Gregory Sacco, 52, remembers running around a shed row at Monmouth Park when he was small enough to go right under the racehorses' webbings. Alongside his brother, who is 15 months younger, Sacco started hotwalking at just 8 years of age.
His father William Sacco trained New Jersey-bred Thoroughbreds throughout his career, making the circuit between Monmouth, Atlantic City and Garden State his home. The elder Sacco amassed a number of stakes winners, saddling more New Jersey breeders' futurity winners than any other trainer at the time, and even netted the leading trainer title at Monmouth in 1962.
Bill Sacco passed in 2009 at the age of 87, but he would be extraordinarily proud of his son's latest training accomplishment: Greg Sacco saddled Mind Control to be the family's first Grade 1 winner in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga.
“It was just a great feeling, personally, but also for the whole family,” said Sacco. “It's hard to put into words, because a lot of people never get the opportunity to train a horse like this… Winning a Grade I [at Saratoga] is almost beyond your wildest dreams.”
Mind Control is a 2-year-old son of Stay Thirsty out of the stakes-winning mare Feel That Fire (also trained by Sacco). The colt races as a homebred for John Brunetti's Red Oak Stable for whom Bill Sacco had trained for more than 25 years. Brunetti passed away in March of this year, and the family's racing tradition is carried on by his sons John and Steve.
“Mr. Brunetti was like a second father to my brother and I,” Sacco said. “It's real special. I'm the son of a trainer. My dad never had the opportunity to train these types of horses. It's very meaningful. It's a great feeling. I have my whole family here and I can't be any happier.”
That family connection goes continues as Sacco's younger brother Rick is now the racing manager for Red Oak. Additionally, the (divorced) Sacco matriarch is still actively involved in her sons' passion for Thoroughbred racing.
“She's actually my biggest critic,” Sacco laughed. “We talk almost every day, and she makes sure she knows when my horses are running so she won't miss any of their races… When I told her we were going to run Mind Control in the Hopeful, she said, 'Well, if you're gonna skip the Sapling, he must be really good.”
The Sapling Stakes is Monmouth's premier juvenile race of the season, also run in early September. The Sacco brothers' confidence was bolstered by the fact that the colt Call Paul, who beat Mind Control in his first career start, came back to win the Saratoga Special. Earlier that same afternoon, Mind Control broke his maiden by three lengths at Delaware Park, completing six furlongs in 1:09.79.
“He was just very smart when he came in to the track,” Sacco said of Mind Control. “Once you show him something once, he's okay with hit. After a few works, my exercise rider of 15 years told me he thought the horse was going to be special. He just does everything easy, and nothing really rattles him.”
In the Hopeful, Mind Control had to endure pace pressure all the way through the far turn and was still able to fend off the stretch challenge from the highly-touted Mucho (Bill Mott) to win by three parts of a length. His final time for seven furlongs was 1:22.99.
John Velazquez had the call aboard Mind Control in the Hopeful, in part because his agent Angel Cordero used to ride for Sacco's father.
“We were lucky to get Johnny,” said Sacco. “A rider like that, you don't really have to give him any instructions for the race. I just told him the horse had some gears and to have a good ride.”
If all goes well in the coming weeks, Mind Control is expected to go on to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile during the first weekend of November at Churchill Downs.
“I don't think the distance will give him limitations,” Sacco said. “The way he's trained and galloped out last race, he's just a genuine horse. He has a ton of ability the main thing is that he's so smart. He acts like an older horse and does everything right. For a young horse, it's a big plus.”
As much as he is relishing the opportunity to train a colt like Mind Control, Sacco has consistently made the decision throughout his career to put his family first. Rather than staying in New Jersey year-round, Sacco could have kept up with owners' requests to travel to the Florida circuit. Instead, he chose to stay at home with his wife and two kids, now 17 and 15 years old.
“I probably lost some depth by not wintering in Florida, but I didn't want to miss all of the experiences with my kids,” Sacco explained. “I don't have any regrets. My son plays football and I get to go to his games, and I'm there for my daughter as well. I wouldn't change a thing.”
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