Kentucky Derby

John Clay: Oaks-winning owner enjoys big day for 'a little guy'

Owner Ed Stanco, lead the winners into the winners circle as Princess of Sylmar with Mike Smith up won 139th running of the Kentucky Oaks May 3, 2013 at Churchill Downs. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Owner Ed Stanco, lead the winners into the winners circle as Princess of Sylmar with Mike Smith up won 139th running of the Kentucky Oaks May 3, 2013 at Churchill Downs. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — As an actuary, Ed Stanco was working on a re-insurance program involving worker's compensation for jockeys back in 1995 when he took a field trip to a farm owned by a fellow named J.J. Pletcher.

During the visit, Pletcher mentioned that his son Todd would be making his training debut in a couple of weeks.

"He probably doesn't even remember that," Stanco said Friday.

But Stanco remembered, and there he was standing in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs after his 3-year-old filly Princess of Sylmar, a homebred trained by Todd Pletcher, won the 139th running of the Kentucky Oaks.

"This is just beyond beyond," said a smiling Stanco, the CEO of White Mountains Insurance Group, who lives in Malvern, Pa.

In a race in which Todd Pletcher had four entries, Stanco is the kind of owner you don't think the super-trainer would have.

"I know Todd has had a lot of the bigger players in the game, but I've been with Todd for 10 years," Stanco said. "One (horse) at a time."

A native of Schenectady, N.Y., where he was four years behind Pat Riley at Linton High School, Stanco was 8 years old when his uncle started taking him to Saratoga.

"I immediately fell in love with it," Stanco said. "I was always very, very good with numbers and I joke that it was my trip to the racetrack that turned me into an actuary."

By 1995, Stanco started thinking about buying a racehorse. In 2000, he finally did, partnering with Michael Cassio, who had horses trained by Todd Pletcher.

"When we got into all this, I said there was only a couple of things I want," Stanco said. "One, I want a filly because it has residual value. But the most important factor is the horse has to fit in Todd's barn. It has to be at a certain level to make it work."

Stanco's second horse, Capeside Lady, was the top New York-bred filly from 2002 to 2004 and reached the Breeders' Cup.

His next filly, Storm Dixie, led him to try the breeding business. He studied the numbers and decided to breed to Grand Slam. One problem. Grand Slam was injured.

"They said, well, we have this young freshman sire, Majestic Warrior," Stanco said. "But I'm an actuary, I needed the numbers for the analysis. And they didn't have the numbers."

Storm Dixie bred to Majestic Warrior anyway. Next thing you know, Princess of Sylmar — named for Sylmar Farm in Christiana, Pa., where Stanco keeps his two broodmares — won four straight before finishing second in the Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct on April 6.

Pletcher and Stanco considered skipping the Oaks in favor of the Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico in two weeks, but Stanco decided to give Kentucky a shot. It paid off.

That's right, even for an actuary, racing has paid off.

"When my friends ask me that, I tell them, 'If you guys love to play golf, are you making money on your golf memberships?'" Stanco said. "The one thing is, though, you better love the horse and have a passion for the horse."

It doesn't hurt to have the right connections, either.

"We work with quite a few different owners," Pletcher said. "There are some guys like Ed that have one horse, and there are some guys like (Mike) Repole that have 20 horses and talk to you two hours a day. There are guys like Ed that you talk to two or three minutes a week."

That doesn't mean one knows more than the other.

"Ed has a very good feel for racing," Pletcher said. "He has a very good understanding."

"I know Todd from the other side," Stanco said. "I'm not the big guy that's got the billions and billions to throw at it, I'm just a little guy. And he and his team have treated me and our guys as if we are a big guy."

Friday, Stanco was a big guy, next to his granddaughters Avery and Bella, the latter celebrating her seventh birthday.

Actually, the actuary was a very proud guy.

"What we've done with our first homebred filly, to come this far," said Ed Stanco, "I don't know how to describe that."

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