Paul Giardina’s heart was pounding,
He stood, not far from the starter’s gate, at the Saratoga Race Course. There were close to 20,000 people in the stands.
His filly, Accabonac Harbor, a 20-1 shot, was being led to the gate. Few, if any, of those in attendance had ever heard of Giardina or his tiny stable, Cedar Meadow Farms.
Fewer still had probably ever heard the word Accabonac.
For Giardina, and his wife, Kathy, “this was our baby,” he said. They had chosen the sire and the broodmare. “She was from the first crop of our stallion, Central Banker. We try to name our foals from some iconic person or place in East Hampton. Kathy really loved Accabonac Harbor . . .”
Both loved horses and horse racing. Giardina put himself through college, at first by developing formulas to successfully bet key races. “I owned a horse before I graduated from the University of Michigan,” he said. A scientist, he worked for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Conservation for 36 years.
Kathleen Tobin, an engineer, was employed by Verizon, as the manager of corporate environmental policy. She and Giardina shared a love for breeding and racing horses, and eventually married. They formed Cedar Meadow Inc. in 1990, buying horses at auction and then racing them. But the landscape of the business was changing. “We ceased buying and began concentrating on breeding,” Giardina said.
“Kathy and I visited with her after she was born at Jo Ann Finley’s Fawn Ridge Farm, the first foal out of our mare, Gananoque, after she had been weaned away from her mom and after she had been shipped to Pennsylvania to do what weanlings and yearlings do,” Giardina said, recalling the first time he saw the filly Accabonac Harbor.
Subsequent visits confirmed his initial impression: This was a racehorse, and a quick one. Kathy was euphoric, he recalled. “I surmised that Accabonac had that kind of semi-nasty, very tough temperament, which serves a race horse well,” Giardina said.
When it came for her to make a first start in the summer of July 2018, the filly exhibited speed but also had tender shins. Accabonac ran and led until her sore shins caught up to her. She ended up on the shelf for nine months after shin and ankle surgery.
Accabonac Harbor returned to training in April, first under the tutelage of Sheila Englehart at Finger Lakes, and then down to Belmont with Manny Gonzalez. Chris Englehart, the trainer, was overseeing all the way.
Finally, she was ready to run for real. They entered her into the 10th race at Saratoga on Friday, July 12. “I was by Accabonac Harbor’s stall in the morning. Somehow, I was compelled to babble at her to be tough and kick some butt. Nobody will accuse me of being sane on a race day,” Giardina said.
All the things that could go wrong, and the possible tragedy that can occur at any time in horse racing, went through his mind.
“In the paddock, it was clear that Accabonac Harbor was up to the bit. I was concerned when she needed to be hosed down to cool off as well as when she became a bit fractious when they tightened the cinch strap for the saddle. From the time the horse goes out of the paddock at Saratoga until the time they run, it takes perhaps 12 minutes. Can you hold your breath that long? I think so. I did.”
They loaded the field and then sprung the latch. For Accabonac Harbor, to have the best chance of winning, she needed to go to the front. Under the expert ride of Junior Alvarado that is where she went, winging on the lead along with the heavy favorite, Fight Night. As the race chart writer wrote “Accabonac Harbor . . . dug in, continuing to knock heads through the stretch to the wire and prevailed gamely on the line.” The purse was a tidy $48,000.
But it was a bittersweet moment for the owner. “Look again at the win picture. You will see a big smile on my face,” he said. “You cannot see the tears in my eyes.”
Kathy Giardina never made it to the track that day and never saw the horse she bred and loved run for glory. After the World Trade Center attack in 2001, she had gone back — Verizon had offices there — to do what she could. She developed a rare cancer. Recently, it was confirmed there was a cluster of it from those who were at the site.
“Our horse racing and breeding operation was what we had planned for us to do in retirement, and she made it clear that she wanted me to continue on,” he said of her final days.
“Accabonac Harbor won the race I most wanted any horse I ever owned to win. And for a short minute in the shadows of Saratoga Race Course, it once again became clear. Life is a gift and life is short,” he said.