keep her in contention and she faded.

Bigliardi retired his medical miracle and sent her to the breeding shed where she produced seven foals, a few winners, but a few more riding horses.

His first breeding experience had cost Bigliardi more than $200,000 - he credits his wife, Carol, for supporting his passion - but he was certain the heart of Spared to Win would someday pass on to one of his homebreds.

When Cafe Viennese foaled stillborn twins in 1993, causing a frustrated Bigliardi to give her away, Spared to Win was foaling a Silver Deputy filly, a result of a free season given to him by Ric Waldman of Brookdale Farms.

Verne's Lady, named for Bigliardi's dying friend, former jockey Verne Martin, entered the world. She too had physical problems, however, and after one race, was sent to the breeding shed.

Three years ago, Verne's Lady produced a Whiskey Wisdom colt that Bigliardi's daughter, Victoria, named Verne's Baby.

Rejected by the Fasig-Tipton sales company for the Woodbine yearling sale, Verne's Baby joined Bigliardi's racing stable.

Bigliardi, who proudly displays his Queenston trophy at his steakhouse, remains upbeat despite the injury to Verne's Baby.

"There are a lot of setbacks and you have to be mentally ready for them," he said. "But Verne's Lady just had a Yonaguska colt in Kentucky that is the most beautiful foal I've ever seen."