If John Fanelli is not the luckiest man on the planet, he is among them.
He claimed Math Wizard for $25,000 early last year at Gulfstream Park and watched him go on to a stunning upset in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby as a 31-1 longshot before finishing a credible fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Incredibly, Fanelli topped himself with Ny Traffic, a $22,000 private purchase that is Kentucky Derby-bound after missing by a nose to highly regarded Authentic in the Haskell last Saturday at Monmouth Park.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve it,” said Fanelli, general manager at a car dealership in Turnersville, N.J. “But I’m very appreciative and thankful for the opportunity.”
Ny Traffic, trained by up-and-coming Saffie Joseph Jr., shows every sign that he can go on to the first Saturday in September with a legitimate shot. The New York-bred has placed second in each of his last three starts, with the Louisiana Derby and Matt Winn Stakes preceding the 1 1/8-mile Haskell. He ranks fourth on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. with 110 points.
“We’re the only horse that has improved with every race,” Fanelli said. “We have a lot going for us.”
Fanelli, 50, broke into the game more than a decade ago. His recent success has been so monumental and come so quickly that the experience feels surreal. Part of the enduring beauty of racing are the many examples of owners and trainers who caught lightning in a bottle with a horse that did not appear to be destined to succeed at a high level.
But to catch lightning in a bottle twice?
“I thought that was it. I thought that was my 15 minutes of fame and my one great horse,” Fanelli said of winning a seven-way shake for Math Wizard. “To come back and find one that is a little better than him, it’s incredible, especially with the amount of money I’m spending on these horses. I’m going up against guys who are spending half a million, a million dollars, on a horse. I’m spending $25,000.”
The saying that luck is the residue of design surely applies to Fanelli. He makes an annual appearance at Fasig-Tipton’s Midlantic Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale in Maryland, looking to add a horse or two to what had been a modest stable. He searches for relatively inexpensive juveniles that fail to meet their reserve and works to negotiate private purchases once they leave the sales ring.
He was accompanied last year by Harry Wyner, a trainer based at Parx. Both had to use some imagination to see potential in Ny Traffic, a son of Cross Traffic that is an April 29 foal.
“I loved everything about him except his back end. His back end was very, very undeveloped,” Fanelli said. “He was a late, late foal. I thought he looked like an athlete but needed more training, and we were willing to take a chance on him.”
That chance unearthed a diamond in the rough. Ny Traffic already has earned $565,470 with two wins, three runner-up efforts and two third-place results in nine career starts. The bulk of his earnings have come this year, with $494,900 through five starts.
Part of Fanelli’s deliberate approach is to take on partners with successful horses. Cash is King, LC Racing and Paul Braverman also have invested in the colt.
Ny Traffic and Math Wizard, second in the Monmouth Cup (G3) as part of the Haskell undercard, will train at Saratoga Race Course for their next assignments under Joseph’s watchful eye. Math Wizard is expected to run at Saratoga. Fanelli anticipates that Ny Traffic will be shipped to Churchill Downs a week or two ahead of the Derby.
As swiftly as everything has happened for Fanelli, the Derby starting gate cannot snap open soon enough.