Pa. filly racing for history

Mike Smith rides Princess of Sylmar, a 39-1 shot, to victory ìn the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. J. DAVID AKE / Associated Press
Mike Smith rides Princess of Sylmar, a 39-1 shot, to victory ìn the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. J. DAVID AKE / Associated Press
Posted: November 02, 2013

Ed Stanco is an actuary. If anyone's going to calculate the odds of a first-time breeder's producing North America's best female horse, it should be him.

"There are no odds," said Stanco. "It doesn't happen. Period. We're in uncharted territory."

An East Goshen, Chester County, resident who has dabbled for barely a decade in the sport he discovered as a boy, Stanco was talking about his 3-year-old filly, Princess of Sylmar, the Pennsylvania-bred who won four Grade I stakes races between May and September.

Now, on Friday at Santa Anita Park, 4 1/2 years after she was conceived via a hastily arranged breeding date, Stanco's horse will compete against the world's best in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Post time is 7:35 p.m. (with the race to be televised on NBC-SN). And if she runs to form, a few moments later a relaxed Princess could be nestling her nose into a beaming Stanco's shoulder in the California track's winner's circle.

For Stanco, 64, a balding, bespectacled, buttoned-down insurance executive who has spent his adult life analyzing risk, the remarkable payout on this one still amazes.

After all, he didn't buy his first horse until 2002, didn't own any as recently as 2006, and didn't breed one until the spring of 2009.

The thought that, by 2013, he and his King of Prussia Stables partners might possess perhaps the most electrifying animal in racing still challenges every neuron in Stanco's analytical brain.

"It's too fantastic," said Stanco, who said he'll likely sell Princess to a top breeding farm when she's 5. "It's not supposed to happen."

And yet it did. Princess of Sylmar has earned $1.7 million. She has won the Kentucky Oaks, the Alabama, the Beldame. She has thrashed the female horse everyone assumed was the best on the planet, Royal Delta. And at Santa Anita she'll do something Stanco swore would never happen: run in the Breeders' Cup as a 3-year-old.

"She's won four Grade 1 races in a row," Stanco said, "something no 3-year-old filly had ever done. If she wins a fifth, that will be unprecedented, too. We've put [a near-certain] Eclipse Award on the line because this has gotten bigger than us.

"We're racing for history now."

First foray

It was in April 2009 when Stanco sent Storm Dixie, his stable's only asset at the time, to a Kentucky breeding farm.

He and his partners in the low-rent stable had bought the Storm Cat granddaughter for $67,000 three years earlier and she'd won one of 10 races.

In 2008, when the financial crisis hit, horse values plummeted. Stanco didn't want to give Storm Dixie away so, although he'd had no experience, he decided to breed her.

"My brother had some involvement with Sylmar Farm in Christiana," he said. "We talked with [farm owners Ron and Betsy Houghton] and they said she could be a broodmare and stay there."

The statistically oriented insurance executive had done his due diligence. He studied equine pairings intently and, with the help of a consultant, concluded that the best match for his mare - the best he could afford, anyway - was a Kentucky sire named Grand Slam.

At 8 a.m. on the day of that proposed union, Stanco, the CEO of Toa Reinsurance, got a call in his Moorestown office.

It was his breeding agent. A feisty mare had kicked Grand Slam the previous night and now the wounded stud had no interest in Storm Dixie.

"This was the first time I'd ever been involved in breeding. And this happens?" Stanco recalled. "I was like, 'C'mon, is this some sort of bait-and-switch? What do I do?' "

The agent, Joe Brocklebank, tried to reassure the flummoxed owner. He said there was another possibility. Majestic Warrior, a relatively untested sire, was on-site.

"I finally said, 'OK, how long do I have to think about it?.' And Joe said, 'Fifteen minutes. She's in the shed now.' I said, 'Just do it.' "

They bred, and in March 2010 a filly was born at Sylmar Farm in Christiana, Pa., just west of Coatesville.

Though conceived in Kentucky by a Kentucky sire, Princess of Sylmar is a Pennsylvania-bred because that's where Storm Dixie gave birth.

That was no accident. Stanco wanted to take advantage of the financial incentives Pennsylvania now makes available to its owners and breeders.

The new filly, its owner quickly decided, wasn't going to compete as a 2-year-old.

"They're pushed ahead of their time," Stanco said, "and I've never liked that."

The youngster proved extremely mellow in the barn. Even now, if Stanco is there, she'll rest her head on his shoulder and sleep.

"But when she's on the track and eyeballs those other horses," he said, "she's a killer."

As she learned to run, the Houghtons noticed she already looked like a pro.

"They said she covered the ground well. She had no problem running," Stanco said. "Some horses are like fullbacks or sprinters. Ours is like a cross-country runner. She doesn't dig into the ground. She floats."

Initially, the metal clang when the gates released startled the young filly. So Ron Houghton and a groom fitted her with earplugs. They worked so well she still uses them.

Princess of Sylmar was slated to debut in October 2012, preferably at Parx Racing. But when Stanco couldn't find the right fit at the Bensalem track, she landed at Penn National in Grantville, Pa.

"In her first race, Harry Vega, an old-time jockey, was on her," Stanco recalled. "She didn't get out of the gate but Harry didn't push her. He let her run. She was a baby and he didn't want to kill her. It was the best thing that could have happened."

She finished fourth but clearly enjoyed the experience. In her next race, a November 2012 mile at Penn National under jockey Kendrick Carmouche, she burst from the pack with no prodding to win by 19 lengths.

Stanco then sent her to trainer Todd Pletcher at Aqueduct, where the 3-year-old won three times in succession, twice by wide margins.

"That's when it got exciting," Stanco said. "Her sheet numbers came back and Todd said, 'She's only about two clicks slower than the Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion.' "

Then he received a tempting offer to sell the promising filly. Stanco and Pletcher agreed it was more than fair.

"But," Pletcher added, "if she goes on to win some big races - and if she's healthy, I think she can - will you be able to live with yourself?"

After she finished second in Aqueduct's Gazelle Stakes, Pletcher pointed her toward the Kentucky Oaks on Derby weekend in Louisville.

A 39-1 shot, Princess of Sylmar won that prestigious event and the world took note of Stanco's fairy tale.

Two months later, she took the Coaching Club American Oaks. In August she romped in the Alabama at Saratoga. Then in September she ran away from ballyhooed 4-year-old Royal Delta in the Beldame.

Princess of Sylmar came out of the Sept. 28 Beldame so fit that Stanco reluctantly paid the Breeders' Cup's $100,000 entry fee.

"We'd said from the beginning she wasn't going as a 3-year-old," Stanco said. "We didn't want her to travel that distance. And if she was good, we could always do that as a 4-year-old. But . . ."

This unlikely journey has surpassed even Stanco's boyhood racing fantasies.

Growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., he had an uncle who took him to Saratoga. He caught the fever and, with his facility for statistics, became a formidable handicapper.

"Around 1995 I got interested in owning a horse," he said. "The dream was to saddle it at Saratoga. I thought that would be really neat."

The first horse he and his partners bought won a race but eventually was given away. The next cost $70,000, earned that much, and was sold for $700,000.

"That was so unusual that I said then I would never own another racehorse," Stanco said.

But the "juice" of watching his horse run couldn't be replaced, and late in 2006 he bought Storm Dixie. Four years later, as he watched, Princess of Sylmar was born.

"I tell people that what happened here is a gift," he said. "It's a blessing. There's no other way to describe it because, believe me, it does not happen."