Second Gold Strike Extends Final Furlong

Venti Valentine romps in the BusherSarah Andrew


Evidently she's no Busher, to look at. Between 2011 and 2018, in fact, she changed hands four times as a pregnant mare at Keeneland, her value gradually declining until the late Mike Recio was able to purchase her for just $13,000.

The previous evening, Recio had called Dan Zanatta, founding/managing partner of Final Furlong Racing with Vince Roth, and announced: “Tomorrow morning, I'm buying you a broodmare.”

Zanatta was not enthused. Final Furlong was evolving nicely, syndicating New York-bred fillies. Though they did have one broodmare, apart from pinhooking weanlings, the focus was primarily on racing in the Empire State program.

“No! Whatever you do, please don't buy us another mare!”

“Don't worry about it,” Recio replied. “She'll only cost about 10 grand, you're going to love her, it's a no-brainer.”

Then the agent revealed her identity.

“Oh!” Zanatta said. “Right. Okay. Yeah, tomorrow you're going to buy us a mare!”

And that was because, deep in the November Sale, Recio had found the dam of a filly who was then shaping up as Final Furlong's most promising talent yet. The edge they had was a certainty that Espresso Shot (Mission Impazible) would contribute more to the page of Glory Gold (Medaglia d'Oro) than was apparent, shortly before the auction, when she finished last in the GII JPMorgan Chase Jessamine S. at Keeneland.

“That race was a mistake,” Zanatta says. “We had Espresso Shot pegged as a two-turn, turf horse–and we had read her all wrong. Based on her early breezes, she'd run first time out in a turf sprint and was actually entered in a turf route for her second start at Belmont. It was only when that got rained off, and she won so impressively, that we started thinking maybe she was a dirt horse after all.

“So after the Jessamine, now that she had changed our minds for us, we were looking to put her back into some New York-bred stake races. We thought she'd be pretty competitive, and that if she was going to earn black type, then her dam was a no-brainer as a Medaglia d'Oro mare at that kind of money.”

The upshot, three and a half years on, is that Final Furlong have meanwhile fielded two winners of the Busher Invitational S., both out of the same mare, while having bred one of them.

Espresso Shot herself quickly vindicated the team's judgement, the Busher only one of four stakes type wins in the course of a $516,625 career that prompted the Spendthrift team to give $300,000 for her at Fasig-Tipton last November. Even in her own right, then, she secured impressive dividends on the $69,000 she had cost as a yearling in the New York catalog at Saratoga.

But that has turned out to be not even half the story. When Recio turned up Glory Gold, she was being offered in foal to the young Crestwood sire Firing Line. If anything, Zanatta considered that a bonus.

“I felt Firing Line was a little underappreciated,” he says. “After all, he was second to American Pharoah in the Derby. And it also really hit a chord with me that the mare had been purchased by several groups before us, to support their own stallions. That made me think the mare would hit one day.”

But while Final Furlong generally only breeds to sell, the Firing Line filly delivered by Glory Gold on Valentine's Day would have to be offered in the volatile yearling market looming in the middle of a pandemic. And since she was shaping up so nicely, it was decided to keep her for the racing division.

As a result, Final Furlong could consecutively involve two bands of brothers in the project. The mare herself had been shared with Maspeth Stable, duly listed as co-breeder of the filly then syndicated between Final Furlong and Parkland Thoroughbreds.

“I live in Garden City, 10 minutes from Belmont, and Maspeth Stable is a group of fellows from the same neighborhood,” Zanatta explains. “They're pretty much all retired now, but they all grew up within a few blocks of each other in Queens, and stayed close their whole lives. They're golfing buddies with a small private stable, and they'll take a leg nearly every time we buy a yearling to race. They partnered with us on Espresso Shot, so when I called about the mare, they jumped at that opportunity too.”

As for Parkland Thoroughbreds, the closeness of the relationship can be judged from the fact that Zanatta is engaged to Tracy Weston, whose father Steve is a principal of the stable.

Glory Gold's Firing Line filly, meanwhile named Venti Valentine, received the usual education with Brandon and Ali Rice in Ocala before joining Jorge Abreu at the track.

“And everyone, from the grooms to the riders, to the trainers on the farm, all the way to Jorge, has said from day one that Venti Valentine was night-and-day better than Espresso Shot,” Zanatta discloses. “So we always thought we had something special. And whereas with Espresso Shot we were kind of learning on the fly, I feel we've been able to be a lot smarter this time. We've had another three or four years watching those stakes races cycle through, year in, year out, and we've planned out her career really very diligently–even from before she'd raced. We knew what we had, and we knew what the hope was.”

Her first big objective was duly identified as the Maid of the Mist S.

“Even if she was still a maiden, even if she was still unraced, the goal was to be in that race at Belmont in October,” Zanatta says. “So we were waiting for a race to come up that made sense, with that in mind. We ended up getting stuck with a six-furlong sprint, but luckily she was good enough to win by a nose despite getting left at the gate and a really wide trip. That made us really excited.”

They had already decided that Venti Valentine was not just classier than Espresso Shot but also more rugged, and that a second turn would be within her compass. After she ran Nest (Curlin) to a neck in the GII Demoiselle S., they gave her a winter in Florida before trying to scale a three-rung ladder via the Busher and the GII Gazelle S. to the GI Kentucky Oaks itself.

That agenda went from pencil to ink at Aqueduct last weekend, following a spectacular seven-length rout that leaves Venti Valentine with 54 Oaks points in the bank already.

Whatever happens from here, she has already conferred an unusual distinction on her dam, as her second daughter to win the same stakes. Even before that, her updates had helped Glory Gold's weanling filly by Omaha Beach achieve $220,000 at the Keeneland November Sale from Sewanne Investments.

Being empty this year, meanwhile, Glory Gold has had an early cover by Munnings–for which purpose she is currently with Mike Heitzmann and his team at Stone Bridge Farm, though her customary base is Dr. Scott Ahlschwede's River Valley Stock Farm near Saratoga. (Albeit the foaling of Venti Valentine herself is a credit to Chad DeGregory's Schuylerville Thoroughbreds.)

Zanatta does not pretend that the mare's genetic prowess is blatantly obvious in her physique.

“To be honest, she's quite a plain mare,” he admits. “She does have some size, but if you wanted to be critical you might say she's a little upright, in the shoulder; she may not have the strongest top line in the world; she may not have a ton of leg. But I'd say she puts a lot more leg onto her foals than she has herself, a lot more shoulder, and a lot more length. She's definitely moving up her foals.”
In that belief, Final Furlong had already doubled down on the family by the private purchase of one of Glory Gold's earlier daughters, the 8-year-old, four-time winner Goldtown (Speightstown).

And while Medaglia d'Oro plainly requires no introduction, actually this family has some cosmopolitan flavors deeper down. Glory Gold's mother is by Lord Gayle, whose sire Sir Gaylord gave us so many good broodmare sires: Sir Ivor, Habitat, Drone. She was bred by Edward P. Evans from an Argentinian Classic runner-up, extending a line that traces to Epsom Oaks winner Brulette (Fr) (Bruleur {Fr}). That pre-war matriarch unites the pedigrees of such European luminaries as All Along (Fr) (Targowice), Vaguely Noble (Ire) (Vienna {GB}) and Diminuendo (Diesis {GB}). A more proximate credit, moreover, is Glory Gold's half-brother Mocha Express (Java Gold), a 16-time winner who broke the Louisiana Downs track record in a graded stakes over nine furlongs.

If there has been an element of serendipity to Venti Valentine, her emergence is perfectly consistent with Final Furlong's dynamic progress. Zanatta, still only 35, was a college intern at Merrill Lynch when he met Roth, who introduced him to the fractional share action he was enjoying through the likes of Sovereign Stable and Dream Team Stable. After Zanatta graduated, they created Final Furlong.

“I'd say we've been doing it in earnest for around five or six years,” Zanatta explains. “Our niche in the market is pretty focused. We buy New York fillies. We think the economics make sense, for us and our partners: we can afford some of the best fillies in that division every year. And for four straight years now we've had a New York-bred 2-year-old get black type. We also had horses nominated for New York-bred divisional honors in each of those years. Typically we have eight to 12 horses at the track, so I think that's a real testament to the model.”

With horses syndicated in the $75,000-$150,000 range, and partners generally staking 3-5%, Venti Valentine is another horse offering to evangelize a sport historically perceived as a preserve of the wealthy.

“I would say we cover the whole gamut,” Zanatta says. “We have people who are able to afford $10,000 or $15,000 every year, investing in each crop. But we also have people with a budget of $3,000 every other year. And very often it's the ones at the nearest entry point that are most passionate.”

Return business is so strong that access instead tends to be limited by demand. With Venti Valentine herself, for instance, all bar one of the Espresso Shot partners went straight back in. Needless to say, calls are now coming in about buying into their adventure, and some calculations will doubtless have to be made before the Gazelle. In bringing so many people together already, however, this filly is first and foremost an apt memorial to her dam's purchaser, whose loss last September at just 46 devastated so many in the community.

“Mike treated his clients like friends and family,” Zanatta says. “He was a big part of our whole operation, in every aspect: mares, yearlings, pinhooks. But more than anything, as everyone knows, Mike loved to party. So we became good friends not just with Mike, but with all his staff, with his whole family. So it was a huge loss to this giant circle of people he built around himself. We miss his daily calls, and we miss his friendship.”

But Zanatta stresses how the same standards of excellence are maintained across the Final Furlong team, from the Rices in Ocala to the trainer for whom Venti Valentine could become his breakout horse.

“I think we gave Jorge the fourth horse he ever had,” Zanatta recalls. “We had a filly coming off a layoff and, as we normally race in New York, we were interviewing trainers to take her at Gulfstream for the winter. Most of them, we hung up and I never heard from them again. But Jorge was so hungry that he called me every single week, after our initial conversation–inquiring about the filly, sharing his opinion on all the videos he'd looked up, calling Brandon and Ali about how she was coming along. That's how interested he was, and that's how he got our business. So we've been involved together from the ground up, and it's been wildly successful.”

Sure enough, Final Furlong enjoyed its best year yet in 2021, with 10 wins at 29% and an average of $17,000 per start. Zanatta's first commitment remains as a senior vice-president at T.D. Bank, but it's heartening that someone with that background considers the New York Thoroughbred a viable investment vehicle–even before the advent of a filly that could send the operation to the next level.

“It's been a long story in the making, from the day Mike rang about this mare,” Zanatta says. “But so far all the planning has come out quite nicely, and she's definitely exceeding our expectations. Remember that after Espresso Shot, we're talking about a group of friends that have been going to the races together and rooting for their horses for four or five years now. And then going out to celebrate every win, all the time becoming more comfortable about bringing friends and family to the racetrack. There's a lot of people having a lot of fun.”

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