July 2013 | Princess of Sylmar Off to Saratoga after Kentucky Oaks Upset
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Princess of Sylmar Off to Saratoga after Kentucky Oaks Upset
July 2013 - Terry Conway

Ed Stanco works as an actuary. He crunches numbers. And then he crunches more numbers in his insurance business.

Stanco’s number came up big-time in the 139th running of the Kentucky Oaks. His homebred Princess of Sylmar stormed down the middle of the stretch at Churchill Downs. reeling in last year’s juvenile filly champ Beholder to capture the $1 million race. Many pundits tabbed it as the deepest field in years.

Score one for the little guys. Princess of Sylmar is the first horse Stanco has ever bred. Even more remarkable, she is the only one Stanco is racing thus far in 2013. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Princess of Sylmar has won or placed in five of her six lifetime starts.  The score in the Oaks is the filly’s first graded stakes win and bumped up her bankroll to $827,220. Next up: she is being pointed to the Coaching Club American Oaks on July 20 at Saratoga.

It was a Pennsylvania affair.  The three-year old chestnut filly was foaled and raised at Ronnie Houghton’s Sylmar Farm in Christiana, Pa. It used to be in Maryland (on Sylmar Road in Cecil County) and now it’s in Pennsylvania in Lancaster County’s Amish country. Owner Stanco hails from Malvern and his racing operation is King of Prussia Stables, named for the iconic town near Valley Forge.

In front of the second largest crowd in Oaks’ history (113,820), Princess of Sylmar-- cotton stuffed into her ears-- overcame a rough start under Mike Smith and defeated a star-studded field that included Eclipse Award winner Beholder, Dreaming of Julia, Unlimited Budget, and Close Hatches who beat Princess of Sylmar in the Gazelle Stakes in April.

“Words can't describe what it was like watching her win,” said Stanco, CEO of Pennsylvania-based White Mountain Insurance Company. “When I saw her come into the stretch in fourth, I thought she was going to run third. Then when she took the lead I said, 'Oh my God, she can win this race!' It's totally overwhelming; it really is. We went to the infield for the presentation and looked back at 100,000 people and it was totally surreal.

“Honestly, we were on the fence (about running), and then we had a great work the Saturday before the race. I’ve always said that if she’s happy and has no stress, then let’s give it a shot.” 

Breaking from the No. 6 post Princess of Sylmar was involved in a pile-up at the start with Pure Fun, Dreaming of Julia and Rose to Gold, who launched a domino effect by bolting sharply to her left. Dreaming of Julia, the favorite, got the worst of it.

“I could see three jocks on one horse, almost,” said Smith motioning to the space in front of him, “and there was another horse between her and us.”

As the leaders battled it out with a blistering pace, Princess of Sylmar was steadily moving up from her ninth position racing trouble-free, several paths off the rail.

“She was really handling the track well,” Smith noted. “I knew they were going pretty fast and maybe they’d be coming back to me in time.”

At the quarter pole Beholder grabbed a clear lead and was put under a fierce drive. Then Princess of Sylmar, with Smith using a right-handed whip, came running. Rolling down the outside she snatched the victory in the final ten yards to win by a half-length. The second longest on the board (38-1) she was timed in 1:49.17 for the 1 1/8 miles. 

“She has a long, beautiful stride, but at the same time, when you ask her, she's got a quick reaction. Once I got her out, she was gone,” said Smith.  

Connecting with Pletcher
Stanco got his start in the racing business with a road trip to a Kentucky farm owned by J. J. Pletcher. He was working on a re-insurance program involving workman’s compensation for jockeys back in 1995. Pletcher mentioned that his son Todd was launching his training career in a few weeks. Stanco started thinking about buying a racehorse, playing with some numbers. Finally in 2000, he did. He partnered with Michael Cassion who had a small string of horses trained by Pletcher.

“I knew I wanted a filly since it has a residual value (offspring),” Stanco recalled. “But more than anything else the horse had to be at a quality level that it fit into Todd’s barn.”

His second horse, Capeside Lady, was the top New York bred filly from 2002 to 2004. The next filly, Storm Dixie, put Stanco into the breeding business, but not without considerable angst.

Studying the numbers and consulting bloodstock experts, Stanco chose Grand Slam to be Storm Dixie’s first mating. The day before she was to be bred, Stanco received a call from Ashford Stud notifying him that Grand Slam was unavailable due to an injury the day before. Ashford suggested Majestic Warrior, a Grade-1 winning son of A. P. Indy.

“Okay, I said let’s look at the numbers,” recalled Stanco with a laugh. “Being an actuary I wanted to do all the numerical analysis, but I didn’t have any numbers since he was a freshman sire. They convinced me and I said, ‘let’s do it.’” 

Life at Sylmar Farm
Both of Stanco’s broodmares reside at Sylmar Farm which is owned and operated by Betsy and Ronald Houghton and their children Bernie, Robin, Wendy, and Michael. It straddles a two-lane road between Oxford and Lancaster. The Houghtons run the 300-acre farm where thoroughbred broodmares, weanlings, yearlings, and racehorses roam the pastures.  The farm staff put Princess of Sylmar through their program, and she quickly took command on the farm’s small training track, gallops in the fields and hacks in the woods.

Betsy Houghton related the filly has a wonderful temperament.

“She is kind, and very smart, never gave us a hard time, she never got nervous, and that really helps them in a race,” explained Betsy. “Every time she worked at our farm, her workmates could not keep up with her. She was something special.”

Princess of Sylmar’s one quirk: she hates the sound of the starting gate.

“Ronnie decided to try putting cotton in her ears to block out the sound, and now everything she does—van rides, plane rides-- is with cotton in her ears,” Betsy noted.

Princess of Sylmar stayed on their farm from the day she was foaled until she was sent to Pletcher's operation at Belmont Park as a two-year-old last summer. The filly debuted at Penn National in a 5 ˝ furlong maiden special for PA-breds. She wound up fourth.

A month later Princess of Sylmar wowed the crowd at Penn National with an astonishing 19-length victory, and then went on to win three straight races, including two stakes, over the inner track at Aqueduct Racetrack. In her final prep for the Oaks, she ran second in the Gazelle Stakes (Grade-2) on Aqueduct's main track. 

With her Oaks victory Princess of Sylmar became the second Pennsylvania-bred to win the Oaks over the last three years, with Plum Pretty winning in 2011. Overall, four Oaks winners have hailed from Pennsylvania.

“We’re absolutely thrilled by her Oaks victory,” Betsy said. “Give Todd Pletcher a lot of credit, getting her to that race. The race set-up for her and she took full advantage of it.”

Saratoga Devotee
A native of Schenectady, N.Y., Stanco was introduced to racing at age eight by taking trips to nearby Saratoga Race Course with his uncle. He left the greater Albany region in 1979 when his job in insurance took Stanco and his wife Ina to Cincinnati, Boston and then Philadelphia. He now lives in Malvern, still works in insurance, but always returns to Saratoga for the summer. He has plenty of family and friends who still live up there.

“I've been with Todd for ten years, and it's been a very well-planned approach to how to go to the races," Stanco said. "We took our time with some smaller, not-so-successful ones. And to me, there's no better trainer in the world, that he could do this with this kind of filly."

Pletcher trains for some high-profile owners like Mike Repole (Unlimited Budget) and Stonestreet Farm (Dreaming of Julia) and also had horses from WinStar Farm (Revolutionary) and Dogwood Stable (Palace Malice) in this year’s Kentucky Derby.

“Ed has a very good feel for racing,” Pletcher noted. “He has a very good understanding and is a very good handicapper. We were always very realistic. Princess of Sylmar is a Pennsylvania-bred, and we wanted to develop her and take advantage of that. But she just kept getting better and better.”

Stanco’s long-held dream is to get one of the jockey statues at the Saratoga Race Course clubhouse entrance painted in the purple and light blue colors of his silks, trumpeting a win in one of the venue’s premier races. Stanko and an army of family and friends will be rooting her on.

After the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks Stakes in Saratoga in July the racing plan is the $600,000 Alabama Stakes on Aug. 17 and the $1 Million Cotillion Stakes on Sept. 21 at Parx. All three races are Grade-1s.