Editor's Note: With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Paulick Report asked our readers for stories of the hope and resilience that run through the Thoroughbred industry, demonstrating that we are all part of one community. The following was submitted by Michael Serio, a Baltimore school teacher whose family has been engaged in the Thoroughbred industry for many decades.
My family goes back in horse racing to the 1930s. My great uncle, Joe Serio Jr., was a jockey in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern circuits before becoming a trainer for the Ella K. Bryson Stable, who were significant owners. Her husband owned the Bel Air track in Maryland and I believe they won the Black-Eyed Susan with another trainer. Joe won the Maryland Derby and other major stakes in the 1950s and '60s.
Joe's brother, Andrew Serio, my grandfather, owned horses in the 1960s, including several stakes winners. When Joe Serio died suddenly in the early 1970s, Andrew Serio took out his own training license, having been taught by his brother and became a pretty successful claiming trainer for nearly 20 years. His most successful horse was McKeever an allowance horse who lost his only stakes start in Timonium when a horse pushed him seven wide on the first turn!
My father, Big Jim – who owned horses with my grandfather and grew up on stories from the racetrack from my Uncle Joe – loved the sport. Not just from a gambling aspect, but for the beauty of it. He would wake up and watch the replays on TVG … his favorite thing, not even handicapping but watching them run. My brother, myself and my cousin – much like Big Jim – grew up going to the racetrack. I didn't take to it until I was almost 27, but like my father I got hooked.
While my cousin and other family members liked to gamble, my father and I loved the sport. For example, one of our favorite things was talking bloodlines of recent stakes winners. He loved the Fappiano line so much. I remember having a long discussion about Point of Entry going to stud because he is one of the last remaining descendants of Ribot, who I think was the best race horse of the 20th century. I am a teacher in Baltimore and for two summers I volunteered for Bill Mott in Saratoga, working as a hot walker. So I really fell into it.
One summer morning in 2018, my father called me to tell me about a horse he saw win the Pennine Ridge Stakes at Belmont, saying he did something that you hardly ever see. He was on the front end turning for home, got passed in the stretch, then re-rallied and won. I didn't think much of it and I remembered the horse had been in the Breeders' Cup the previous year, finishing fourth in the Juvenile Turf.
Several weeks go by and Big Jim calls me again. “It's unbelievable,” he said. “I saw the same horse do the same thing again! He gave up the lead and the horse re-rallied and won.” This was in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational. We talked about how rare it was, and how some horses have a heart to win and a will to win that you cannot measure in a Beyer Speed Figure.
During this time, I was not aware that my father was having a hard time eating. It was the strangest thing; if he ate he would get the hiccups. He didn't mention it to anyone but his wife.
As summer drew to a close, we were looking at the field for the G1 Travers. Good Magic, Gronkowski and Tenfold were a tough group. There was also Mendelssohn – the horse I liked because of the breeding and his trainer, Aidan O'Brien.
Catholic Boy was a long shot at 8-1. This would be no simple feat going from turf to dirt at a mile and a quarter. Clearly, you know who my father was on for the race. He was so excited about Catholic Boy's four-length upset victory and was convinced he was going to be a force in the G1 Breeders' Cup Classic.
That weekend, Big Jim called me and said, “I think I am dying.”
He has been saying this for 20 years, that he was Big Jim and swore he would be taken by a heart attack at any moment. A little like comedian Redd Foxx would say on the old “Sanford and Son” television show.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. He brought up the hiccups and said it was getting harder to eat, that he had lost about 30 pounds over the summer. My father had not been to a real doctor in possibly 30 years and didn't have a primary care physician. My wife works at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and we immediately got him in to see a doctor there to check him out. He ordered a CT scan for the following week.
When they scanned him, they immediately saw a mass where the esophagus meets the stomach. A doctor at Hopkins got him in to see a specialist within the week; a biopsy showed that was cancer. He was given about a 50% chance for a year and would start chemotherapy the first week in November to December.
Anyone who has spent time with a cancer patient can tell you that the struggle isn't just physical, but mental as well. It's a hard pill to swallow and my wife –who sees cancer patients daily – says that some lose the fight to live.
While all this is happening, Big Jim is still talking about Catholic Boy. I thought to myself, what if I could get him something to remind him to fight?
For years, my brother and I would buy my father a Breeders' Cup cap from the winner of the classic. Recently they stopped, but I knew that every horse's trainer and connections got one. If he was going to lose his hair, maybe I could get him a hat to wear. I had no idea where to start as Catholic Boy's trainer, Jonathan Thomas, didn't have a website or contact information. So I threw a Hail Mary to a racing writer I follow on Twitter, Ray Paulick.
The morning after emailing him, he emailed me back: “I don't have contact info for Jonathan Thomas, but I do have contact info for one of the owners, and I forwarded your message.”
Within hours I got a text message from Siena Farm's Anthony Manganaro, one of the owners of Catholic Boy. He overnighted the cap ahead of the Breeders' Cup and the start of chemo for my father. He wore the hat to his first chemotherapy at Hopkins and that weekend to a Breeders' Cup party at my brother's house. I will never forget giving him the package, which included a handwritten note from the owner of Siena Farm.
My father grew up in the 1940s and '50s and was a “tough guy.” I have only seen him cry twice in his life, once on 9/11 and the other when he read this letter. He was astonished that anyone would care about a guy in Baltimore who loved horse racing and had cancer.
I think this is what is special. If this were any other sport this would not have happened. Horse racing is special because it is the people's sport. Anyone can get involved in any/every aspect. It's almost like a family; those who did not know my father made an impact and made him feel special in his darkest moment.
That weekend, Catholic Boy stumbled and broke terribly, never recovering and finishing off the board. Big Jim was disappointed but began talking about his campaign for the next season while going to chemo with his cap.
A few weeks later on Thanksgiving, my dad was having some headaches, so they scanned him again. This time they found a brain tumor; the prognosis was less then 30 days. The next day my brother and I took him one last time, as best we could, to Delaware Park, where he bet some sports, horses and played slots. It was the last time he left his house, as he passed away five days later on December 10, 2018.
The following spring came and I got a ding from my Equibase Virtual Stable that Catholic Boy would begin his 2019 campaign on Preakness day in Baltimore in the G2 Dixie. My brother took me to the Turfside Terrace at Pimlico, where we could see the horses run right by us. We were so nervous, even though Catholic Boy was the most accomplished runner; it was a deep field, and he was coming off a long layoff. When Catholic Boy passed us in the stretch and went on a a half-length victory (defeating Admission Office, a son of the stallion Point of Entry that I like so much), we were screaming so loud, I was hoarse afterwards. I have never cried after a horse race, but that did it.
It was like Big Jim was with us bringing him home on a track he and his family grew up on.
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