“He’s the last one. The last good Flying Zee horse.”
That’s how Phil Serpe described Weekend Hideaway, winner of aallowance race. It was said in passing, as Serpe walked toward his barn and my golf cart went wherever it was going. Looking back on it, I don’t know if it was before or after the 6-year-old son of Speightstown earned his 11th victory in a tough New York-bred allowance , pushing his earnings to over $800,000.
A 20-year resident in the long barn with the wispy flowers near the half-mile pole of the main track, Serpe appreciates Weekend Hideaway’s talent and respects his heritage.
When he wins, hell, whenever he sees the horse, Serpe thinks about his client, his friend, Carl Lizza, who died in 2011.
Introduced by Bob Frieze, Jerry Bailey’s agent, Serpe and Lizza met in Florida. They hit it off. Lizza sent some horses to Serpe. They weren’t much.
“The horses he first sent me, they had to do a relay race to win a race,” Serpe said.
While Serpe was training for Flying Zee, Lizza went into the hospital because of complications from diabetes. He had been in the New Jersey hospital for two months when he called Serpe and asked him to come see him.
“I’m thinking, ‘This is it, this guy’s going to get rid of all his horses,’ ” Serpe said. “It was the damnedest thing, Carl’s lying there, about to lose his leg and he says, ‘I’d like to make the stable better, get rid of a lot of bad horses, start to breed to some outside horses.’ I said this guy loves racing more than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”
Serpe and his assistant/girlfriend Lisa Bartkowski went to Office Max and bought binders, you know the ones, six inches thick with metal rings. They filled three of them with Flying Zee horses – older horses, 2-year-olds, yearlings, weanlings, mares. They weren’t much either.
“That’s no overnight plan, we moved like 300 horses, he had a lot of not-so-great horses,” Serpe said. “When we got things moving, Flying Zee won a lot of races, they won 13 owner titles including one at Saratoga, I remember closing day, the guy’s kissing me.”
A force in the early 1980s with champion Wayward Lass and Marlboro Cup winner Noble Nashua, Flying Zee had returned to the top when Lizza went into the hospital for hernia surgery and died in his sleep the next night, before the 2011 Saratoga meet. Flying Zee was leading owner in New York at the time. With Lizza’s wife, Viane, at the helm Flying Zee stayed there to lead all owners in 2011.
“He was a tough guy, don’t get me wrong, he was tough in business, he expected results and he let you know if he wasn’t happy about something. But he was a very fair guy, very dedicated to the people who worked for him. Underneath all the gruff, he was a good guy,” Serpe said. “I don’t miss him getting mad at me but I do miss him as part of my life, it lasted quite a while, not as long as Carlos (Martin), but there were a lot of good things that came out of it.”
One was a chestnut colt by Speightstown, who went through the ring as part of the Flying Zee dispersal in 2011. Serpe and Bartkowski convinced Mike Hoffman’s Red & Black Stable to put up $40,000 for the New York-bred.
“He’s the last one,” Serpe said again days after Weekend Hideaway won. “The last good Flying Zee horse.”
On a breezy Wednesday morning at Saratoga, Serpe sat in his high director’s chair along the white board fence by the horsepath. Owner Adam Newman walked his dog, trainer Mark Casse scurried past talking on his cell phone, a couple of adopted stray cats roamed the edges of the barn, Laird George rode a jumper off the gap, Simon Harris, Eddie King and Kelly Wheeler glided past – all going different directions but the same direction.
With two wins at the meet, Serpe, leaned back in his chair, feet propped up on the middle board and looked around. A conversation that started with Carl Lizza had touched on Allen Jerkens, Spectacular Bid, Hialeah and had come back around to life.
“When you’re a teenager nothing matters, when you’re in your 20s, stuff matters but you blow it off, as you get older, everything becomes a crisis,” Serpe said. “It’s not really a crisis, you just take things more seriously, that’s all. They say don’t take yourself too serious, but I guess it’s just part of it.”
Serpe took a long deep breath, looked across the racetrack and thought about the great passage of time.
“I always look over there,” Serpe said, pointing to the trees lining the clubhouse turn. “Sometimes it’s early and sometimes it’s late, but I’ll look over there and one of them starts to turn red and it makes me sad. I love this place. It’s just the best place.”