08/18/2004 12:00AM

Undeterred by setbacks


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Three years ago, Carl Lizza decided to step out of the New York-bred arena and purchased several well-bred yearlings at auction with the intent of upgrading his racing stable.

In February 2002, those plans went awry when a barn fire at an Ocala, Fla., farm killed 17 of those horses. Rather than fret, Lizza opted to carry on. This year, despite dealing with a health problem that resulted in the amputation of his left leg, Lizza has decided once again to upgrade his racing stable.

In downsizing his broodmare band from 100 to 62, Lizza has gone for quality over quantity. Lizza shipped 19 of those mares to Kentucky where he bred them to stallions such as Giant's Causeway, Fusaichi Pegasus, E Dubai, Tale of the Cat, and Came Home. Those horses will be foaled in New York and be considered New York-breds.

Lizza, 66, has also been active at auction. Last Sunday, he won a maiden race with the 2-year-old filly Comacina, a $250,000 purchase. Stock Tip, a 2-year-old filly that Lizza purchased for $200,000, was scratched on Aug. 8 when she acted up in the gate and injured her knee. That filly is expected to race by meet's end. Other 2-year-olds Lizza is excited about are Walk the Talk, a half-sister to the Grade 1 winner You, The Main Wife, and Mr. Fourth of July.

In addition to buying horses, Lizza has high hopes for his stallion Western Expression, who comes from the family of Seeking the Gold and King Cugat. Winning Expression, a son of Western Expression, will represent Lizza's Flying Zee Stables in Saturday's Grade 1, $250,000 Hopeful Stakes for 2-year-old colts and geldings.

"We're just trying to elevate our program and add more balance to it,'' said Lizza, who also last Sunday won the West Point Handicap for New York-breds with Golden Commander "We buy some horses at the sales, we breed, and we have Western Expression.''

Lizza has owned horses for about 30 years. In 1981, Lizza campaigned the 3-year-old filly champion Wayward Lass. That same year, Flying Zee also had Noble Nashua, who won five stakes, including the Marlboro Cup and Swaps. Lizza syndicated Noble Nashua for $11 million.

In buying horses at the sales the last 10 years, Lizza has always bought a few with the intent of pin-hooking them, or re-selling them at a profit. He bought Boston Harbor as a yearling, and sold him for a $300,000 profit. That horse won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was named the 1996 juvenile champion.

Two years ago, Lizza bought a son of Tale of the Cat for $100,000. He pin-hooked that colt for $1.4 million after bidding $1.35 million himself. That horse turned out to be Lion Heart, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby, won the Haskell Invitational, and will be one of the favorites in the $1 million Travers on Aug. 28.

Lizza made a lot of money three years ago when he sold his large Long Island-based construction company. He recently bought a shopping center in Charleston, S.C., converted it into an office park, and leased it to Verizon.

Earlier this year, Lizza spent 4 1/2 months in a New Jersey hospital. He had a circulatory problem that required the amputation of his left leg. He has been fitted with a prosthetic leg and walks with the assistance of a cane.

"It wasn't a life-threatening thing,'' Lizza said. "The question was if we could save the leg. If it gets up too high, you have to do it above the knee and then it's a whole different ballgame.''

While in the hospital he and Phil Serpe, one of five trainers Serpe employs, met regularly to discuss their stable plans.

"I admired that more than anything,'' Serpe said. "Instead of saying, 'I've got this health issue, let's deal with this other stuff later,' he dealt with it then, and to me that was probably the greatest thing he did.''

The Serpe-trained Winning Expression will be a longshot in the Hopeful, but is not without chance. He came out of a runner-up finish in the Tremont with a fever and missed 12 days of training leading up to the Grade 2 Sanford. He was beaten 6 1/4 lengths by Afleet Alex in the Sanford, but was only beaten a length for second.