by Dan Tordjman
There’s a good chance you wouldn’t recognize the name listed under owner and trainer for Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies’ contender Nicky’s Brown Miss. After all, Savino Capilupi didn’t win his first race as a trainer until last month. Heck, he didn’t even have a trainer’s license until last year.
Unexpected tragedy, twists of fate, and a few calculated risks have landed Capilupi, 39, on racing’s biggest stage. And he’s made it to the Breeders’ Cup with a horse who means more to him than any amount of money Nicky’s Brown Miss might earn Friday.
Capilupi’s uncle was Domenic Sacco, a longtime racing trainer and breeder who introduced his nephew to racing as a child. He brought him to the farms, training centers and, of course, tracks around New Jersey, where Capilupi grew up.
“Everybody knew him as ‘Nick,'” Capilupi said. “Just being around (horses), I enjoyed spending time with him. That’s how I got hooked.”
In 2005, Uncle Nick – who had moved to Ocala, FL, several years earlier – bred a Successful Appeal filly, later to be named Nicksappealinglady. Then, three days before Christmas the following year, Capilupi got a call. His uncle had been diagnosed with cancer and didn’t have long to live.
Capilupi immediately set plans in motion to visit Sacco, whose condition went from bad to worse within hours of the initial call.
“When the doctors told us that he was dying, we thought he had a couple of weeks left. So, I wanted to be down there with him. But then, unfortunately, the same day that the doctor said that he had a couple of weeks left, he ended up dying that night,” Capilupi said.
Nick Sacco was 67. His nephew was devastated. A short time later, one of Sacco’s business partners contacted Capilupi to discuss plans for selling his uncle’s horses. In particular, Nicksappealinglady was slated for auction in Ocala. Capilupi couldn’t let that happen.
“I had seen her and, based on my lessons that I’d received from my uncle on conformation and athleticism, I knew that I had to have her,” said Capilupi.
Nicksappealinglady was a part of Uncle Nick that Capilupi needed to hold onto. She was promptly scratched from the auction and sold to Capilupi. Nicksappealinglady would go on to a productive career, trained initially by Greg Sacco (a friend of Nick’s but not related) and later by Gary Contessa. The horse would win four times and place in two stakes, including the Rosenna at Delaware Park, while racking up $158,728 in lifetime earnings. Her greatest gift, though, was still to come.
After retiring Nicksappealinglady, Capilupi tried his hand in breeding and matched his mare with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. The result was Nicky’s Brown Miss. She, like her mother, had a date with an auction ring – two of them, in fact. But both times, bidding on her failed to meet Capilupi’s reserve.
Newly licensed as a trainer, Capilupi began conditioning Nicky’s Brown Miss himself. He always liked the way she looked but was blown away during a breeze going half a mile in late spring.
“That’s kind of when I knew what I had,” Capilupi said. “Very smart on the track, difficult to pull up, that energy she had… her athleticism really became apparent to me.”
It also became apparent to Capilupi that Nicky’s Brown Miss wanted to race on grass. After two failed dirt tries, she flew late to finish third in her turf debut at Belmont in July. She galloped out strongly in that six furlong race, which prompted Capilupi to target some races going longer.
Two starts later, Nicky’s Brown Miss broke her maiden going seven furlongs in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Filly Stakes. If Capilupi hadn’t admitted that he was already thinking Breeders’ Cup before the maiden breaker, he was ready to book his ticket now.
Nicky’s Brown Miss enters the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf as a long shot, installed at 20-1 on the morning line. The odds are largely the result of two factors: no one knows her owner and trainer, and the filly comes off of 10th place finish in the Grade-3 Miss Grillo Stakes at Belmont last out, which was won by Juvenile Fillies Turf favorite, Lady Eli.
Capilupi attributes the poor result in the Miss Grillo to an extremely slow pace up front, which didn’t do any favors for his horse’s late-closing running style. For that reason, Capilupi believes not only that his filly belongs in this race but also that she’s a legitimate contender.
“In my opinion, if someone were to ask me, I’d say an across the board bet on her would be worthwhile,” Capilupi said.
Having already defied the odds, and any expectations anyone could set on a first-year trainer, perhaps Capilupi is on to something. Then again, maybe he’s just convinced that the story of Nicky’s Brown Miss is too incredible to be anything but destiny.
“The first foal I ever bred, out of the last foal my uncle ever bred is now in the Breeders’ Cup,” Capilupi said. “Isn’t that cool?”
Not only is it cool for Capilupi, he knows that being at the Breeders’ Cup will give him the kind of exposure that can only help a new trainer looking for business. Can Nicky’s Brown Miss win the race? It’s a long shot. Then again, so were the odds of her getting here with Capilupi. Uncle Nick would certainly be proud.
“It was always about horses, it was always about us,” Capilupi reflected. “It’s something that I miss. I wish he was here right now.”