Mario Mazza figures he has always been a lucky guy. He hopes his luck is on full display in Saturday's $1 million Hambletonian at Meadowlands Racetrack.
Mazza owns JJ Alex, who will start from post two at morning line odds of 50-1 in the Hambletonian. The colt, trained and driven by Francisco Del Cid, is winless this year and has one victory in 15 career starts. Like everyone else, JJ Alex will be chasing Father Patrick, one of three Jimmy Takter-trained horses in the race. Father Patrick has won 15 straight starts and is the 4-5 morning line favorite despite starting from the unenviable No. 10 post.
Mazza bought JJ Alex privately on Aug. 2, 2013, and exactly one year later, the horse is competing on the sport's biggest stage. Could that be a sign? Probably not, but Mazza thought it was a chance worth taking.
"I ain't going to be here forever; this might be my last shot for the Hambletonian,” he said. "We got the right draw, we got the right driver on him, we got the right trainer. It's a win-win situation."
He added with a laugh, "So I'll see you in the winner's circle.”
Bold talk since JJ Alex has yet to find the winner's circle in 2014. But he has finished in the money five times with two seconds and three thirds. His final tune-up before the Hambo was a third-place finish in a $32,455 division of the Arden Downs Stakes at the Meadows July 26.
"We trained him good before going to The Meadows,” Del Cid said. "We were going to train him and based on that training mile make a decision [on whether to enter the Hambletonian]. We were hoping for a better result in the race, but it unfolded a different way and I got pinned in. But we were satisfied. We came to the conclusion that we were going to enter the horse and give it a try.”
Del Cid, a former exercise rider for high-profile Thoroughbred trainer D. Wayne Lukas, began working in harness racing in the late 1980s.
"I switched to this and I liked it,” said the native Guatemalan, now living in central New Jersey.
"I'm not afraid of the odds,” he added. "I never thought I was going to be in the Hambletonian when I came here. When I switched to this [harness racing] business, that was my goal – to be here one day.”
Del Cid trained his own small table for several years before joining the Trond Smedshammer Stable. In 2008 he went back out on his own and he and Mazza will now look to shock the world. To Mazza, it wouldn't be a mind-blowing shock. As far as he was concerned, when he first laid eyes on the horse it was Hambletonian at first sight.
"As soon as we saw him we wanted to keep him for the Hambletonian,” the owner said. "We raced him a couple times as a 2-year-old and we decided to put him in this big race this year.”
Mazza made his first purchase – Kehms Scooter – in 1991 at a sale at the Meadowlands. Rather than build a stable for a racehorse, he found a racehorse to fill a stable.
"I was building a farm in Upper Freehold and a trainer came by and asked what was going on,” Mazza said. "I told him I was building a horse barn for my kids. He asked if I wanted to get in the racehorse business.
"I said I'd never thought of it, but maybe I would consider it. He told me there was a sale at the Meadowlands and asked if I wanted to come. I told him to pick me up on Saturday and I'd go with him.”
Mazza promptly spent $10,000 or $20,000 – he can't recall – on Kehms Scooter and was on his way. "He won his first race and it got me hooked,” Mazza said. "If it wasn't for that, I might not be here. I try to enjoy it.
"It was about time for me to try the Hambletonian. Maybe I'll get lucky. I've been a lucky guy, a fortunate guy, all my life. Maybe my luck will come through on Saturday.”
In other words, Mazza will stake his luck against all odds.--By Rich Fisher, for The Hambletonian Society