For Zilla, agony to ecstasy in 30 minutes

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Rockets Red Glare in the paddock at Saratoga this summer. Janet Garaguso Photo.

By Paul Halloran

Steve Forst waited a half-century to experience the euphoria of being in a winner’s circle photo as an owner. If only he could erase the preceding half-hour.

Forst was at Aqueduct Sept. 29 – his first time back at the track since before the pandemic – as a partner in the three Zilla Racing Stables horses running that day, including Jackson Heights in the third race, the Bertram F. Bongard Stakes for New York-bred 2-year-olds. An 0-for-3 maiden entering the race, Jackson Heights was, not surprisingly, a 24-1 longshot in the field of five for Zilla, Black Jack Racing and Acqua Nova Stable.

As the 7-furlong stakes unfolded, the son out of Union Jackson looked like he would run to his odds.

“He was dead last by a big margin (6 1/2 lengths),” Forst said. “I figured he’d finish like that.”

Then, a funny thing happened. Jockey Javier Castellano asked and Jackson Heights answered, picking off rivals one by one and moving into second at the stretch call. The dark bay colt wasn’t about to stop there and the Orlando Noda trainee thundered by 4-5 favorite Arctic Arrogance and won by a comfortable 2 lengths, setting off a raucous celebration.

“To see him make that big move and run down the favorite in the stretch was absolutely a thrill,” said Forst, who owns shares in about 10 Zilla horses. “I was beside myself with joy, celebrating with the other partners.”

That celebration and the ensuing unbridled joy occurred at about 2:05 p.m. – only a half-hour after Forst and other Zilla partners had experienced unimaginable sorrow.

Zilla principal Mike Piazza thought Rocket’s Red Glare was the stable’s most talented horse, and certainly the one with the highest upside, entering Thursday’s second race, an open maiden special weight for 3-year-olds and up. The betting public agreed, betting the Tapiture colt down to 3-5 favoritism.

The race was uneventful, with Rocket’s Red Glare chasing stablemate Java Buzz all the way around the track, but never seriously threatening and settling for second. It was the third time the Linda Rice trainees had run together.

Piazza was on the treadmill at home in Guilderland, New York, watching on television and saw “Rocket” take what he called a “weird step” after the finish. Then he noticed Irad Ortiz Jr. quickly pulling him up and Flavien Prat aboard Java Buzz turning and looking back. As the horses continued to gallop out, one was missing from the screen. Piazza knew something was wrong. The phone rang.

“John (Bianco, of Acqua Nova Racing, part owner of the horse, with Black Jack and Zilla) called and already I knew it was something bad, but I had no idea it was going to be that bad,” Piazza said.

This is how the official Equibase chart describes Rocket’s Red Glare’s final minutes: “ … ran on to chase the winner home while clear of the rest for the place honors, then took a bad step on the gallop out and suffered a catastrophic injury to his right front leg, the rider expertly pulling up his charge within steps of the incident, but euthanasia was required on the track.”

Just like that. One minute, a young horse with nothing but promise and potential; the next, needing to be mercifully euthanized due to an injury from which there could be no recovery.

“It’s so tough,” said Piazza, who started Zilla Racing 10 years ago. “He was a talented horse, but that doesn’t even matter. The fact that he was a living animal that had to be put down is so sad.”

Typically, Piazza would be all geared up at the thought of running a horse in a stakes race, but with the Bertram Bongard going off 30 minutes after Rocket’s Red Glare died, there was no excitement, only grief and bewilderment.

“They were saddling Jackson in the paddock and I was still trying to learn about what happened with Rocket,” Piazza said. “There wasn’t one moment that we were excited to be in a stakes race until they were in the gate.”

Jackson Heights wins the Bertram F. Bongard 30 minutes after his co-owners endured tragic loss of another promising runner. Chelsea Durand/NYRA Photo.

A stakes win could not ease the pain of the ultimate loss.

“After we won, I was still thinking back to Rocket,” said Piazza, who bought the chestnut colt for $120,000 at the 2021 OBS Spring 2-year-old sale. He also couldn’t help but think about Dennis Purtell, one of the partners in Rocket’s Red Glare, who died of cancer a few weeks earlier.

“Dennis was very proud to own him,” Piazza said. “When Rocket was running in that race, I thought about Dennis and how much he loved that horse. Dennis was one of our best partners. It’s devastating.”

It was hard enough to get the bad news by phone, so imagine what it was like to be there. Forst doesn’t have to.

“I was in the paddock area,” he said. “I didn’t see the accident, but it was bad enough just knowing it happened. I was devastated.”

A Brooklyn native who grew up in the Bronx and lives in Tudor City in Manhattan with his longtime girlfriend, Phyllis Hoffman, Forst remembers his father – a World War II Navy veteran – taking him to Yonkers and the old Roosevelt Raceway, as well as Belmont Park and Aqueduct. He was at the Big A in 1973 when Secretariat lost in the Wood Memorial.

An accountant, Forst, 75, had Angel Cordero Jr. as a client and knew his wife, Marjorie, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2001. Forst always wanted to get into ownership and finally took the plunge in 2020, buying into some horses with Drawing Away Stable. His first winner was, fittingly, Bronx Bomber, and he has had others, but, thanks to COVID-19, he had never made it to the winner’s circle as an owner until Jackson Heights took him there last week.

“I’ve watched thousands of races and it was a dream of mine to be in the winner’s circle,” he said. “I’m thrilled to be with Zilla and Mike Piazza. We went from experiencing the worst sadness possible to a half-hour later the pure joy of winning a stakes race. That was an absolute thrill, like when the Giants won the Super Bowl and, further back, when the Mets won the World Series (Forst became a fan when the team came to Queens in 1962, five years after his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers moved to LA). The experience was terrific.”

A half-hour after it was horrific.