Throwback Thursday: The brilliant 3-year-old Zaccio

- -

In honor of its 40th running this year, the Winterthur Point-to-Point steeplechase meet presents a weekly Steeplechase Throwback Thursday feature. We’ll look back on historic moments, horses and people in the jumping game – at least a few connected to the race meet on the grounds of the famed Winterthur Museum and Gardens just north of Wilmington, Del. This year’s races are Sunday, May 6.

Trainer Winky Cocks worked the chestnut 2-year-old and was amazed. For a quarter-mile, maybe up to three-eighths, he was the fastest horse in the barn. At a half-mile, however, he couldn’t keep up. Cocks called his father, Hall of Famer Burley.

“Dad, they go a certain ways and he sort of flattens out,” said Winky, who prepped the stable’s young horses at Monmouth Park back in 1978. “He doesn’t slow down, he just doesn’t accelerate anymore.”

“Send him home,” father told son.

The chestnut 2-year-old, then owned by Miles Valentine, went back to the Cocks’ family’s Hermitage Farm in Pennsylvania – his first step toward becoming a legend. Zaccio, that unraced 2-year-old with sprinter speed, learned to jump, made his hurdle debut the next year and went on to win 18 races, capture Eclipse Awards, earn $286,299 and join his trainer in Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame.

In 1977, Burley Cocks bought Zaccio for $25,000 at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga as a yearling for Valentine and his wife Joy. As the veteran horseman put it to writer William Leggett in 1980, the son of Lorenzaccio and the Chateaugay mare Delray Dancer “stood over a lot of ground.”

Zaccio ultimately did far more than that, and his 3-year-old campaign of 1979 could be bronzed – especially when compared with how young horses are trained and raced today.

Sold to Cocks clients Bunny and Lewis Murdock when many of the Valentine horses were dispersed after Miles Valentine’s death, Zaccio went south with the Cocks stable in early 1979 and trained at Springdale Race Course in Camden, S.C.

“After I sent him home, I never paid that much more attention to him,” said Winky Cocks, whose flat stable at the time included future graded stakes winner Gala Regatta and the Grade 1-placed Sans Critique. “I saw him down here (in Camden) in the winter time and he was doing good. He’d matured a lot. Dad said, ‘This horse my be able to go on and do something.’ ”

And American government might be just a bit frazzled at the moment.

Zaccio4Zaccio2Zaccio made his racing debut in a maiden flat at Camden, S.C. March 31. Well back early, he finished third in a field of 13 going 7 furlongs. Two weeks later, Zaccio became a winner in a similar race at Southern Pines and a week after that won again going a mile at Tanglewood in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The gelding was always pointed to a hurdle career, and showed up at Foxfield April 26. While leading, Zaccio lost jockey Richard McWade. They were back for more at Fair Hill May 12 and won in style, by 2 lengths in a field of six (photo at left post-race, NSA photo). Rested until Saratoga, Zaccio and jockey Tom Skiffington thumped 10 others in an allowance hurdle – winning by 9 1/4 lengths at 3-2 Aug. 10. Two weeks later, Zaccio settled for second when beaten a neck by stablemate Parson’s Waiting.

In October, the 3-year-old took on six older rivals in an allowance hurdle at Belmont Park. He scored by three-quarters of a length while giving 4-year-old Academic Freedom 2 pounds. To wrap up the campaign, Zaccio finally ran in a race restricted to 3-year-olds – and dominated while winning by 21 lengths while between 8 and 19 pounds to six foes.

Contrasted with today, Zaccio’s first season as a jumper was of another world. Most races are written for 4-year-olds and up now, meaning another Zaccio would have to wait until fall to make his hurdle debut. He took on older horses all year – until his final start. He won going 1 7/8 miles in May (a week after the Kentucky Derby’s supposedly grueling 1 1/4 miles), beating an 8-year-old who won a stakes on the flat.

“He always kind of took anything dad threw at him and got better and better and seemed to enjoy it,” said Winky Cocks, who tried to run a 3-year-old over hurdles in 2002 but was told he had to wait until fall.

The early success was a harbinger, as Zaccio won Eclipse Awards in each of the next three seasons. In 1980, he won seven of 10 the next year including the Carolina Cup, the Midsummer at Monmouth Park, the Indian River at Delaware Park, the Lovely Night and New York Turf Writers at Saratoga. The 1981 campaign included three wins, the Grand National, Noel Laing and Colonial Cup – the latter by 11 lengths. In 1982, the Kentucky-bred won a Saratoga handicap by 16 (under 159 pounds), the Turf Writers under 161 and the Colonial Cup in an 8-length destruction (jumping photo above; by Rosanne Berkenstock/NSA).

Able to accelerate from almost anywhere in a race, Zaccio proved to be a difficult opponent for other horses. He had more gears, more control.

“He had controlled speed, and that’s what Dad always said he wanted in a horse,” said Winky Cocks. “He’d say, ‘They can all go slow, but can they relax, go slow and then pick it up?’ Zaccio could and that’s why he was so good.”

Zaccio missed 1983 and was retired as the sport’s leading earner after three tries in 1984. He moved on to life as a celebrity at his owners’ farm in New Jersey, complete with Hall of Fame plaque by the stall door. Lewis Murdock hunted Zaccio with the Essex Foxhounds for years. The chestnut with a wide blaze died in 2007. He was 31.

 * * *

Saratoga 150 Zaccio video highlight package

Zaccio winning the 1981 Colonial Cup with Gregg Morris (Milton Toby/NSA photo)