Tony Millan walked out of the jocks’ room to saddle Moves Your Soul for the third race.
The veteran valet carried Wilmer Garcia’s tack and trekked from the to the paddock like he’s done a thousand times. Millan looked at jockey Jose Lezcano and stopped. The valet stared at the silks – beige, brown braces, brown ‘P’ and brown hoops. His mind reeled, memories flashed, back 30 some years ago.
Millan finished saddling Moves Your Soul and walked to the trees by the paddock bar. Longtime Maryland-based owner Helen Polinger stood under those trees, talking to Lezcano about Maryland shipper Understanding. Polinger stopped in mid-sentence.
It was like she saw the second coming.
Millan smiled, Polinger smiled. They cackled. Then they hugged like they had both come home from the war.
It had been 30 years.
Millan rubbed The Very One while working for Steve DiMauro. Owned by Polinger, the Kentucky-bred daughter of One For All won 22 races and $1.1 million. Making 71 starts from 1977 to 1981, The Very One won 13 stakes from coast to coast, including the Santa Barbara, the Dixie, the Sheepshead Bay and the Long Island Handicap.
She finished second in the Washington D. C. International, the Diana Handicap and the Hialeah Turf Cup. She finished third in the Turf Classic, the San Juan Capistrano and the Japan Cup. The latter stuck with Millan.
He was 19, traveling to Japan with bull of a mare who barely reached 15 hands.
“Still to this day, it was one of my greatest experiences in horse racing, I was young, I was just learning everything. A 19-year-old in Japan,” Millan said. “It was the first running of the Japan Cup, to see that, to be in Japan, there was 130,000 people at the races.”
It seemed like 130,000 showed up at the airport to see the Flying Tigers 747 unload The Very One and her traveling companion Mairzy Doates, who would go on to win the Japan Cup.
“They unload the plane through the nose and I’m on the pallet with her and there’s a sea of people, photographers, there were banners, we got on the van to go to quarantine, there were billboards with pictures of me and the mare,” Millan said. “To this day, you cherish it. Racing has changed so much, to have a mare like that. It was a great experience, great people, I wish I could live it all again because it was such a great experience.”
And for a moment in the paddock at Saratoga 33 years later, it was relived.
Millan grew up on 127th street in Queens, between Aqueduct and the airport. Millan rode motocross with three friends. One friend’s dad worked for Laz Barrera, during the Affirmed days and took the three boys to Belmont Park on the weekends. Millan loved the horses. Standing between Barrera’s barn and DiMauro’s barn one afternoon, Millan was offered a job.
“I was just standing there looking at the horses and Steve DiMauro asked me if I was looking for a job,” Millan said. “I said, ‘Not really, just came to see the horses.’ He said, ‘If you’re ever looking for a job, stop by.’ I thought about it and push came to shove one day and I said, ‘You know what, I love horses…’ I went there and got a hotwalking job, the rest is history. It’s funny how things start, I go get a job when I’m 18 years old and here I am at 53…none of it makes sense, a Queens kid, but look how it ended up.”
Millan works as John Velazquez’s valet now, long removed from the day-to-day grind of a grooming job. He rubbed four horses for DiMauro, working with Richard Migliore, Migliore’s future wife Carmella, John Kimmel’s assistant Loretta Lusteg, valet Richie Velez.
“We all piled in the barn at the same time, racing was such a different animal then,” Millan said. “It was more family, the workers were family, it’s a little more business now. It was fun then, those were the good times.”
The best times were with The Very One. Millan reserved VERYONE on his license plate, it now hangs in his garage, he has her stall plaque from the Japan Cup hanging on his wall, photos of her big wins, a painting of the two of them. Simply memories – which launched into feelings Friday afternoon.
“When you see Mrs. Polinger, it brings you back 34-plus years, it’s like ‘Wow.’ That much time has lapsed. Yup, I’m old,” Millan said. “There was nothing more invaluable than the experience with The Very One. There are people will do it their whole lives and never get an experience like that. The horses hooked me, they do for most of us. The mare answered every beat, every call, she never let us down. You get goosebumps thinking about it.”
Millan laughed, turned and walked through the paddock chute to the scales to collect Garcia’s tack.