Friday marks a signature moment in Pete Aiello's life and racing career. Oaklawn Park opens the doors on its winter-spring meeting and Aiello will be at the microphone, becoming just the fifth announcer in the history of the popular Hot Springs, Arkansas, racetrack.
Aiello, 30, comes to Oaklawn after stints in the booths and various racing-related positions at Hialeah Park, Gulfstream Park, River Downs and other tracks. A graduate of the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program, Aiello grew up in South Florida and the horse that changed everything for him is one he saw race and win often right near his home. Here's Aiello's horse, in his words:
"There were like three or four at once that I used to follow. The best of the three was a horse named Wicapi. He ended up winning two graded stakes and he raced pretty much only in South Florida. I know he went to Colonial and believe it or not he won a big race up there on dirt. You always don't think of Colonial as dirt but he won a stakes on dirt there.
"Wicapi ran until he was (9) years old. That was when South Florida had a killer handicap division. Best Of The Rest, big gray horse named Dancing Guy and a couple other horses you'd always see in those same races, but the winners of those races were Wicapi, Dancing Guy or Best Of The Rest. Best Of The Rest was always the favorite in those races so I always liked to go with the underdog. Wicapi was so gritty and so game. He won on dirt going long and he won the W. L. McKnight on the grass going long.
"He was an iron horse. I've always been attracted to the iron horses. Even still, I like the iron horse component of it. The year he won the McKnight he was 7. He was Florida's version of John Henry in a much less sense. He was great. He was one of those horses that I'd scan the Miami Herald to see if he was running.
"I never got to meet him up close. You've got to remember when I was going to the races I was strictly as a card-carrying degenerate gambler. When I say that I say it as a term of endearment. What I mean is I didn't know anybody on the backside. I didn't know anybody on the backside until I was like a sophomore in college. I did get to meet some other horses from that era that I liked when I went to Old Friends. One of them was Tour Of The Cat, he was in the sprint division back then. I did make a point to drive there to see him. I don't even know where Wicapi is now. He was a gelding so that's why he ran so long.
"I remember the day he ran in the McKnight. My mom, who was pretty much a staunch anti-racing person, I begged her, 'my favorite horse is running in the McKnight, can we go?' It was my birthday or very soon thereafter. She took me down there and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was on the fourth floor of the clubhouse at Calder, outside, that's where you can see and have the best view. I remember watching Wicapi charge on the outside and a horse named Just Listen won the race but they took him down for drifting into Wicapi in deep stretch and they put Wicapi up. He was 19-1 in the race. He was on the bad side of a form cycle and paid like $40. I loved that. I was 14 or 15."
Maryland-bred multiple graded stakes winner Wicapi raced six seasons, winning 18 of 67 starts with eight seconds and six thirds and racking up $671,616 in earnings. He won eight stakes, including the Grade 3 W. L. McKnight Handicap and three others at Calder. He also won the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper Handicap in 1998 at Calder and the Bald Eagle Breeders' Cup Handicap in 1997 at Colonial Downs. The Waquoit gelding's final two career starts came at Malaz Racecourse in Saudi Arabia in 2000.
(Editor's note: The Horse Who Changed Everything is a new feature at This Is Horse Racing. If you'd like to share the horse who got you interested, hooked or reinvigorated in racing, check out our contacts page and drop us a note.
Check out this video about Pete Aiello during his days at River Downs: