Vinnie Viola flipped his straw hat onto his head.
“I’ll put my hat on in memory of my dad,” Viola said.
And, oh what a memory.
Moments after winning the Sanford Stakes with Wit at Saratoga Saturday, Viola walked out of the Saratoga grandstand, past the 1863 Club and thought back to the man who started it all.
Italian immigrant. Truck driver. Teamster Union organizer. World War II veteran. Racetracker.
“My dad used to always say there are no two races the same. That’s why we keep coming back,” Viola said. “My dad turned me on to the whole thing, he handicapped every day, he came to the track as much as he could.”
He took his son as much as he could.
The first time was at Aqueduct. Kelso ran that day. Memories are tricky, could have been a $4,500 allowance race with jockey Walter Blum in July, 1960. Son would have been 4, so maybe not. Or maybe so, it was a different world back then. Perhaps, later, for one of Kelso’s four Jockey Club Gold Cups (he won five, one was at Belmont Park). Maybe the Woodward, Suburban, Brooklyn, Met Mile, Discovery or the Jerome, yeah, he won those at Aqueduct, too. Or perhaps, the Stymie, the five-time champion’s last win, in September, 1965. Kelso made 27 starts over six seasons at Aqueduct. One of those times, or probably several of those times, Vinnie Viola was there, with his dad to see the great Kelso. Remember, there are no two races the same.
“My first day, I don’t know how I got in, but I watched Kelso win a stakes race, that was on the card, I remember that like it was yesterday,” Viola said. “He taught me a lot about the sport, about movement of odds, calculation of odds. Just a great guy. A great father.”
John Viola fought in “just about every” campaign in World War II, came home to New York, drove a truck, became a union guy, started a family, went to the track. Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Always Belmont Park and Aqueduct.
“In those days, you couldn’t find a seat, even in the grandstand,” Viola said. “They had an honor system, the guys would fold their newspapers and weave them in the chairs, it was honored, that was their seat. The order to that, almost an elegance, a natural solution to a difficult problem. Blue-collar guys, hard-working guys, it was special. The sport is special.”
If you look along the back wall of the grandstand or on the benches out front at Saratoga, you’ll still see that honor system, sometimes, with The Special.
Vinnie Viola graduated from West Point in 1977, New York Law School in 1983 and went hell-bent into business. He watched his dad’s health wane in the late 1990s. That’s when son thought he could complete the circle from watching Kelso at Aqueduct to joining his dad in the winner’s circle. Of course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Vinnie Viola got in the game.
“I never thought about owning a horse until my dad eventually got very sick, after a few major heart attacks,” Viola said. “In the last three years of his life, I did what I could do and claimed a couple of horses, bought a couple of horses, he designed his own colors, that was the highlight of his life in the last year and a half or two.”
John Viola died in 1999.
Twelve years later, Vinnie Viola got back into the game after a phone call from fellow West Point graduate Terry Finley.
“Why aren’t you back in this sport, you love it?” Finley asked.
“I really actually think it took that long for me to say, ‘All right, I could do this without my dad,’ ” Viola said.
Viola and his wife, Teresa, whose grandfather took her to the races, invested in Finley’s West Point Thoroughbreds and have grown from there, owning all or part of Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Liam’s Map, Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, and, of course, Sanford winner Wit.
“We really do try to own horses with a lot of different people, for the social experience,” Viola said. “It’s a great sport and it’s quietly getting bigger than it’s ever been, quietly. They’ve done some good work, making it more transparent, we feel really blessed to be part of this sport.”
As for Dad, if he was here for the Sanford…
“My dad was a cool customer, they didn’t have replays back then but if he was alive today he would watch that race many, many times, really trying to understand the horses,” Viola said. “He would be over the moon, we would be going out right now to some Italian restaurant somewhere on Hillside Avenue in Queens. That’s what we would do.”
Father and son. The Sanford. And a corner booth at Salerno’s.