July 12--STANTON, Del. -- A few decades ago, on those regular trips to Delaware Park with his family, Ed Stanco would lug a laptop into a clubhouse where the typical handicappers' tools were the discarded programs and Daily Racing Forms carpeting its floor.
The Malvern actuary loved racing as much as numbers, and he'd melded those passions into a computer program for handicapping.
"This was over 20 years ago, when nobody did that," said his son, Adam, a Pac-12 Network producer. "He was an excellent handicapper. His ROI [return on investment] was ridiculous."
On Saturday, Stanco, sans laptop, will be back at Delaware Park for the latest edition of the Delaware Handicap, a stakes race that he and his family annually watched in person.
This time, the 64-year-old insurance executive, along with his wife, children, and en entourage of 100, will be occupying the owners' boxes. And Princess of Sylmar, the fairy-tale, Pennsylvania-bred filly that his King of Prussia Stables owns, will be the overwhelming favorite in the $750,000 Grade I event.
"It's surreal," Stanco said this week, after his horse drew the outside post in the six-horse field of fillies and mares. "We used to come down all the time, my wife and I and our kids. This was our track for many years. I saw a lot of Delaware Handicaps, and I'd never have believed I'd have a filly with a shot in the Delaware Handicap. It's so cool."
Princess of Sylmar, a striking 4-year-old who resembles a distant ancestor, Secretariat, had a spectacular 3-year-old season until she finished a disappointing sixth at the Breeders' Cup Distaff in November.
After capturing the Kentucky Oaks as a 39-1 long shot, she won the Coaching Club American Oaks, the Alabama Stakes, and the Beldame Stakes. Then, Stanco, somewhat reluctantly, entered her in the Breeders' Cup.
The race was billed as a match between two-time winner Royal Delta and the Princess, but both finished well behind winner Beholden in a stunner at Santa Anita.
"The day before, she was in excellent physical condition," Stanco said. "But, at Santa Anita, they have a stabling barn. It's not open-air. They kept them in there for about a half hour. She got really heated up. Royal Delta did, too.
"When she came out of it, she was all wet, and she just didn't look good in the paddock. Then she stumbled at the gate."
Afterward, Stanco, who never bred a horse until 2009, gave the dream horse foaled at Ron and Betsy Houghton's Sylmar farm in Christiana a six-month vacation. Princess came back in April to win an Aqueduct stakes, then, after a two-month break, finished second by a head to Close Hatches, in Belmont's Ogden Phipps.
The competition doesn't figure to be as stiff in the 11/4-mile event at Delaware Park. She is trained by Todd Pletcher, who's shooting for a record fifth Delaware Handicap. The even-money favorite's biggest threats figure to be Flashy American, the runner-up in the Grade II Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs last month, and Gamay Noir, who has won at Delaware Park, a victory in the Grade III Obeah Stakes on June 14.
For handicappers like Stanco, the only question appears to be how well Princess handles the heat.
"Since I've been to so many Delaware Handicaps, I've experienced the infamous humidity," Stanco said. "I'm a little concerned about that."
He said his horse bounced back nicely after being edged in the riveting Phipps duel on Belmont Stakes day.
"Obviously we would have liked to have gotten to the wire first," he said, "but it was an excellent performance."
This season, like last, could conclude for Princess of Sylmar with a Breeders' Cup Distaff appearance at Santa Anita.
"Our view is, we take one at a time," he said. "If she comes out OK here, we're going to go to the Personal Ensign" in late August at Saratoga. "Then, after that, we'd go to a race in September at Belmont, the Beldame. If she's in good shape, we'd look to go back to the Breeders' Cup."
Until then, this relatively novice owner will continue to pinch himself.
"I go home every night and look at the Kentucky Oaks trophy on the mantel," he said, "and I can't believe it happened. Even after a year and a half, I still can't believe it."
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