Training hours were finishing up on the main track as the final horse to train out of Phil Serpe's barn Thursday morning cooled out in a walking ring under a sign that reads Blue Heaven and hangs high on a telephone pole. (Editor's note: Originally published in Sept. 2 issue of The Saratoga Special.)
"Blue Heaven is actually a little restaurant in Key West, a cool little spot, you would love it," Serpe said, sitting at a table under a big shade tree that kept half of Barn 22 covered at that point of the morning. "It's in an old house but you sit out back and there's chickens running around, stuff like that, typical Key West. They make great Floridian dishes. We don't drink, but you can sit there and have a mimosa or orange juice and they'll have music. They had this cool three-piece band one time from Tennessee or something, two guys and a girl, and one guy is playing the banjo, the harmonica and he's playing the drum with his heel. They were playing something, sounded like mountain music. It was great.
"We love Blue Heaven. And this is our Blue Heaven. Sometimes up here people say, 'I can't wait to go home.' No way. I love it here.' This is a great place for man and beast. If you don't love Saratoga you're in the wrong business. Sure you get tired but so what."
Serpe's 17-member Saratoga string is bedded down in one of the green barns that parallel the backstretch. You can see the his barn from the grandstand, though it's a world away. Serpe oversees morning training from a director's chair along the white board fence next to the horse path and his assistant and girlfriend Lisa Bartkowski breezes, gallops and jogs most of the horses in the barn.
They've won two races from 17 starts at the meet and hope for more as Monday's Closing Day looms. Multiple stakes winner Weekend Hideaway provided one of the wins, taking a state-bred allowance Aug. 22 for his 11th win from 33 starts.
Weekend Hideaway races for the Red and Black Stable of Mike Hoffman, who bought the 6-year-old as a yearling at a dispersal of horses owned by the late Carl Lizza and his Flying Zee Stable in 2011.
Hoffman is one of several clients that helped build Serpe's barn back in the years following Lizza's death in July 2011, along with Hilly Fields Stable, Drawing Away Stable and more recently Chester and Mary Broman and Daniel Burke
"Just getting a few horses for Mr. Broman has been a big plus for us," Serpe said. "He's such a good guy and the same thing as with Mr. Lizza, when you get those guys it's an opportunity. He's got a lot of trainers and he's got a lot of nice horses. He's taken the New York-bred thing to its highest level.
"The Jerkenses, Jimmy and his father (the late Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens), both trained for Mr. Burke and Jimmy recommended he come over here."
Serpe took some time after training and before putting in entries for the final two cards of the meeting to talk about some of his Saratoga string with The Special's Tom Law.
Undertherain: Four-year-old daughter of Warrior's Reward finished fourth in $40,000 claiming race on the grass Aug. 12. "She's pretty much a $40,000, $50,000 claiming horse that we have for the Hilly Fields guys, who also have Lady Joan. She likes to finish second when she runs big, she never really likes to win. She's supposed to run Closing Day (and got in the fifth race). Hopefully she'll do us some justice."
Lady Joan: New York-bred filly by Courageous Cat finished sixth in Thursday's P. G. Johnson Stakes. "We like her. You saw her in the paddock the other day. Is she a New York-bred? Yes, but I don't know if anybody's noticed, New York-breds are winning an awful lot of big races the last few years."
Preying Mantis: Broman homebred daughter of Medaglia d'Oro finished fourth in Lynbrook Stakes in career debut last year and is 0-for-9 lifetime. "She got rained out unfortunately. Jimmy Jerkens, we're like brothers, he had the horse. Chester sent him some other horse so Jimmy sent the horse over to us with Chester's permission. She finished second the first time we ran her and I think we ran her back a little quickly. She ran fourth and was in last weekend but the race was rained out."
Shadow Of A Doubt: Broman homebred 2-year-old by Noonmark is second foal out of Storm Cat mare Rumors Of Glory and is half-brother to two-time winner and $134,320-earner earner Thirst For Glory. He's in Sunday's sixth race sprinting on the turf. "He ran in an off-the-turfer, finished eighth and didn't do too good. He just needs experience."
Disavow: The Bromans purchased son of Mission Impazible as a weanling for $24,000 at 2014 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga fall mixed sale. "Another nice one Chester sent us. He's by Mission Impazible, who's doing well. We're excited about him. He was just about ready to run and he wrenched his ankle in the stall the night we had the big storm, a couple Saturdays ago. The lightning hit right over there, the horses were going crazy and the next day his leg was all filled up. He's fine now and he's about to breeze again but he won't get to run here. He'll run down at Belmont.
Indygita: Drawing Away's 4-year-old Indygo Shiner filly finished second in Thursday's seventh race, a starter allowance on the grass, after a fifth in similar race Aug. 7. "She'd been knocking on the door, got kind of a rough trip last time. She's been a good honest horse for us."
Front: Fifth in state-bred allowance race on the grass won by Orino Aug. 20, he's won six times, including three on the grass at Belmont. "Another one Jimmy used to have. He's just a good old codger. He's 6 years old. We train some horses for Drawing Away Stable and they claim some horses. Again, with the void of not having the Flying Zee horses anymore, we're just trying to get some horses, get on track, get some wins. He seems like he's pretty fond of the turf course down at Belmont so we're excited to get him back down there."
Unnamed filly by First Samurai-Regal Ruby, by Rubiano: Bay filly soaks up some sun and poses as Jane Burke snaps a photo. "There she is, she's a pretty nicely made filly. She's nowhere near race ready, just worked a couple three eighths for us and that's it. She looks the part, just not far enough along for us to know how good she is. We're pretty excited and Mr. Burke actually bred a couple horses that broke their maidens here this meet. He's a smaller breeder. We just met them up here and they're really nice people."
Artie Crasher: Fifth in waiver claiming race Aug. 19, 5-year-old son of Artie Schiller won and was claimed by Serpe for $35,000 last November at Aqueduct. "We claimed him for Drawing Away Stable. We were just getting ready to run him on the turf down at Gulfstream and he was injured. He came back here off a nine-month layoff and he ran fifth. We were going to try and get him in a race here but there aren't any for him."
Weekend Hideaway: "Like Sean wrote he's the last of the Flying Zee horses that we bred for the Lizzas. He's a great horse. If he needs a little break he comes back running. If he runs a bad race he comes back running. He really is a good horse when you consider he's 6 years old and he's won races every year. He's a personality horse and people like him. Mike wants to run him in a big race next; I just like winning races with him. Winning races is good for people and it's good for horses, too. Those horses that are good horses, proud horses, it takes a little notch out of them when they get beat sometimes. He's gone in his little cycles, but again, you freshen him up a little and he comes back for you. He's been a real Godsend for us. We'll keep going, see what happens."