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May 27, 2005

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Talk about a blast from the past...

Whom do I run into Thursday morning at Monmouth Park but Juan Serey?

The name Serey may mean nothing to newcomers to the world of thoroughbred

 racing, but it sure does to most of us in the game. Back in the roaring '90s,

Juan Serey was among the biggest names in racing.

Quickly told, the Chilean-born Serey, within the space of a year, went from

 hawking Daily Racing Forms and programs at the New Jersey race tracks to the

 king of New Jersey horse-trainers.

In fact, starting in 1995, Serey won a record five straight training titles at

 Monmouth Park. He also was the top dog at The Meadowlands and at Aqueduct,

and trained some terrific horses, notably the multiple stakes-winner

Say Florida Sandy, the richest New York-bred of all time.

But -- as happens in this game -- Juan Serey went down as fast as he came up.

Confronted with personal, legal and financial issues, and facing unsubstantiated

charges of using illegal drugs on his horses, Serey fell from grace in a heartbeat,

 and sadly wound up mucking stalls at an upstate New York horse farm.

So it came as something of a shock to see Serey, at a young 55, hanging at

Monmouth Park on Thursday morning.

Trying to get his life -- and his career -- back on track, Serey was at Monmouth

 to meet with representatives of the New Jersey Racing Commission.

The reason: to plead for his New Jersey license.

"Juan already been re-licensed by New York and West Virginia," Dennis Drazin,

Serey's attorney, told me, "but New Jersey is where he wants to make his

comeback. This is his home.

"I believe there's a good chance Juan will get his license. He already has the

support of Jim Riccio, John Rotella and Vincent Scuderi, for whom he trained

in the past. And they all want to send him horses again."

As the New Jersey correspondent for Daily Racing Form in the '90s, the Serey

 Barn was usually my first stop in the morning. Indeed, there were times I

respected Juan Serey, and times I suspected him, but there was one constant:

 things were never dull.

Juan Serey was da man for a long time in the Garden State, and it was good to

 see him again.

"Listen, John," he said, "...I did a lot of bad things, things I shouldn't have

done, but I want to get a fresh start. Besides my wife and daughter, horses are

 my life. I want so much to get back. And I want to get back in New Jersey. This

 is my home. My family loves New Jersey.

"I've been away from the racetrack too long. Much too long. It's time to come

 back. This is what I love to do. I hope I get that chance."

Later in the day, I spoke to Casey Exton, the colorful magazine publisher and

 horse-owner who gave Serey his start in racing a decade ago.

"Juan was the best, and he can be the best again," Exton told me. "I hope he

gets the chance. I know the first chance I get, I'll send him some horses."

Speaking of New Jersey, today (Friday) marks the 20th anniversary of

Spend A Buck's victory in the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park.

I drove past Garden State Park the other day, and I couldn't help be saddened

 by what's left of this once magnificent racing venue. Actually, nothing is left.

The facility has been reduced to rubble, and there was a billboard on the corner,

 where the entrance to the clubhouse once stood. The sign listed a phone number

 to call in the event you wanted to rent space in the shopping mall to be built

on the site.

Hard to believe that today is 20 years to the day that a full house of 35,000

screaming fans watched Spend A Buck hold off Creme Fraiche -- who would win

 the Belmont Stakes two weeks later -- in the Jersey Derby.

The victory was worth $2.6 million to owner Dennis Diaz, a real estate developer

 from Tampa, Fla., who had owned only one horse prior. Of that $2.6 million,

 $600,000 was the purse money, and $2 million was a bonus offered by track

 president Robert Brennan (now doing time for stock fraud at Fort Monmouth)

to the connections of a horse who won the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes

 and Jersey Derby (all at Garden State Park)...and the Kentucky Derby.

The fact that Diaz blew off the Preakness -- and a shot at the revered Triple Crown

 -- to shoot for Brennan's big bucks rocked the racing world to its foundation.

One of the sidebars to the Spend A Buck story involved two Hall of Fame riders,

 two of the greatest riders in the history of the sport.

Angel Cordero Jr. had ridden Spend a Buck to victory in the Cherry Hill Mile, the

 Garden State Stakes...and, of course, the Kentucky Derby. But he couldn't ride

 the colt in the Jersey Derby because he had committed to ride Track Barron for

 his polo-playing buddy Peter Brant (the same Peter Brant who's married to

 supermodel Stephanie Seymour) in the Metropolitan Mile the same day at

Belmont Park.

Cordero pleaded with Brennan to move post time for the Jersey Derby up two

 hours so that he could ride Spend a Buck, and still make it back by helicopter

 to Belmont to ride Track Barron in the Met.

But Brennan refused to do so, so owner Diaz reached out to Laffit Pincay Jr. to

ride Spend a Buck. Pincay hated to fly (and still does) but in this case he flew

 cross-country from California to ride Spend A Buck. And Pincay needed all his

strength and talent to get a weary Spend A Buck home by a neck over Creme Fraiche,

 who was in front two jumps past the wire.

Meanwhile, Cordero finished third in the Met on Track Barron, and, moments

 later, watched Spend A Buck on the jocks' room TV nail the the $2.6 million.

Diaz decided to give the entire jockey's share of the $2.6 million (about 20 per

 cent) to Pincay. Believe me, Cordero to this day hasn't forgotten or forgiven.

Two months later, Spend A Buck, with Pincay up, was 7-10 in the Haskell at

Monmouth, but was beaten two lengths by the 35-1 Skip Trial, trained by the late

 Sonny Hine.

Spend A Buck, injured in the Haskell, never raced again, but was voted Horse

of the Year in a very controversial election (more on that in a later column), and

 was retired to stud where he had modest success.

That November, I was one of only two racing writers invited by owner Diaz to a

 black-tie Spend A Buck Retirement Party in Tampa.

Among those not invited was Angel Cordero Jr.

That said, I'm prepared -- on the 20th anniversary of the Jersey Derby -- to

 toast Spend A Buck, who, sadly, passed away in 2002.

Speaking of nostalgia, I'm happy to report that North East Bound, one of the

most accomplished grass horses of our time, is spending a happy retirement

 as the family pet of a south Florida family.

Racing mostly in New Jersey and Florida, North East Bound won $1.3 million

 in purses, and gave owners Julian DeMarco and Richard Disano, and trainer

Bill Perry, the thrill of a lifetime when he finished second, beaten a neck by

War Chant, in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Mile.

Now, at age 9, North East Bound is starting a new life on a horse farm owned

by Jesse (a former jockey) and Cheryl Parsons, and their children, in Sebring, Fla.

"He's doing just great on the farm," says Cheryl. "We put a yearling filly in his

paddock to keep him company, and he's enjoying his new life."

Speaking of Florida, the Mets got off to a good start in their four-game series

 with the Marlins on Thursday night -- an improvement off their three-game

sweep by the Braves in Atlanta.

According to a report in the New York Times, on the first night in Atlanta, Mets'

catcher Mike Piazza sought and received an autograph from Rush Limbaugh,

 and compared the experience to meeting George Washington, Abraham Lincoln

 or The Pope.

From that point on, Piazza went 0-for-9 with six strikeouts, and bounced four

 throws to second and third base.

The Times referred to the events as The Curse of the Limbaugh.

Finally, it will be interesting to see how Chekhov, a $3.3 million yearling, performs

in Saturday's Peter Pan at Belmont. If the colt wins big, no doubt he'll wind up

second choice in the Belmont two weeks hence.



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