As the racing world's attention turns to the Kentucky Derby trail and the parade of graded stakes winners begins galloping across television and computer screens, few will be biting their nails in anticipation of today's optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park. But trainer Pete Pizzo will head to the Oaklawn paddock with nervous excitement, as he saddles half of his stable for the eighth race.
On paper, his entry—Vision of Liz and her stablemate, Rena Starlight—may not seem like the types to be part of someone's happy ending. Pizzo picked up “Liz” for $3,500 at Faisg-Tipton October, and “Rena” was a private deal after going through the ring with no bid.
Pete, 62, has been a trainer almost his entire life. He met his wife, Liz, early in his training career at the track kitchen at Sportsman's Park in 1975. Liz was a jockey at the time but later switched to exercise riding.
“It was a great experience because we spent so much time together,” he recalled. “Our daughter Madeline grew up on the track and we really did everything together, the three of us. It really prepared me because we had to work our way up and learn a good foundation of horsemanship. We grew up together on the track, actually.”
The couple teamed up to work with horses across the country, including Chicago, Delaware, Louisiana, and New York. They spent several years running a small farm and training center in Texas before moving to North Carolina to get out of the business. Pete spent time as an assistant football coach and high school teacher, but horses called him back, this time to Central Kentucky, where he took a job with Sallee Vans. Pete and Liz were planning to ease back into the business with a new racehorse.
Then, tragedy struck. While crossing the road outside the couple's Paris, Ky. home after retrieving the mail, Liz was struck and killed by a pickup truck.
Pete was devastated and struggled to cope.
“I was in reverse. I didn't know what I was going to do. It was very hard without her,” he said. “People say 'love at first sight', sure … she was the best.”
Ultimately, he turned to the horses that had already taught him so much about learning to move forward.
Pizzo bought Vision of Liz and Rena Starlight a few months after the accident. He named Vision of Liz in honor of his wife. His daughter, Madeline, named Rena Starlight after her mother's middle name.
“Naming them after her was a big help because she's always with me, with them.”
After years at his day job, he took a gamble and quit to train “his girls” full-time.
“I didn't want to put them in anyone else's hands,” he said. “They kept me busy, and keep Liz in my heart and my mind all the time. I think she has a lot to do with them.”
Much to his surprise, “Rena”—who he had purchased primarily as a companion for Vision of Liz—has turned out to be the more successful of the two mares. Rena Starlight has hit the board seven times in 15 starts, with wins at Keeneland and Arlington Park. Liz has three wins in 15 starts at Arlington and Turfway. Each has brought in over $30,000, which is enough for Pete and his “two girls” to live on.
“It's like teaching. They're like kids. You've got to progress their training not only physically, but mentally … they like to feel security, like we all do. That trust has to be there—they have to trust that you're taking them to a positive place,” said Pizzo, who had to draw out the reserved, nervous Rena in her younger days.
It doesn't take long listening to Pizzo talk about the mares to get a sense of how much he cares about them. He takes pride in every detail from their bathwater (warm, with baby oil and tea tree oil to soothe the skin and shine the coat) to their daily routine, which includes copious carrot and sweet potato pieces. He doesn't seem to mind the long hours in the barn, where he shoulders most of the hands-on work himself.
“I try to do what's best for the horse, and make them happy. Good feed, good hay … the biggest thing is to make them happy and healthy and get them to trust in you, and put them in the right race and they'll perform for you.”
Despite his success with these two racehorses, Pizzo says he really made this return to training just for them. Once they retire, he has no plans to continue training.
“This is it, I think. This is my last go-round. I'm getting too old for this,” he said.
The day-to-day routine over the last four years has helped him build a new chapter in his life, one that centers more than ever on his horses.
“I'm too attached. I didn't really want to drop Liz [in class] because she could get claimed. It's a business and you have to run them where they can win. That's the hardest thing. I've got to run them where they can compete, because otherwise it's cruel to them to run them in too high company because they'll try to keep up, and that's how they get hurt. You work with them every day and you do get attached.”
Even though they aren't pointing for the Arlington Million anytime soon, Pizzo says his girls get are still treated like royalty. He says that he always wants to do right by his horses, whether they become stakes winners or finish their careers in the claiming ranks.
Vision of Liz will make her 2013 debut in Oaklawn's eighth race Friday with Rosemary Homeister Jr. aboard.
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