Charlie LoPresti knows nothing about hockey and when the horse with the long, strange-looking name arrived, the trainer went with what sounded right.
“We just call him Ghost around the barn,” LoPresti said about Gostisbehere, a 3-year-old gelding by Gio Ponti who finished third in his debut last month at Turfway Park. He’s named for Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who gets called “Ghost” about as often as the horse in LoPresti’s Keeneland shedrow even if his last name is pronounced something like Gahst-iss-bear.
Hockey fan and Thoroughbred owner/breeder Steve Wigmore, who lives near Philadelphia in Glen Mills, Pa., named the horse after watching Gostisbehere play at Union College and with the Flyers. Wigmore, who grew up in Boston watching legendary defenseman Bobby Orr and the Bruins of the 1960s and 1970s, thought the name sounded good and also paid tribute to Gostisbehere’s breakout rookie season in 2015-16.
“I watch the Flyers on TV and a buddy and I go to a couple games a year,” said Wigmore. “We’d always end up talking about this kid, Gostisbehere, and what he was doing.”
Gostisbehere scored 17 goals, assisted on 29 more, set an NHL rookie record by gaining points in 15 consecutive games, finished second in the league’s Rookie of the Year voting and was voted Philadelphia’s Pro Athlete of the Year by the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association for 2016 – all after starting the year in the minors.
And when it came time to name his horse, Wigmore went with Gostisbehere. It checked out with The Jockey Club, wasn’t already assigned to another horse and sounded kind of cool – even if it might take awhile to catch on (Turfway announcer Jimmy McNerny pronounced it Ghost-is-be-here). Wigmore figured that if Gostisbehere the horse turned out to be OK, it might be fun. LoPresti liked the debut, in which the dark bay gelding closed from well back early to finish third going 1 1/16 miles on the Polytrack.
“He didn’t run bad,” said the trainer of two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan. “He broke OK, but that stuff (track kickback) starting hitting him in the face and he was climbing and the jock kind of fell back on him a little bit on the first turn and he got a long way out of it. For what he had to overcome, that’s the kind of race I’m looking for first time. Wise Dan didn’t win first time out over there either. I’m looking forward to running him back.”
Back in the Delaware Valley, a 23-year-old NHL defenseman will wait. Gostisbehere knows all about Gostisbehere, and had TVG on for the ninth at Turfway Jan. 28. The hockey player is a racing fan, and his girlfriend Gina Valentine’s father Mark Valentine owns Thoroughbreds.
“My girlfriend’s dad wanted to name a horse Gostisbehere and we looked it up and it was taken, so we were checking up on him,” said Gostisbehere of his namesake. “We watched his first race and everything.”
Mark Valentine, who won the Lady Bird Stakes at Gulfstream Park with Too Clever By Half Jan. 20 and has been an owner since 2003, settled for Ghost Bear on a 3-year-old First Dude gelding who is winless in his first four starts (three at Parx Racing near Philadelphia).
Gostisbehere (the person) got into racing after meeting Gina, and going to Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. – a short drive from the Union campus in Schenectady.
“I’ve been to the Travers the last four or five years now, it was always right before school started,” he said. “We just love it. I have a buddy who lives at Union and he’s a horse fanatic. It’s fun, a little different from hockey.”
Like everyone else, Gostisbehere is impressed by the horses.
“It’s insane, they’re such beautiful creatures and such athletes,” he said. “I got the pleasure to watch American Pharoah (in the 2015 Travers) and have a video on my phone of him doing his walkthrough to the paddock. I know he lost that day, but it was unbelievable to see.”
His namesake probably won’t make the Travers, but don’t count out a trip to Saratoga. LoPresti and Wigmore will take it slowly for now, with another start at Turfway on the table before a potential turf start at Keeneland. Bred in Kentucky, Gostisbehere is out of Wigmore's Rahy mare Ceremonial March (whose first two foals to race are winners).
“I took this horse to a sale, he didn’t meet his reserve (the bidding stopped at $47,000) and I decided I was just going to go forward with him,” said Wigmore. “He’s nicely put together, not real big in terms of big and strong but he’s so perfectly conformed that he’s really balanced. He’s not going to be a sprinter (like Gio Ponti’s son, 2016 sprint champion Drefong). He just doesn’t have the body for that. I hope he can run all day because he’s balanced and should be able to carry the distance. I think he’ll even be better on the turf if we can get him on there.”
He’ll leave the ice to the other Gostisbehere.
Racehorses named after hockey players would fill up a pretty good barn.
A few of note include Nyquist (named for Red Wings forward Gustav), who won the Kentucky Derby last year. Tikkanen (Esa, who won five Stanley Cups with the Oilers and Rangers) won the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1994. Foligno (Mike, who spent 15 seasons in the NHL and is the father of current players Nick and Marcus) won graded stakes for Augustin Stable and Jonathan Sheppard in the 1980s. Esposito (Hall of Famers Phil or Tony depending on who you ask) ran in the Queen’s Plate last year. Sundin (Mats, another hockey Hall of Famer) was a stakes-winning steeplechaser for Augustin and Sheppard in the 2000s. Augustin owner George Strawbridge owned the Sabres for a bit, hence the multiple hockey horses in green and white. Sean Avery (then a Rangers left wing) won Saratoga’s Grade 1 Vanderbilt in 2011.
Then there’s $931,000 earner Toccet (a spelling mistakes meant to honor Rick Tocchet), graded stakes winner Toews On Ice (for the Blackhawks captain Jonathan), $415,000 earner Captain Serious (also named for Toews) and certainly a few more.