South Philly Guy with Score of a Lifetime
-By Dick Jerardi
John Fanelli grew up in South Philly (Sixth and Fitzwater and then 16th and Mifflin). He was introduced to gambling and the race track by his father who owned a nearby bar called Sidestreet.
“My dad took me to (Keystone) when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Fanelli said. “From there, Garden State. I just loved racing. It was in my blood even though I came from South Philly where there’s no farms, no horses.”
It was the gambling that got him into it. During high school in the mid to late 1980s, he was a regular at Garden State with his dad, even though the racing was at night and he had school the next day. It was his father’s passing in 2001 that got him involved in horse ownership.
“I wanted to do something for him so I decided to claim a couple of cheap horses,” Fanelli remembered. “At the time, I was playing poker professionally. I came here and claimed some horses with Lou Linder. Came back in three weeks. They were both running on the same day. One wins, the other finishes second and gets claimed. I made like $25,000 the first day and I’m walking around like this is the greatest thing in the world.
“I was hooked right then and there, beginner’s luck. Coincidentally, I didn’t win a race for another nine months. I learned my lessons. For the next three years, I got beat up pretty good with a lot of different things.
“I just started studying it. I spend about two hours per night looking at horses, studying video. It’s like anything else. You put the time in and you’re going to see results. And you need a little luck.”
Combine that study with some luck and you wake up on Jan. 31, 2019 with a list of horses at various tracks you want to look at. One of them was entered in a $25,000 claiming race at Gulfstream Park.
Math Wizard had broken his maiden impressively 25 days prior, winning a maiden $16,000 claimer by 6 3/4 lengths.
“I try to dabble in Gulfstream in the winter,” Fanelli said. “I try to claim two or three horses and bring them up here, figuring the class relief will help, even though sometimes these races are tougher.”
Joe Taylor, who has been in front of the Parx trainer standings all year, is Fanelli’s local trainer. Math Wizard was ticketed for Taylor if Fanelli decided to claim him.
He did put in a claim. So did five other owners.
When the horse won the 1-mile race by 18 1/2 lengths in a very fast time, Fanelli desperately wanted to win the six-way shake. He did.
When the colt’s Beyer Speed Figure improved by 19 points to an 87, Fanelli started to think big, maybe even the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Math Wizard was good in sprints, but was much better in his first longer race. The colt, however, came down with a case of colic and they had to wait.
Math Wizard stayed in South Florida with trainer Saffie Joseph, first running second in an optional claimer, then a solid fourth in the Wood Memorial at 64-1. Math Wizard did not have enough points for the Kentucky Derby so Fanelli figured they would wait for the Preakness. It turned out that Math Wizard was not nominated to the Triple Crown, so the $150,000 to supplement would have been prohibitive.
So, Math Wizard was sent to Arkansas where he ran fourth in the Oaklawn Park Invitational as the favorite. From there, he ran a great second in the Ohio Derby and then a solid fourth in the Indiana Derby. His only bad race was when they admittedly brought the colt back too quickly in the Aug. 3 West Virginia Derby.
Math Wizard had been traveling all over so the plan was to get him back to South Florida and wait for the Sept. 29 Oklahoma Derby.
Then, fate intervened.
Parx’s director of racing David Osojnak informed Fanelli that the Sept. 21 Pennsylvania Derby was going to have a short field. The trainer Joseph, however, informed Fanelli that Math Wizard really was not ready, and was laying down a lot.
Fanelli decided he would put up the $2,000 to enter five days before the race and see if the horse got better. The day after entries were taken, Maximum Security got a case of colic and was scratched. Math Wizard was feeling better and so was Fanelli.
“It was a short field for a million or probably a full field for $400,000 (in Oklahoma) and my own track,” Fanelli said.
Math Wizard got better all week and was flown to Newark, N. J. Airport two days before the Pa. Derby.
That Irad Ortiz just happened to be at Parx to ride the card and was without a mount added to the karma. He would ride Math Wizard.
“Obviously, the rest is history,” Fanelli said.
Sent off at 31-1, Math Wizard came from last in the six-horse field and caught Mr. Money in the final strides to win the $1 million Grade I Pa. Derby.
As Math Wizard began to rally, you could only hear the colt’s people, Fanelli foremost among them, yelling in the owners’ box seats.
“I lost my voice screaming,” Fanelli said. “I was screaming ‘Irad, Irad, Irad’! We were, like, in tears.”
Now, it’s on to the Nov. 2 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita for the general manager of Turnersville (N.J.) Nissan who lives in nearby Williamstown.
Right after Fanelli claimed Math Wizard, he was getting a lot of offers to sell because the colt ran so fast. It was a bit dizzying and the offers kept changing.
“I told one guy, ‘you’re trying to negotiate against a poker player and a car salesman, you’re in a bad shape,’” Fanelli said.
Fanelli has sold percentages at different times in Math Wizard, but still has controlling interest. The plan for 2020 starts with the new $20 million Saudi Cup in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 29 and the $12 million Dubai World Cup on March 28. But first, the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.