06/01/2008 11:00PM

Trainer profile: Greg Sacco


This past winter was much different than usual for trainer Greg Sacco, who won six races at a very competitive Fair Grounds meet. It was a big change, in many different ways, from spending the winter saddling horses at Philadelphia Park, which Sacco has done in recent years, and at Gulfstream Park, which was his home from January through March for most of the 1990s.

"In years past, with our operation, we'd have 20-25 horses and winter in Florida with an eye on Monmouth in the summer," he said. "Now, we have 25-40 horses, and things have changed."

Sacco's winters are no longer a time to recharge the batteries. Now, he expects the stable to function more as a year-round operation.

"Historically, we didn't have a lot of success at Gulfstream because of two things: One, we didn't have the horses to compete at that meet when it was at a different level, and, two, the horses were beat up from running all year at Monmouth and the Meadowlands," he said. "The philosophy used to be 'Let's take it easy at Gulfstream, and be ready for Monmouth.' "

This year, the barn was indeed ready for Monmouth, with Sacco winning five races over the first three weekends of racing. And that may be just the beginning, as those horses could well be "live" next time out: Over the last five years, Sacco has won at an 18 percent clip with horses who won their most recent starts, and that figure jumps up to 25 percent when considering races over only the past 18 months.

"I believe in running them where they fit, maybe even 20 percent below where they fit," said Sacco, in attempting to explain his success with repeat winners.

Sacco, 42, doesn't have good numbers with first-time starters (0-for 27 since the start of last year, 4 for 72 since 2003) or with runners off a long layoff (0 for 20 going back to last January, 4 for 42 over the past five years), and those statistics don't bother the longtime trainer a bit. In fact, they're practically by design.

"I don't crank them up to try to win out of the box, with firsters or off a long layoff," he said, crediting his owners, such as long-time client John Brunetti (Red Oak Farm), owner of Hialeah Park, with having the patience to make that philosophy work.

"I think there's too much emphasis put on that. I don't believe in trying too hard, too soon."

That theory doesn't produce a lot of success with young horses making their career debuts or with older horses returning from a freshening, but it has worked well when it comes to developing stakes runners. Sacco, a third-generation horseman (his father was leading trainer at Monmouth Park in 1962) has excellent numbers in that category, winning at a 24 percent clip in all stakes races since last year, and to a trainer who prides himself on being "old school," that's much more important than early results. He believes in giving his horses whatever time they need.

"I'll run them through their allowance conditions before I even think about a stakes race," said Sacco, who has won six stakes races over the past two years. "To me, a horse has to earn his way there. There's a natural progression. I have to cross all the T's and dot all the I's before I put a horse in a stake. A very small percentage of trainers win stakes races, and that makes it prestigious, a feather in your cap. I'm not going to be there unless the horse deserves it."

Adding blinkers isn't a big angle for the barn, as Sacco wins at just 5 percent with such runners. In fact, his percentage is much better with blinkers off (21 percent). Those stats are no surprise to him, and the reason is simple: He doesn't really believe in using blinkers to move a horse up.

"Most of my horses don't race with blinkers," he said. "I think people put too much stock in that, and too much stock in speed. You're not going to get more speed than the horse has by putting blinkers on."

Sacco's quick start at the 2008 Monmouth meet has also coincided with jockey Herb McCauley's successful return to full-time riding at Monmouth following a long absence from the saddle. Sacco and McCauley have combined to win three times in nine tries in Oceanport this year, including the Red Cross Stakes here on Opening Day, with Casino Transaction. After the race, Sacco exclaimed, "I'm not sure who I was happier for, Herbie or me!

"People have been asking me how long I've known Herbie, and I tell them the truth: So long that my brother took him to his fifth grade "Show and Tell" class back in 1977," he said. "He was away for a long time but he's still a very talented rider. He's amazing. Physically, he's all the way there."