by Jim Hague
John Mazza is in his seventh decade of working with Thoroughbred race horses. One would figure that, after all those years in the racing business, Mazza would want to slow down a little. But that’s just not happening anytime soon.
“I’m 77 years old now and I want to slow down,” Mazza said. “But I have 18 horses in the stables in Monmouth (Park) and another 38 at the farm. We also have some mares in Kentucky, so I keep busy. I’m trying to slow down, but I keep going the other way. I carry a lot of horses and I really don’t want to do that anymore.”
But Mazza still keeps going, still at the top of his game. Now he’s prepping for another meet at Monmouth in his home state of New Jersey, where his career began such a long time ago.
“When I was a young boy, about seven years old or so, I would always go to Wayside Farm to see the horses,” Mazza said. “That’s when it all started for me.”
Mazza was 15 years old when he got a job working with horses in the famed Joe Kulina barn.
“My father owned a couple of horses, so that got me interested,” Mazza said. “Me and my brother Pete both got involved. I got my trainer’s license at age 19. I worked hard for the Kulinas and did a little bit of everything. I became good friends with the Kulinas, but I eventually went on my own when I was about 24 or 25.”
Mazza was then offered a position training for Holly Crest Farm in Locust, NJ. He’s never left. In fact, it’s where Mazza still resides.
“I’ve had horses on the side, but I’ve been the private trainer for Holly Crest Farm for all these years,” Mazza said.
It’s been a fruitful career, with Mazza attaining almost $9 million in purse earnings and saddling more than 50 stakes winners. He also owns the distinction of training the first horse to win a Thoroughbred race at the Meadowlands, a horse named Play the Palace in 1977.
The stakes winners that Mazza has trained include 1988 Sorority Stakes champion Divine Answer and Great Navigator, who won the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga in 1992.
Mazza still holds Great Navigator dear in his heart.
“He broke down in the Jersey Shore Breeder’s Cup in Atlantic City,” Mazza said. “We tried to save him, but we couldn’t do it. He’s buried in the infield at Monmouth Park.”
Another of Mazza’s prized horses was Capture the Gold, who won several stakes races at both Monmouth Park and The Meadowlands in 1997. Mazza also saddled Carrots Only, who won the 2005 Jersey Breeders’ Highweight Handicap and the 2007 Charles Hesse Jersey Breeders’ Handicap.
In 2012, Mazza received the Virgil “Buddy” Raines Distinguished Achievement Award at Monmouth Park, given to the person who is recognized for his professionalism, integrity and service to thoroughbred racing. The award is named after the late Buddy Raines, who trained horses at Monmouth Park for 65 years and was the winner of the 1962 Preakness Stakes with Greek Money.
“I am so proud of that award,” Mazza said. “I was picked by my peers.”
“John personifies what the Raines Award is all about,” said Robert Kulina, the president of Darby Development LLC, which operates Monmouth Park. It was Kulina’s father who gave Mazza his first break in the business more than 50 years ago.
“For decades¸ John has provided unwavering support for New Jersey racing and it’s only fitting that he’s honored with this prestigious acknowledgement of his service and dedication,” Robert Kulina said when Mazza received the award.
Regardless of the success he’s enjoyed in the past, Mazza keeps his eyes fixed on the present, and the future. Recently, Mazza has been involved with the development of two promising young colts.
“We were fortunate to get a Lookin at Lucky colt, called Madefromlucky,” Mazza said. “We brought him to Gulfstream (Park) and developed him.”
Madefromlucky made three starts at Monmouth over the summer, placing twice, before being given some time off.
Then, at Gulfstream Dec. 23, 2014, with Gabriel Saez aboard, Madefromlucky romped home by 4 ¾ lengths at 1 1/16 miles, with a winning time of 1:45.49.
“I knew he was a good horse and had talent right away,” Mazza said of Madefromlucky. “I took my time with him and eventually he showed his class. We started getting phone calls right away to buy him.”
The bidding soared, and eventually, owner Mac Nichol sold a majority interest in the colt to Cheyenne Stables LLC, who sent Madefromlucky to trainer Todd Pletcher. Under Pletcher’s tutelage, the horse won an allowance at Gulfstream before finishing second in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and then fourth in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.
Mazza also recently purchased an Uncle Mo colt for $190,000. The unnamed 2-year-old colt, out of the stakes-winning mare Sea Road, is, Mazza said, “really good looking.” And he’s developing quickly.
“We’re going to bring him to Monmouth in another week or so,” Mazza said.
Mazza said that he’s excited about the Monmouth meet that is set to begin May 9. The competitive spirit has never diminished after all these years.
“It’s in my blood,” Mazza said. “I don’t know what I would do with my time if I didn’t get up in the morning and go to the barn. I may get wracked around by some horses, but I still love it. I struggled in the business when I was younger and trying to go out on my own. It’s hard when you have bad horses. But I love all horses. My passion is for horses. However, if you don’t have good horses, it gets tough. I have seen trainers who are my friends who have had a tough time. It’s a tough business, but I’ve been lucky to work with good people.”
Mazza’s passion carried over to both his son and daughter. His son, Joe, is a trainer in New York and his daughter has a farm in Farmingdale.
“I just love the business,” Mazza said. “I don’t think I have an enemy in the sport.”
That’s probably another reason why Mazza keeps going after all these years — and could be a major player this summer at the Jersey Shore.