It’s always exciting to have a 2-year-old winning in 1st year in the stable, but maybe that’s even more so when it’s your first ranked stakes winner in 11 years and your first 1st year winner since 1993.
“It’s good. We’re really, really happy for the owners of this horse,” said trainer Phil Serpe after Leave No Trace captured Saratoga’s G1 Spinaway for owner, Dr. Robert Vukovich, founder of the pharmaceutical company WellSpring.”These are great people, they deserve it, and it’s a great feeling for everyone.”
Serpe knows the ups and downs of the Thoroughbred business well. He went from being the pinnacle of practice titles won in New Jersey and training for top owners in New York, to having only a handful of mid-level horses in the stable.
The tide began to turn when longtime Serpe owner Carl Lizza (Flying Zee Stable) died suddenly in 2011, and turned again when owners/breeders Chester and Mary Broman decided to reduce their stock there. several years old.
The low point was as recent as 2020: Helped in part by the pandemic-caused halt to racing, Serpe trainees earned just $406,785, the lowest total since he began training in the mid-1980s.
It’s the support of Vukovich and his wife Laura that has kept Serpe in business for the past five years. he and his wife send the trainer four to five 2-year-olds every year. In 2021, Serpe only sent four winners, although one of them was Vukovich’s safe passage to win the prestigious $1 million Queen’s Plate at Woodbine, taking Serpe’s annual earnings to $889,785.
With just over three months remaining in 2022, Serpe has already dispatched 11 winners for earnings of $747,677.
“My friend, Jim Ryerson, he’s not going to Florida, so he had a filly for the Vukovichs that he asked me to take to Florida,” Serpe explained. “They send horses to both of us now, and they are incredibly nice people and really down to earth. As successful as they both are, they really enjoy racing success.
“Currently the stable has around 22 horses, so we are still trying to replenish the workforce.”
Serpe began riding horses at age eight and worked for a show farm in his mid-teens. The farm had a few racehorses, and he sometimes accompanied them to Monmouth Park to watch them race. Serpe really got his start on the track shortly after the Meadowlands opened in 1976.
“It was a huge thing in his early years,” Serpe said. “When I was a teenager I would go there and walk horses for free at night just to be lucky enough to be around them.”
Serpe started out as a groom, then moved on to become an assistant trainer and finally earned his license to train with four horses at Monmouth Park in 1984.
“Several years later I had 50 horses at Monmouth and was the head trainer both there and at the Meadowlands,” Serpe said. “Then I had the opportunity to move to New York.”
He first trained for multi-Eclipse award-winning breeder Fred Hooper, then was introduced to Lizza, another owner-breeder.
“You have to understand that when you’re training for breeders, the horses don’t come off as easily as when you’re hand-picking 2-year-olds, which can hurt your percentages a bit,” Serpe says. “I feel very good about what I’ve done for them.”
A few years into the partnership, Lizza made a strange request.
“Mr. Lizza had serious health problems and he asked me to come to the hospital to see him one day,” Serpe recalled. “I was like, ‘Well, this can’t be good,’ but he told me he wanted to improve his stable and change his whole breeding, so myself and my partner, Lisa Bartkowski, went to work.
“The first thing was to develop his band of broodmares, to pass on horses that we did not want to keep. The hardest part was making sure they ended up in the right place; there wasn’t as much attention paid to aftercare at the time so it was a bit more difficult to find homes for older mares and those with not so good pedigrees, but we managed to TO DO.
“Five years into breeding we started winning a lot of races. Carlos Martin also trained for them, as did my friend Jimmy Jerkens, and in the end Flying Zee Stable had won about 13 owner’s titles, including Saratoga’s most coveted owner’s title and New York’s year-end owner’s title.
“Just as the thing was starting to roll, Carl passed away unexpectedly one night in his sleep. It left a big void, both emotionally and in the business, as we would have 25-30 new horses for him every year.
“We were lucky to get horses for Chester and Mary Broman. We did really well with them because they really do an amazing job raising them, but now he’s backed off, so it was another void.
Vukovich’s acquaintance was the last to fill the void in Serpe’s barn.
“We kept going and we keep going,” Serpe said. “The problem with this company is that there are a lot of good guys like me who don’t have a lot of horses. We know what we’re doing, but the trainers are only as good as the horses in their stables.
Horses like Safe Conduct and Leave No Trace have certainly bolstered Serpe’s hopes over the past two years. Vukovich prefers to select the horses himself: Safe Conduct was a $45,000 weanling colt at the November sale at Keeneland, and Leave No Trace was a $40,000 yearling at the Fasig Tipton Midlantic Fall Sale.
“We have a lot of good conversations about his programs and his theories, and he’s open to trying horses that others might overlook,” Serpe said. “He’s not going to spend 200 or 300 grand on a yearling; he loves having horses as a pet project, and he loves coming to the races and watching his horses race.
This pet project has been successful so far. Leave No Trace first showed their talent to the world with a big debut win at Saratoga on July 20, which came as a bit of a surprise as Serpe’s stable aren’t known for winning with rookies.
“I think we don’t remount our 2-year-olds or our beginners at all. We have them fit and ready to race,” Serpe said. “When she won that day like that she was impressive and it shows something in our barn. So she was awesome and she’s been awesome since before we even left Belmont. She worked well, 47 years old and changed easily, and you have to be impressed with a horse like that. If you look at her, she’s beautiful. She had a growth spurt in the spring. She grew six inches in all directions, which is what you want a horse to do in August and September. It was everything you would want.
Filly could provide stable with first Breeders’ Cup starter: Filly earned $30,000 credit through ‘Breeders’ Cup Dirt Dozen’ program for entry fees for grade 1 juvenile fillies in November at Lexington Oval.
This would be Serpe’s third starter at the World Championships, after Birdonthewire at the 1994 Sprint and Pure Gossip at the 2011 Juvenile Fillies Turf.
“I’m more stable than before, so I try to keep my feet on the ground,” Serpe said. “But Leave No Trace didn’t just win: she seemed pretty dominant to me. We’ll probably take it to the Frizette next, going seven furlongs to the mile at one lap, and we’ll go to the Breeders’ Cup two laps from there. She’s high for the ground, so I think distance isn’t really an issue. It’s about whether we keep it as it is now for a few more months.
“She has answered all calls so far.”